Ginger Baker: A Star Rock Drummer Famous for Talent and Mischief
Right at the beginning of the new documentary “Beware of Mr. Baker,” the film’s director, Jay Bulger, is attacked by his subject, the rock drummer Ginger Baker. Not verbally attacked, mind you — though there will be plenty of that — but physically, with a metal cane that draws blood when applied to the bridge of the filmmaker’s nose. Mr. Baker, whom we will subsequently encounter in less agitated moods, is upset about the direction of Mr. Bulger’s project.
“I don’t want those people in my film,” he shouts, though, like most of his utterances, this one is not fully quotable here.
“Those people” are fellow musicians who, in due course, show up on screen to testify to Mr. Baker’s artistic prowess and also to his less appealing traits. They include erstwhile band mates like Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Steve Winwood, and also fans and epigones like Stewart Copeland of the Police and Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols.
Mr. Baker has never been, to understate the matter, an easy person to get along with, a point that “Beware of Mr. Baker” returns to as it follows him through four marriages, at least a half-dozen bands, roughly one million cigarettes and countless burned bridges. Animated sequences depict a ship, rowed by the drummer’s red-haired avatars, zigzagging the globe — from London to Nigeria to Los Angeles and other spots on the way to his current home in South Africa — leaving a trail of not entirely metaphorical smoldering wreckage.
The facts of Mr. Baker’s life describe a familiar tale of modest beginnings, early triumph, wild excess and at least partial recovery. After a wartime childhood during which his father was killed in action, Mr. Baker survived a rebellious adolescence, nearly two decades of heroin addiction and the standard diet of touring, feuding and sexual abandon that used to be synonymous with rock ’n’ roll. Now 73, he has aged but not necessarily mellowed, living in pastoral semi-seclusion with his family and dozens of dogs and polo ponies.
But Mr. Bulger, a former boxer and model before he turned to journalism and then filmmaking, does not let “Behind the Music” sensationalism overwhelm the music itself, which is Mr. Baker’s great passion and the only reason anyone should take an interest in him. Relying on the judgment of many experts — notably a squad of veteran drummers that includes Lars Ulrich of Metallica, Max Weinberg of the E Street Band, Neil Peart of Rush and many others — the film makes a persuasive argument that Mr. Baker was the greatest of all rock drummers.
Anticipated objections from the partisans of Keith Moon and John Bonham are brusquely answered: “No, no, no, no, no,” says Mr. Clapton, who survived two supergroups (Cream and Blind Faith) in Mr. Baker’s company.
For his part, Mr. Baker asserts: “If they were alive, ask them. They’d tell you I was better.”
The case for Mr. Baker is complicated by the fact that as awesome as Cream may have sounded if you were young and stoned in 1968, the band did not have the staying power of Led Zeppelin or the Who. Some of that had to do with trouble between Mr. Baker and Mr. Bruce, the bassist, but Cream was also, somehow, less than the sum of its prodigiously gifted parts.
Still, “Beware of Mr. Baker” invites you to listen again, and to attend to the rhythmic power and complexity that this drummer brought to the group’s thunderous (and often ponderous) variations on the rhythm and blues playbook.
Mr. Baker was a rocker, in a sense, by accident of birth and association. If you were young, musical and British in the 1960s, rock ’n’ roll was an irresistible career path, and Mr. Baker certainly, at least for a while, lived out the rock star legend to its fullest. But he was by taste and temperament more of a jazzman, captivated at an early age by African polyrhythms and the expansive approach of American drummers like Max Roach and Elvin Jones.
Rather than keeping the beat, Mr. Baker opened it up, adding layers and nuances without sacrificing his innate, unerring sense of time. He was wilder than steady rhythm players like Charlie Watts, and also far more disciplined and subtle than showboating wild men like Mr. Moon and Mr. Bonham.
And now, in his 70s, Mr. Baker is hardly in a mood for classic-rock nostalgia. “That was the birth of heavy metal,” he says of the Cream years. “It should have been aborted.”
Asked about his first impression of Mick Jagger, he responds with a summary, unpublishable judgment and a raised middle finger. An earlier videotaped interview shows him choking up with emotion when he speaks of Mr. Roach, Mr. Jones, Art Blakey and Phil Seamen, jazz idols who came to recognize him as a peer.
And in the 1970s, when he might have cashed in and become an arena-rock superstar, Mr. Baker went to Lagos to play with Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the great Nigerian singer, bandleader and political troublemaker, who at the time was very far from being the subject of a Broadway musical.
Mr. Bulger tracks down Mr. Baker’s friends, ex-wives, children and admirers to create a detailed portrait of a man who may not really be all that complicated. Artists with messy, ugly lives and less-than-admirable personalities are not as paradoxical as we sometimes think. At the drums, Mr. Baker is in control, and everything makes sense. The rest of it is the usual noise.
“Beware of Mr. Baker”
Written and directed by Jay Bulger; director of photography, Eric Robbins; edited by Abhay Sofsky; produced by Andrew Karsch, Fisher Stevens, Eric H. Gordon and Mr. Bulger; released by SnagFilms/Insurgent Media. At Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of Avenue of the Americas, South Village. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes. This film is not rated.
“Beware of Mr. Baker” includes archival footage and animated sequences.
By A. O. SCOTT
Published: November 27, 2012
The New York Times
Ginger Baker was rock’s first superstar drummer and the most influential percussionist of the 1960s.