Tuesday, February 04, 2014

"Beware of Mr. Baker"

I was ambivalent when I saw the trailer for this doco about Cream drummer and legendary madman Ginger Baker, in which the subject breaks filmmaker Jay Bulger's nose. I avoid people like this in real life, I thought; why would I want to watch a movie about him?

Back in the day, it never occurred to me how odd it was that while Cream -- Baker, Jack Bruce, and Eric Clapton -- were hyped as being "the best musicians in the world," "Sunshine of Your Love" was the first song every terrible tyro (myself included) learned how to play on guitar. It started to make sense to me when my guitar mentor Mike R. pointed out to me that Clapton, Beck, Page, Hendrix, Winter, et al. were all playing the same licks, which they flavored with their different tones and inflections -- a major revelation. It's all folk music, after all.

I walked out on Clapton when I saw him in '79. He was still playing the same solo. After discovering the tone that every heavy guitarist still emulates, albeit subliminally, while playing with John Mayall in '65-'66, he spent a couple of years -- incredible they only lasted from '66 to '68, exactly 24 months -- playing over his head with heavy jazz cats Baker and Bruce before becoming obsessed with the Band and heading, by degrees, for the middle of the road. In the film, Clapton speaks of Baker with a mixture of respect for his musicianship and trepidation at his propensity for bad behavior -- a particular concern for a cat like Clapton who's trying to maintain his sobriety. It's also interesting to contrast Baker's account of trying to kick Bruce to death (while they were bandmates in the Graham Bond Organization, pre-Cream) with Bruce's avowed affection for the drummer.

Ginger had a sad life. Born a couple of weeks before World War II began, his dad was killed in the war when he was four. A letter his father wrote, to be opened when he was 14, counseled him to use his fists -- "they can be your best pals" -- which enabled him to defend himself against the school gang that had been tormenting him, cutting him with razors. (Bulger uses animation to depict scenes like these that he couldn't otherwise portray visually, and also as a linking device to provide transitions in the story.) His first drum idol, Phil Seaman, introduced him to heroin and African drumming. The only time Baker shows emotion on-camera is in a '90s interview when he talks about having met and befriended all of his drum idols: Seaman, Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Elvin Jones.

He invested everything in his craft and nothing in people. The father of three children, he left their mother for the sister of one of his daughter's girlfriends. Post-Cream, he played in the "supergroups" Blind Faith and Airforce, shot junk, spent money like it had an expiration date, traveled to Africa and played with Nigerian rebel muso Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, but wound up playing polo with Fela's enemies at the Lagos Polo Club, moved on to Italy and then to Colorado, where he had an idyllic existence with an American wife, playing polo and jazz before an employee with immigration problems (reminiscent of the recent furor over the Indian diplomat in D.C.) sent him running again, to South Africa, where Bulger (who read about him on the internet and penned a Rolling Stone piece about him) catches up with him. When the filmmaker asks Baker's African wife whether he's a good stepfather to her children, she's notably silent.

Bulger did his homework, and includes footage of the Bond Organization, as well as later outfits like Baker-Gurvitz Army and Masters of Reality. It's clear that Baker peaked musically with Cream, however -- when he was 30. And it's noteworthy that when he got to make a jazz record in 1995, it was with "name" players Charlie Haden and Bill Frisell, not the Colorado musos he'd brought to New York. The saddest moments in the film are the bits with his son Kofi, also a drummer, who clearly loved and admired his dad, and whom Ginger kicked to the curb when he left Colorado. In the now, he's an angry and bitter man, jealous of Bruce and lyricist Pete Brown, who still earn royalties for writing all the songs for "his" band. At the end of the film, he can still play the drums, but the emptiness at his center is palpable. A clear-eyed glimpse and a cautionary tale.


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