Mike Michaels, X’61, explains how he was a fly on the wall in the creation of the greatest song in the history of rock and roll.
Mike Michaels (1941–2013) died the year after this article was published.
Although everyone knows about Bob Dylan and his most famous song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” not many people know about the guitarist who was instrumental in helping Dylan fuse his acoustic music with electricity and who played lead guitar on what Rolling Stone magazine has declared the greatest rock-and-roll song of all time.
Michael Bloomfield was that guitarist, and beyond his work with Dylan and the original Paul Butterfield Blues Band, he was a seminal figure in the creation of what we call rock, as opposed to rock and roll, guitar in the mid to late ’60s. With Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, Bloomfield formed a trio of guitar heroes who took the B. B. King lead guitar style, added sustain, speed, distortion, demonic energy, and in the process influenced countless up-and-coming guitarists. In 2011 he was No. 42 on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 greatest guitarists. This tale is about my rather tangential connection to Dylan, Bloomfield, and “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Like all stories, true or fictitious, it has to start somewhere, so let’s try the University of Chicago, early 1961. A student named Mike Fleischer, U-High’52, X’63, decided to start a folk festival to emulate the one at Newport. It took a lot of moxie to do this, a quality not at all lacking in the character of this young man, and he pulled it off.
The festival’s opening reception took place on a Friday evening in Ida Noyes Hall and was filled with performers and students from the University and nearby colleges. It was the height of the folk boom, and having a guitar or banjo was almost as necessary as having a toothbrush—maybe more so. So the instruments were out and the jams were on. I was standing there observing the scene when my roommate, Jon Aaron, AB’64, said, “Mike, this is amazing. There’s the Stanley Brothers”—headlining bluegrass musicians Carter and Ralph Stanley—“over in that room and a gang of musicians in the other, and over in that little alcove is this strange looking guy with a funny hat and a harmonica rack playing his own songs with his guitar!” I looked over, and there he was—funny hat, pudgy face, harmonica in rack, and a guitar.
A few minutes later I had joined the jamming on my mandolin, with my bluegrass buddies Jon on guitar and David Gedalecia, X’64, on banjo. Soon I noticed the guy with the funny hat right next to us, bobbing and bouncing to our music. Well, I figured if he liked us he must be OK, so I introduced myself. He told me that his name was Bob Dylan. It turned out that we both loved Woody Guthrie, and we spent a lot of time that weekend playing together in the dorm. Dylan said he was from New Mexico and that his parents were ranchers. I had no reason not to believe him. (Within the month Dylan traveled to the East Coast and met Guthrie, his major influence and hero.)
I had been hosting a folk music show on the University radio station, WUCB, and on the Monday after the festival, this Dylan guy and I did a show of duets, mostly Guthrie songs.
Dylan went on to New York to become the darling of the commercial folk world, and I remained in my much smaller world of down-home music and was the musical darling of no one, except a small coterie of friends. Electricity and rock were still in Dylan’s future, which brings us to the next part of this historical musical saga: the guitarist Michael Bloomfield.
One summer afternoon about six months later, I was walking to the local swimming hole (Lake Michigan) and wandered into a funky little music store called the Fret Shop, where I saw a slender curly-haired guy maniacally picking some fast blues licks on an acoustic guitar. I had never heard anyone play that fast in person, or perhaps not at all. Bloomfield and I wound up walking toward the lake together, and our one-sided conversation consisted of his continuous speed rap about music. He had the internal psychic overdrive that stalks the great ones. I learned later that he’d had a troubled childhood.
The music and social scene at Chicago had been turning toward R & B, and a series of twist parties in the Woodward Court lounge had evolved from record hops to local bands. The lounge’s glass walls had cozy alcoves with couches in them. One balmy spring night the twist party reached its climax—each alcove had its own band. The lounge was filled with dancers, and the glass walls pulsed with the music. In one corner was a hyper Bloomfield, backed up by a short Italian-looking kid. It was the first time I heard Bloomfield play the electric guitar. While ripping off those fast licks, he shouted rapid-fire instructions to his diminutive guitar player. Bloomfield and two other musicians, Paul Butterfield, U-High’60, and Elvin Bishop, X’64, went on to form the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and provided the music world at large a rather steaming introduction to the post–WW II Chicago blues created by Muddy Waters and later B. B. King.
The music of Dylan and Bloomfield fused like an atomic reaction at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, when Dylan appeared on stage with a Bloomfield-led electrified-rock band and churned out an intense “Maggie’s Farm,” driven by Bloomfield’s turbulent guitar. The purist but commercial folkies erupted with dismay, but there was no turning back.
Earlier that summer, June 16 to be exact, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was playing a regular gig at a Greenwich Village nightclub called the Café Au Go Go. I was hanging around backstage, a large cellar-like room with folding chairs scattered around and a small curtained-off section with a spinet piano. Bloomfield, popping in a few minutes before the first set, said in his Chicago accent, “Hey man, I was just recording with Dylan and played on this really neat song.” He sat down at the piano and started playing a chord sequence: C, D minor, E minor, F, G7.
That day Dylan, Bloomfield, and keyboard player Al Kooper had shown up at Columbia Record’s New York studios and virtually on the spot put together “Like a Rolling Stone,” with Bloomfield’s lead guitar sparking and defining the swirling sound of the recording and thereby creating folk rock. Within a few months you could not turn on the radio without hearing “Like a Rolling Stone,” with the same chord changes and the soaring lead lines by the guitarist on the session, Michael Bloomfield.
Bloomfield turned down an offer to tour with Dylan, and a few years later turned down another offer to replace Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones. He was a bluesman to the end.
In 1976 Bloomfield invited me to play harmonica with him in a Newport Jazz Festival blues concert at Radio City Music Hall, a concert that included Muddy Waters, Fats Domino, and Bobby Bland. The show went off fine, and we returned to our respective lives. In 1981 Bloomfield died of a drug overdose.
A few years ago I tracked down a recording of that concert. The emcee had introduced Michael, placing him at the Newport Jazz Festival, and Michael introduced me. It was my one inning in the major leagues, a gift from an immensely talented, verbal, and soulful man who gave far more to life and music than he had ever received.
Mike Michaels had a 35-year career creating scores for films and TV. He lives in Guilford, Connecticut, where he plays roots music as a soloist; with his duet, the Two Cat Band; and with Mark Naftalin, AB’64, who played keyboard in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.