BEWARE OF MR. BAKER (YOUTUBE)
Ginger Baker, 2012
Drummer Ginger Baker died Sunday, October 6, 2019. Someone in a Monkees Facebook group shared a video of Davy Jones singing the wonderful “Someday Man” and I went to Twitter to share the video. When I opened Twitter, I saw that “Ginger Baker” was trending. I had a bad feeling and when I clicked on his name, sure enough, I saw the tributes flying for the legendary percussionist who had died that day in Canterbury at the age of 80.
I went to YouTube to find some footage of Baker and stumbled on this stunning documentary. Burgeoning writer Jay Bulger contacted Baker, concocting a story that he was a writer from Rolling Stone Magazine and requested an interview. Baker agreed. The resulting article was, indeed, picked up by Rolling Stone. Later, Bulger traveled to Baker’s home in South Africa, camera crew in tow and proceeded to spend many days with the cantankerous drummer and coaxed from him the story of his life.
“It’s hard to find fault with the notion that he was the pioneer of the ‘rock drummer’. There was no context for him, there was no archetype. He is the archetype” — Neil Peart, Rush
This doc is fascinating. What becomes apparent right from the outset is that Mr. Baker is a bit of a loose cannon. The film is bookended with an altercation – caught on film – that Baker had with Bulger, resulting in the filmmaker being bloodied. The second thing that becomes apparent is that Bulger has lined up a virtual who’s who of rock music to sing Ginger Baker’s praises; Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Steve Winwood, Carlos Santana, Charlie Watts, Neil Peart, Stewart Copeland, Mickey Hart, Carmine Appice, Denny Laine, John Lydon, Lars Ulrich and all of Baker’s three children.
I had grown up knowing that Baker was a premiere rock drummer but wondered exactly where he stood among others such as Keith Moon, John Bonham and Neil Peart. What I learned was that jazzbo Baker is held in higher esteem than any other drummer in rock history. Drummers Copeland of the Police, Peart of Canada’s Rush and even Metallica’s Ulrich are here to testify. The most telling and educational moments come when Moon and Bonham are discussed. Baker is asked about these two and scoffs in typical Ginger fashion; “The general public is so f$%#n dumb. Y’know, like, that anybody could think of Bonham as anywhere near this kind of drummer I am…it’s just extraordinary. Bonham had technique but he couldn’t swing a f&%$n sack of s%$#. Or Moonie, for that matter…” But perhaps the most telling is when Bulger brings up Bonham and Moon to Eric Clapton: “Oh, no, no, no…Ginger was nothing like those players. His musical capabilities are full spectrum. He could write and compose and arrange and he has an ear and he is harmonic. He’s a fully formed musician”. OK? That’s Eric Clapton talking. Check around the 46 minute mark.
Speaking of Clapton, I find it odd that Ginger should pass at the same time as I am 40-odd pages in to Clapton’s autobiography. It was fascinating to hear Eric talk about how Ginger’s manic, aggressive personality was the polar opposite of Eric’s quiet passivity. Apparently, while Eric, Ginger and Jack Bruce were changing the landscape as Cream, Ginger and Jack argued so violently that Eric gradually receded and knew the band would be short-lived.
Then, when Eric found himself free of Cream and starting rehearsals with buddy Steve Winwood in a group that would become Blind Faith, Clapton was mortified to see Ginger drive up outside, fly into the room and declare himself the band’s drummer. Eventually, after one album, Eric and Steve were off to other, less volatile settings, and Ginger was left without a gig. Significantly for the crotchety Baker, when asked if he bore any ill will towards Eric, he said he didn’t: “He’s the best friend I’ve got on this planet. And always will be.”
Baker had estimated that he attempted to kick heroin 29 times in his life, never really successfully. He started on the drug very early in his life and it, combined with his violent personality, resulted in strained or downright combustible relationships throughout his life. Rampant cheating on his first wife, the mother of his children. Wanting a son so badly and then treating him poorly when he got one. Divorcing his first wife to marry a friend of his daughter’s. Battling with Jack Bruce in the Graham Bond Organisation. Battling with Jack Bruce in Cream. Striking with his cane the kid he invited into his home to interview him.
In the end, it would appear that Ginger had nothing. He moved to South Africa, married a local girl (wife #4) and kept horses. But it seems he lost that as well and returned to performance to pay the bills despite suffering from osteoarthritis and the onset of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
And ornery. Ornery right to the end. And it concerns me if I think that Ginger’s behaviour is excused because of his abilities at the kit. When this film’s director, Bulger, is finished interviewing Baker, he says he is off now to interview Ginger’s former bandmates and family members. For some reason, this enrages Baker. He doesn’t want these others in “my film”. He becomes violent and strikes Bulger with his cane. Bulger later narrates that at first he was incensed at Ginger but then he realized it was just Ginger being Ginger and he laughs. That bothers me. Ginger’s life of addiction, adultery, fighting with bandmates, berating his only son, losing money we’d all kill for a fraction of because of carelessness and drug use…these things bug me. That’s not OK. But I guess mostly I feel bad for Ginger. He lost his father in World War 2 and while using heroin was a choice he made I should be sensitive to the fact that addiction is hard to get out from under. But I’m blathering. Watch the doc. It’s fascinating.