Beware of Mr. Baker
And a film to miss
Ginger Baker says, “If they got a problem with me, come and see me and punch me on the nose. I ain’t going to sue you, I’m gonna hit you back.”
The trailer is full of “tributes” from people who knew him. Unlike the treacly movie about Chuck Leavell (skip that flick, folks), no one has anything good to say about him personally. Not even his family. Especially not his family. His son says, “I don’t think he should have had a family. I think he would have been way better off in his life if he’d never had kids, and just, you know, did his thing. He would have left a lot less of a mess behind.”
Perfect! Let’s check him out. Life lessons here, boys and girls.
Ginger Baker is known best as the drummer for the Cream and Blind Faith. Most people, including me, had no idea what he did after that. He was known to be a heroin addict, so I guess I suspected the worst.
He’s since passed on (2019), but at the start of the film he hits the filmmaker with his cane for saying he’s going to talk to some of the other people in Ginger’s life, and says, “I’m going to fucking put you in hospital.”
That’s why there was a sign outside his property with the title of this film. Johnny Rotten tells us he loves Ginger, though, so there’s that.
A reporter from Rolling Stone goes to visit him at South Africa and we hear the story of his life.
He seems to have been incorrigible right from the start. His mother would strap him until he screamed, but as his sister says, it made no difference.
He would drum on his school desk, until he got on a real set of drums. He got married and had a baby at the age of 20, and he said that inspired him to kick the heroin and get straight. It took him 19 years.
Graham Bond was an even bigger heroin addict than Ginger, so that group was short-lived. He and Jack linked up with Eric Clapton, and Cream, the founders of heavy metal, was born.
There’s a place where he claims he can play four different beats with all four limbs. To get an idea what that means, try to slap three on your left knee and four on your right, i.e. in the time it takes you to slap the left knee three times, you slap the right knee four.
You can see polyrhythms demonstrated nicely on this video on Reddit.
Now imagine all four of your limbs doing a different rhythm, and the rhythms are not something simple like two or three. Maybe they’re four, or five, or seven. That’s what Ginger could do. He says that’s why he sounds fast but really, no hand or foot is moving all that fast.
The Cream only lasted about two years. Ginger and Jack were constantly at each others’ throats, and it just wore Eric out. This is one place where we’d really, really want some full songs, but instead we get stupid cartoons of the Cream playing. The movie is full of the director trying to make some kind of animated music video, but fortunately there are enough interviews of the (then) surviving people and archival footage that you can ignore the cartoons.
There’s actually more time and more music footage devoted to the Blind Faith period than to Cream. Neither Eric nor Stevie had any particular desire to see Ginger added to the band, but there he was. Yet Clapton says, when asked to compare Ginger with other famous rock drummers, like John Bonham and Keith Moon, “No, no, no. Those guys are drummers. Ginger is a complete musician.” Ginger compared himself to Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, and other great jazz drummers, not to other rock drummers.
The movie is marred by those animations I mentioned, split screens, and strobe effects. Directors gotta direct, I guess.
In 1971 Ginger went to Africa, driving across the Sahara, ending up in Lagos, and got to sit in with the great Fela Kuti. Long before Paul Simon, David Byrne, and others glommed onto African music, Ginger was there. He built a first-class music studio there and started recording the local artists.
Someone said to him when they were in a car, “Jeez, Ginger, the way you drive, you should play polo.” And so he became a polo player. This was a very bad move, as far as Fela was concerned: polo was what the post-colonial elite played. Fela became a political radical and suffered the fate that almost all anti-government people suffer in Africa: he got arrested. Ginger himself ran afoul of the local music moguls, who claimed all those musicians he was recording were under contract to them. One day they raided his studio, and he got in his Range Rover and drove away, with men shooting at him.
Back in England, he abandoned his wife for an 18-year-old star-besotted girl, and moved with her to Italy, where they lived despite having no money anymore. She deserted him, and he moved to LA, where he actually put an ad in a music magazine like a novice musician looking for a gig. Later he moved to Colorado, New York, and South Africa, dying in England. In New York, he played at the Iridium Club and said he played the best solo of his life in front of his idol, Max Roach.
His general pattern was that he found a few willing collaborators, had some success, and then alienated everyone and left.
A lot of really important musicians in all genres are not very nice people. Conversely, some of the ones who are nice people (from what I’ve heard, not that I’ve met them) are not very important, like Jon Bon Jovi and Peter Frampton.
Despite all the cinematic flaws I mentioned, this is a movie worth seeing. If you know of a better movie about Ginger, please put it in the Comments. I found more of him on YouTube than I ever imagined, and some of it’s in the playlist.
One to Skip: Brian Wilson, Long Promised Road
The story of the Beach Boys is largely the story of Brian Wilson. His struggles with mental illness have been a very sad story for the last 50 years. Besides having an abusive father, he was saddled with a “genius” label in his early 20s, and a band of his brothers plus friends who depended on him to provide them with songs. He had a live-in psychiatrist Dr. Landy for several years, until the family fired him, only to rehire him later when Brian relapsed.
The movie is split between interviews with friends and celebrities (Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Don Was, etc.) who talk about his genius; footage of him back in the day as a rock star; footage of him being interviewed about his mental illness; some of his more recent concerts; and most inexplicably, Brian in the present day, driving around with Jason Fine, an editor with Rolling Stone. I say “inexplicably” because their stilted conversations are pure cringe for me. Jason Fine talks to him like a 4-year-old.
Imagine yourself interviewing a mental patient (which he was) who won’t talk much, with a camera rolling the entire time, and try to think of any way if could not be cringeworthy. The inexplicable thing is not that it happened; it’s that they left it in the movie. I feel a deep sympathy for Brian, but I had to feel he was being exploited here.
Here they are driving in the car:
Brian: (looks at watch) What are we going to have at the deli?
Jason: Good question! Possibly a Cobb Salad. What about you?
Brian: (indeciperable) for me.
(At the deli, Brian gets a sundae or something with a lot of whipped cream)
Jason: When you had the Radiant Radish, you actually worked in the shop, didn’t you?
Brian: I worked there.
[The Radiant Radish was apparently a health food store in West Hollywood in 1969.)
Jason; Did you know a lot of information about health foods and stuff?
Brian: No. A friend of mine worked there. I ran the cash register.
Brian: Guess who I met there?
Brian: Jack Rieley
Jason: Really? That’s where you met him the first time?
Jason: Wow. And he ended up managing the Beach Boys, right?
Brian: It was his idea to go to Holland
Jason; What was that like?
Brian: It was a trip
More on that topic. Jason says he’ll pick up the check. They slap hands.
Brian: I scored a friend! I haven’t had a friend, I haven’t had a friend to talk to in… three years!
Brian: Really. My life has been so simple, you know? So simple, and like, modest. No really, you know, sitting around and shooting the shit kind of thing. I haven’t had that kind of thing since you.
Jason: Well, I’m here for you.
(on the way out of the restaurant)
Brian: Hi, Vanna.
Vanna White: How are you?
Brian: I’m good. I’m Brian Wilson.
Vanna: It’s good to see you, honey.
Brian: You still live across the street from me?
Brian: You’re a good neighbor
Brian: That’s Vanna White! I love her.
I prefer to just remember his genius and the great music he gave us. Skip this one.