Number 3 (Fall 1994)
As a writer, singer and producer Nick Gravenites has been associated with Janis Joplin, Big Brother And The Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, John Cipollina, Otis Rush, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, James Cotton, Buddy Guy, Sam Lay, and many others. Bloomfield fans know Nick Gravenites as a songwriter for The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, as a member of The Electric Flag, and of course as Michael Bloomfield's co-writer, co-producer, co-performer and friend. We recently had the opportunity to speak with Nick about his new CD, the music business and his memories of Michael Bloomfield.
Neal: It's great to see a new recording of yours available. Don't Feed The Animals has a really nice feel to it. You must be pleased with it.
Nick: I'm glad about the way it turned out. It's unembellished; there's no gloss to it. It's like this is where we are, this is what we do, this is what we sound like. There's no production in it, it's a live performance. We're not presenting ourselves to anyone.
Neal: Are you touring to support it?
Nick: I've been touring around the Salt Lake area, and I just did the Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, and a few other gigs up there, and I'm going back to the Northwest, and I'm going to be going to Hawaii. I'm starting to travel again. I decided a little while ago that I was going to go out on the road again, while I still had some "oomph."
Neal: Have you heard that Columbia Records is putting together an Electric Flag compilation?
Nick: I did, in fact I spent two hours on the telephone today with Jeff Tamarkin talking about that --
Neal: Oh, man, and here I am bothering you about it again --
Nick: Well I figure what the hell, that's what we're here for.
Neal: The new Bloomfield anthology Essential Blues contains some cuts from the Live At Bill Graham's Fillmore West LP. Those recordings are really great; all of you must have felt like you were just burning down the place.
Nick: Well, yeah, we sounded pretty darned good. It was a funny situation because half of my album, the My Labors album, half of that is from those same sessions.
Neal: Do you think My Labors will ever be re-issued on CD?
Nick: Lord knows. I'm so disappointed in Columbia and the management people, and stuff, y'know. We never got paid for any of that stuff -- ever.
Neal: Some of the companies are notorious for --
Nick: Everybody is. It's the nature of the business. It's so disappointing; here they're going to put out this anthology and the money's got to be going somewhere. It ain't going into my pocket, or anybody I know.
Neal: My Labors is a highly sought after album among collectors.
Nick: It captures that certain era pretty well. And where I was at at that time. I was hanging out with a lot of rock and rollers and a lot of blues guys, and half of the album was rock and rollers and the other half was the blues guys.
Neal: Whose decision was it to split up the material between the LPs Live At Bill Graham's Fillmore West and My Labors?
Nick: Mine. I told them I was doing this album for Columbia and I had a bunch of cuts done already, but they had a lot of extra cuts from the Fillmore sessions that they didn't use on the record because they had a lot of material and a lot of people, like Taj Mahal, and I thought the stuff they didn't use was better than the stuff they used. So I had a chance to use it and I told them I'd split the costs with them if I could use half of it on my album. That's the way it worked out.
Neal: Last year Rhino came out with Blues Summit In Chicago, the Muddy Waters PBS Soundstage video that you and Michael participated in.
Nick: Are you sure they did?
Neal: Oh yeah, I've got a copy.
Nick: Oh my God, it is out! Well no one tells me. I didn't know about it. No one made a deal with me.
Neal: Well that's not too cool.
Nick: No. Oh, what a great show. That is about as good an example of Michael playing blues as there is. Michael knew Muddy's arrangements so well, the whole style and everything, knew it like the back of his hand, and he sort of waltzed Muddy through that show like a genius. That's a good example of Michael's genius. He was brilliant at that.
Neal: You go so far back with Michael, and did so many things together. You must have many memories of him.
Nick: Well, my memories are many and varied -- good, bad and indifferent, y'know, but I think the totality of his character is the thing that impressed me most. People forget how charismatic he was. In his early career and stuff the guy used to draw people around him, it was unbelievable. He had a certain charisma about him, people wanted to be around him, touch the hem of his garment, that sort of thing. I think it was the totality of his character I was impressed with, not only his musical ability but also his intellect, his sense of humor, his compassion, his generosity, all those things that make up a human being. And those are my fondest memories, of character. And I do know that when people write stories and books about Michael, or people like Michael, or musicians in general, in that same vein of Michael, being the young guy who is successful but having a lot of problems, having drug problems, and dying of an overdose, like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Michael, all this stuff y'know, I mean -- surface level all of that is true. But it doesn't really come close to the real effect Michael had on me. It was a lot more profound then some trite little Hollywood story. He was quite a forceful personality. He was quite a wit. And also had a very deep character -- was very generous, very soulful. The effect that he had on me and people around him, people that knew him and loved his music and stuff was profound. It wasn't like "gee wiz," it was more like life-changing stuff. I can still think in terms of those major, those big terms, when I think about Michael. I thought he was a huge giant of a person and these trite Hollywood stories don't come close to depicting his true character, his life. Michael's friends, the ones that were closest to him, really loved the guy. And they did it for a lot of reasons. He helped them live their lives, make something out of their lives in many ways, very profoundly, so I don't think any real story of him can be told in the media because it doesn't really get to the heart of the matter.
Neal: Does it make you angry that Michael isn't given more credit these days as one of the most talented and influential guitarists of his generation?
Nick: No it doesn't, it doesn't make me angry. It's kind of like reverse -- I don't know, it's hard to explain. If Ringo Starr can get credit for being a drummer, y'know, if this guy can get into the Hall Of Fame and all that sort of thing, then obviously that shit doesn't mean anything, cause the guy can't play drums, and never could. And he gets into the Hall of Fame. It's just all bullshit. Michael did not operate at that level.
Neal: I was disappointed when Musician Magazine listed their "Top 100 Guitarists of All Time" and Michael wasn't included. It was crazy.
Nick: Well, a lot of those things are. I remember in 1967, when The Electric Flag was hot, probably the only year it existed, I made like the number twenty-one piano player in the world, in the Playboy Jazz and Rock Poll. I beat out Herbie Hancock. I've never played piano in my life and I beat out Herbie Hancock! So, y'see, Michael didn't operate at that level of show business and adoration and success, all that sort of thing. He just didn't operate at that level. That wasn't his game.
Neal: What do you think threw Michael off course?
Nick: He had a strange chemistry. He had a lot of psychological problems. One, he was a horrible insomniac, which is a well known fact, and that affected him a lot. And also he had a long history of using drugs, downers mostly, to help him go to sleep. I don't know what threw him off course. It's a multi-facetted question and answer. There's no single explanation for it. Let's just say that most of the things most of the world considered important he didn't -- he didn't care about fame and fortune, all he really cared about was his music. I think along with several things about him and where he "went wrong" -- I don't think I can really go into it or I'll be talking for another hour -- but I think that Michael, like he was a young Jewish guy, he was known as a young Jewish guy, and when he was a young guy, he didn't want to -- y'know his heroes were Elvis Presley, guys like that -- goyim, with slicked back hair, who had alcohol problems and shit like that. I think -- by the time Michael finished it all up, there he was, he was drinking wine in the alley, wearing a long coat, looking like the goyim on the street. I don't know if it's apropos to say that, but that's kind of weird. And also I think it was the nature of the business itself, the cannibalistic nature of the music business. Michael, particularly when he started hooking up with one of his producers, had a certain attitude, they both did, about record companies and records. Their attitude was that all the companies were rip-off artists -- they made their money exploiting musicians. And if you had a chance to exploit them you should do it with the sharpest knife you had in your collection. And it was a real tough kind of attitude, where they'd make a contract to make an album and they'd pay him twenty, thirty or forty thousand dollars and he'd spend a thousand dollars doing the album and keep the rest, or he'd take the money and wouldn't deliver the album, would demand more money. It was almost a war, wasn't a straight business deal. It was almost like a war between him and the business people, who could exploit who. So there was no real peace there, never really worked hand in hand. It was always a hassle of some kind.
Neal: One of the better recordings from Michael's later career was that LP for Guitar Player magazine, If You Love These Blues, Play `Em As You Please.
Nick: That was a nice effort. He did a lot of things. That Sam Lay album, Sam Lay In Bluesland, that's a nice Michael thing. That's a nice blues album. Y'know, the funny thing about it is people ask me what's the best thing I ever heard him play. Believe me it was after rehearsal for The Electric Flag when everybody'd be going home, packing up and leaving. He would do duets with the tenor player, Peter Strazza. Michael and Peter would just do these long convoluted duets with each other, playing back and forth. To me that was the best I ever heard him play, just casually, after rehearsal. It had nothing to do with show business or selling records or being on stage or anything, and that was really where Michael was coming from. He was a pure musician. He didn't give a fuck about show business. He was just concerned about the music.
Neal: You're playing some fine lead guitar on your new CD.
Nick: Well, good enough. I keep getting a little better all the time. That's about the only thing I'm concerned about.
Neal: When did you start playing lead guitar seriously?
Nick: Around 1978. At that time Michael was getting really unreliable, didn't know what was happening, whether he was going to show up for gigs or not, and I realized I had to front my own band. So I decided to work on it. I'm having fun. I did exactly the right thing. I play better. I'm fronting my own band. I became a bandleader and made my own life. And that was exactly what I should have done.
Don't Feed The Animals by Nick Gravenites and Animal Mind is available on Waddling Dog Records. Send $15 for the CD, or a SASE for more information to: Waddling Dog Records, P.O. Box 44, Bodega Bay, CA 94923.
One Way Records has released a CD re-release of Cherry Red, by Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, featuring Michael Bloomfield.
SONY/JAPAN recently conducted a poll in Japan to help them decide which back catalog titles to include in the Spring 1995 "Nice Price" line of CD re-releases. Among the titles listed to choose from were My Labors by Nick Gravenites and It's Not Killing Me by Michael Bloomfield.
SONY/LEGACY's Electric Flag compilation includes previously unissued demos, alternate versions, and live tracks. Liner notes will be by Jeff Tamarkin of Goldmine.