Ginger Baker: It's a gift from God, Jay. You've either got it or you haven't.
Jay Bulger (interviewer): Have what?
Ginger Baker: TIME!
He's talking about time as in tempo, as in a true drummer's unnatural ability to produce and maintain a steady beat and then add polyrythms and intricate time signatures without losing it. Jay Bulger's new documentary Beware of Mr. Baker may mean it in another way – legendary drummer Ginger Baker is running out of time, and his life of being an enormous asshole (albeit a musical genius) is starting to catch up with him.
Listen: the one thing I hate more than hemorrhoids are hagiographic celebrity documentaries that exist mainly because the estate gives its blessing. Every writer, artist, architect and film director who ever pushed boundaries is gonna get one of these eventually. It's getting particularly out of hand with topics related to music of the late 1960s and the 1970s. Storm Thorgerson designed stunning album covers, but I can tell you first hand that “Taken By Storm: The Art of Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis” offers nothing you can't experience by poking around the Internet for twenty minutes. (I like to keep an open mind, but, by God, there's actually a doc about Andy Summers sitting unopened on my desk. If it's great, I'll issue an apology, but . . .Andy Summers? The guy whose main function is being a bar trivia answer if someone asks who was the guy from The Police who wasn't Sting or Stewart Copeland?)
I offer this rant of a prelude to let you know that I don't let these movies into my life lightly, and Beware of Mr. Baker is a movie, not a glorified VH1 special.
It begins in a striking manner. Baker is caught by a shaky camera in the middle of a rage. He's screaming “those people won't be in my film!” and then he gives director Bulger a bloody nose by whapping him in the face with his cane. He was talking about his family and past colleagues, all of whom hail him as a musical marvel, but impossible to be around. Ninety plus minutes later we'll understand how Baker, still an emotional infant, reacts this way with everyone he creates a real relationship with. We learn about how his father died in World War II when he was a toddler and he slid right into music and drugs at a very young age. When Bulger tries to dig into the psychological impact of such a loss, Baker shouts “don't be such a fucking intellectual!”
As a kid, before Ginger Baker ever had something to play it on, he stole his first record: The Quintet at Massey Hall. For a man who would later play in rock's first “supergroup,” Blind Faith, this famous one time recording of jazz titans Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach makes perfect sense. Hearing Max Roach showed him immediately what he wanted to do with his life.
Here's “Salt Peanuts” from that album, with a short drum solo toward the end.
Baker became a reasonably successful jazz drummer as well as a student of the instrument, listening to recordings of African drum circles way, way before this was trendy.
He wound up joining an R&B group called the Graham Bond Organisation, taking Charlie Watts' seat. They were similar to the British Invasion bands, but were better known as “musicians' musicians.” They played once or twice with a very young Mick Jagger. Baker was and remains unimpressed. He did, however, recognize a kindred spirit in bass player Jack Bruce.
In 1966 Baker and Bruce joined forces with the young star of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Eric Clapton. The power trio they formed was called Cream* and it changed music forever.
A number of talking heads (pretty much every iconic rock drummer still breathing) cites Baker as a key influence. Lars Ulrich says he was a founder of heavy metal. Neal Peart calls Cream a prog band. Others say they were the first jam band. Baker says all of that is bullshit, and only idiots want to put music in a box. One thing is certain, his trademark tune “Toad” was the first drawn-out rock drum solo on a record or in major concert halls.
Live drum solos from 1968 aren't everybody's cup of tea, but here's “Toad” if you can take it.
In just a little over two years Cream had enough success to get Baker a little money. He blew it all on being a rock God and gaining a reputation as a menace. We learn that at one point he was driving up the California coast in a sports car with three groupies and a bunch of drugs when he heard on the radio that he was supposedly found dead in a hotel room. He was unable, for a moment, to determine if he was in heaven or not.
Baker and Bruce butted heads (Baker still grouses that he doesn't get writing credit on songs like “White Room”) and the band dissolved. He ended up with Steve Winwood and Clapton again for the one-album band Blind Faith** but was suddenly all alone when that group fizzled, too.
What the film makes clear, but what Baker himself may or may not recognize, is how much his own behavior played a part in leaving him in wrecked relationships. He had, of course, a family back home. His adult daughter discusses how she is aware that she is the product of an unsuccessful abortion and his son states quite plainly that everything would have been better for everyone if he was never born.
In the film, Baker is reflecting on his life from a South African compound with his fourth wife. (Wife number two was an 18 year old girl, the sister of his daughter's first boyfriend.) He's getting older now, has arthritis, and he resists playing the drums these days, despite recent successes. Indeed, a late 1990s Ginger Baker Trio jazz gig brought him in touch, finally, with his hero Max Roach.
Baker's living in Africa is significant. After Blind Faith broke up he created a jazz-rock fusion band called the Ginger Baker Air Force that had some African influence. By 1971 he had moved to the politically turbulent capital of Nigeria to hook up with Fela Ransom Kuti. That's where some magic happened.
When Paul Simon was still feeling groovy, Ginger Baker was really the first Anglo pop musician to get balls deep in hardcore African music. He built a studio in Lagos, became tight with Fela's crew (which involved living on a semi-independent city within the city with political dissidents) and, strangely, became fascinated with the game of polo. This upper class activity eventually drove a wedge between him and Fela and he ultimately split Africa under shady circumstances.
Baker does a lot of trotting around the globe. He hits LA, he hits Colorado, he hits a mountain in Italy where he lives like a hermit. One place he never goes back to is London, where his ex-wife and three children face poverty.
Beware of Mr. Baker, apart from having great clips, is quite remarkable in how it celebrates the man's work but doesn't sugarcoat his life. Some of the analysis of his drumming technique goes pretty deep, which I love, and Baker isn't modest. He nearly has a fit at hearing comparisons to Keith Moon and John Bonham, beloved rock legends that he considers way beneath him. He prefers to align himself with the likes of jazz artists Elvin Jones and Art Blakey, both of whom joined him for “drum battles” during his most famous years in the late 1960s.
Baker's dedication to music isn't disputed, but his version of his relationships are. He calls Eric Clapton his best friend. Clapton, an admirer of the man's ability, says that “he doesn't really know” Baker. You'd be tempted to call it a little bit sad, if Baker weren't such a jerk. Or, frankly, a guy whose dedication to his art isn't so complete that he probably truly doesn't care what anyone thinks about him.
Bulger's film stays peppy with animated renderings of tall tales and plenty of “ain't he a fun old coot” moments, but it is actually a rather sad film. We get the legacy of his great music, but at the cost of how many wrecked lives? The film tries to put a happy coda at the end, but you can tell it is a temporary victory. The chaos will continue, the beat will go on.
Beware of Mr. Baker is currently playing at New York's Film Forum.
* Cream is second only to the Rolling Stones for appearances in Martin Scorsese movies. “Steppin' Out” from Cream Live Vol II appears in Mean Streets, “Politician” from Wheels of Fire is in New York Stories, “Sunshine of Your Love” from Disraeli Gears is in GoodFellas and the studio version of “Toad” from Fresh Cream is in Casino.
** Blind Faith's “Can't Find My Way Home” is a classic rock staple heard in a lot of movies (it's in the wretched 1969, off the top of my head) but their “Sea of Joy” is heard in repetitive fashion in Werner Herzog's bizarre, hallucinatory travelogue Fata Morgana.