Several month ago, a band I work with had the opportunity to open for the Sons of Cream—a Cream tribute band, if that’s the right thing to call it, featuring Jack Bruce’s son Malcolm on bass, Ginger Baker’s son Kofi on drums, and a guitarist named Godfrey Townsend.
Kofi was a joy to watch and listen to, a fountain of technique and style, like his father, whose drumming with Cream and other celebrated groups has been hugely influential. And as inspiring as his playing has been to my generation and the drumming heroes we marveled at growing up, Ginger Baker’s personality has been equally as damaging to his own career.
Jay Bulger’s 2012 documentary Beware of Mr. Baker introduces viewers to a man who seems every bit the pain in the ass he’s long been suggested to be. An expansion of a piece Bulger wrote for Rolling Stone called The Devil and Ginger Baker: Inside a gated compound in South Africa, one of rock’s most legendary drummers is still making enemies, the biographical film chronicles Baker’s quickly earned reputation as one of London’s best jazz drummers and his time with Cream and Blind Faith, and the narcotic-bolstered antagonistic behavior that made each of his musical ventures short-lived.
A number of my drumming heroes, Stewart Copeland (The Police) and Neil Peart (Rush), confirm Baker’s influence in Bulger’s film.
“He personally is what drums are all about,” Copeland says. And to Peart, Baker “is the archetype” of a rock-and-roll drummer—inasmuch as those who grew up admiring his playing became familiar with Baker primarily through the music of Cream.
Asked by Bulger about his equally influential peers John Bonham (Led Zeppelin) and Keith Moon (The Who), Baker scoffs.
“Bonham had technique, but he couldn’t swing a sack of shit,” Baker says.
Eric Clapton, with whom Baker played in Cream, describes his former bandmate as a “fully formed musician,” as opposed to merely a rock drummer.
Several times in Bulger’s film, Baker—perpetually chain-smoking in a slightly reclined armchair—says, “Don’t put music in boxes,” referring to the genres we use to compartmentalize different styles.
So earnest is Baker that the only time the viewer sees anything like genuine emotion on his face is when he refers, in a piece of archival footage, to jazz-drumming icons Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Elvin Jones as “dear friends.” Also included in that group is Phil Seamen, a British drummer who introduced Baker to African rhythms and (indirectly) heroin.
“While Bulger’s film chronicles Baker’s life
and his moves from one place to another…
it also chronicles a pattern of people
distancing themselves from Mr. Baker.”
Beware of Mr. Baker isn’t another “rockumentary” about a career destroyed by excess. It’s a look at a man whose extraordinary talent and vision is undeniable but whose inability to play nice with others limited the musical journeys he embarked on.
Clapton describes Baker in the film as “seriously antisocial.” And Jack Bruce, whom Baker met in the jazz clubs of London, doesn’t do much to hide the scars he got during his time working with the boorish drummer.
At one point in the movie, Bulger can be heard asking Baker is he’s a “tragic hero,” given that, for all his accomplishments, the physically damaged drummer has no money to speak of and lives in relative isolation in South Africa, far from the musical circles he once traveled in.
Baker, predictably perhaps, tells Bulger to stop asking such “intellectual” questions. Maybe Baker simply doesn’t think like that, or maybe the truth stings just a bit.
Even Baker’s son, Kofi, has mixed feelings about his father, saying at one point that Baker’s life would have been easier had he not had children, and saying at a later point in the film that playing alongside his father in California was tremendously meaningful.
While Bulger’s film chronicles Baker’s life and his moves from one place to another—including a number of years he spent in Lagos, Nigeria, soaking up the rhythms that surrounded Fela Kuti—it also chronicles a pattern of people distancing themselves from Mr. Baker.
And that leaves us appreciate something Simon Kirke (Bad Company) says early on in the film: “He influenced me as a drummer, but not as a person.”
Visit bewareofmrbaker.com to learn more about Jay Bulger’s film.
David Brensilver is the editor of The Arts Paper. This is his opinion.