‘As a player, he’s up there at the toppermost. But there remains an enduring mystery about Ginger: why is he such a dick?‘ – Dara Higgins on Beware Of Mr Baker.
Ginger Baker invented the rock drummer idiom. It’s true, everyone here says so. But he did it without actually being a rock drummer. That’s also true, everyone, especially Ginger, says so. He is a Jazz player, always was. But nevertheless he invented being a rock drummer. He made the drummer into more than a rhythm carrier, he made him into a virtuoso, a star, worthy of as long a solo as the ivory tickler or axe master. The other lads you might think of as rock drumming progenitors, Keith Moon and John Bonham, get short shrift here. Bonham had some technique, maybe, Moon is dismissed with a sneer. That told you.
This is Ginger Baker’s story, as told by the man himself and illustrated with footage and animation. Film maker and journalist Jay Bulger spent some time living with Ginger and some time in his South African ranch filming him as he reminisced. Judging by the amount of shirts Ginger goes through, it was quite a while. The telling of this extraordinary and involving tale is chronological. It starts out with the percussive sound of Luftwaffe bombs landing on London, some of young Ginger’s first memories, and from there meanders across decades, continents and wives. Young Ginger had a penchant for hitting things, a restless energy. Max Roach, drummer for The Quintet of The Year turned him onto rhythm, onto the possibilities of being a drummer. Ginger was a natural at the drums. He had a gift, he had time. You can’t learn time, you’ve either got it or you don’t.
Ginger also invented the rock n roll junkie. Heroin was the preserve of the jazzing classes, which is where he had his first encounter, in the dingy basement flat of fellow jazz drummer and Flamingo Club regular Phil Seaman. (The Flamingo club was Soho’s finest Jazz establishment, and it’s presented to us in a black and white still of the entrance. Look closely and you’ll see a teenage Andy Summers sucking on a tab and eyeballing the camera.) He took to the skag like he took to everything, with a determined aplomb. Gusto. Virtuosity. A kind of manic desire to be the best goddam junkie in town.
His peers, and many who came after him, revere his playing, his four limbed skin thwopping, the infinite soling, the cross pollination of genre. As a player, he’s up there at the toppermost. But there remains an enduring mystery about Ginger: why is he such a dick? Ginger claims at one point that Eric Clapton is his best friend, his only friend. Clapton meanwhile tells us that he left Blind Faith to get away from the Baker maelstrom and that he doesn’t really “know” Ginger, because he’s frightened of the unpredictable madness that hovers around him. Clapton is quite candid about this failing as a friend. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any friends. Only Jack Bruce, with whom Ginger spent so many years feuding, professes love, even if it’s with his tongue in his cheek. His wives speak with a exasperated, fatalistic affection, his children are estranged, shoulder shrugging over his fate, his son Kofi is still hurting with the pain of their last meeting, an expletive and insult strewn parting as Ginger exited the continent once more. He tells a story of how his father gave him a line of cocaine at the age of fifteen to help him through a gig before sending him home to England from Italy on a coach. Dad of the year stuff.
Ginger formed Cream in 1966 (this is Ginger’s narrative) asking Clapton and Bruce to come aboard, despite an enmity with Bruce. Nevertheless, in two short years Cream blazed a trail across the world, playing arenas, breaking America, piling up the groupies money and excess, inventing heavy metal some say, being the first progressive rock band according to others. Nothing like Cream or Ginger had come before, that much was clear. Ginger was suddenly a star, a world renowned, eccentric, percussive genius. The band jacked it in in 68. Everything that needed to be said had been said. Clapton speaks of the constant fighting between Ginger and Bruce and the strain it took on him being a big part in why he quit. Ginger is like that, self destructive, friendship annihilating. It was obviously never going to be as great as that again, and after living in LA, he moved to Hawaii, where he tried to get clean, but found the islands to be awash with heroin. So he left there for Jamaica. Needless to say, he didn’t get clean that time around. He practically bankrupted himself trying to keep Ginger Baker’s Airforce as high as kites, so decided, naturally, to up sticks to Lagos in Nigeria, where he joined Fela Kuti’s group and built a studio. It gets weird at this point. Ginger discovered polo. Posh hockey played on the back of a horse. In order to play polo he had to hang out with Nigeria’s political and moneyed classes while his friend and band leader Fela was speaking out against those very people and demanding a revolution. Understandably the two fell out, and before long Ginger was being chased out of his studio by soldiers, firing bullets at his quickly receding Land Rover. Oh, Ginger!
Ginger replaced horse with horses, and spent more money transporting and buying them than he would have if he’d stuck to the heroin. He went through another couple of wives, one who was twenty something years younger than him, and spent a while in the wilderness. Not literally, although that would hardly be surprising, but unemployed. No one would work with him, every bridge had been burned.
Throughout the film the loneliness of the man is palpable but it doesn’t really induce any sympathy. He’s done this to himself, repeatedly. Despite some residual royalty bitterness, there’s no one he can really point the finger at. When Cream reformed in 2005 Ginger apparently made 5 million dollars from the enterprise, and by 2010, when the film was being made, he had spunked it all away, mostly on horses and his baffling love of polo.
The list of luminaries who queue up to tell us that Ginger is unequivocally the best is pretty impressive. Lars Ulrich is there, of course, Stuart Copeland, Carmine Appice, Charlie Watts, Carlos Santana, Bill Ward, Joe “Stumpy” Pepys, Neal Peart, Nick Mason and others: it’s quite a crew. Each of them, many contemporaries of Ginger, looking healthy, wealthy and maybe a little wise. Ginger looks like shit, like Albert Steptoe in Oakleys, twitching and smoking with a permanent scowl on his fizzog. By the end of the film he is thrusting the business end of his cane into the face of his one last friend on earth, Jay Bulger himself, breaking his nose. Despite being initially pissed off at this, you get the impression that Bulger is quite pleased. Ginger has just proved his own reputation, while the camera was rolling. The off camera thud and reaction is pretty funny to be fair.
The movie is some journey. Ginger, no longer ginger, but white, spends most of it on a reclining chair, smoking Rothman’s, pausing from his memories to unleash some invective. The archive footage shows a man who is constantly grinning, despite whatever turmoil there must have been, but contemporary Ginger doesn’t look like he’s laughed in a while. He spends his money and affection on his animals, his many dogs and 38 horses, and before long, he’s skint again. His only apologist throughout is John Lydon. If it takes Ginger being that unpleasant to be the drummer he is, he reasons, then so be it. It’s a small price to pay for the quality of the man’s art, the many gifts he’s given the greater good and the ordinary punters, whose ignorance he clearly despises. Jack Bruce sums it up more succinctly. Ginger is “The best Ginger Baker in the world” he deadpans. Yeah, but he’s also the worst Ginger Baker in the world.