Beat Generation

Jay Bulger, Beware of Mr. Baker, 2012, color, 92 minutes. Left and right: Ginger Baker.

“THE DEVIL TAKES CARE OF HIS OWN.” So says the first wife of legendary jazz/rock/African drummer and world-class hellion Ginger Baker to explain the man’s highly improbable longevity. Best known for his work with British “supergroups” Cream and Blind Faith, in which he created and broke the mold of the hard-rock stickman in under three years, Baker is also—as we learn in the penetrating, often gasp-worthy documentary Beware of Mr. Baker—a ferocious madman who has consumed truckloads of substances; made and spent fortunes; and alienated scores of family members, friends, and musicians on several continents over the course of what should have been, by all rights, a much shorter life. When Johnny Rotten is enlisted to provide an introductory disclaimer for your perennially antisocial behavior, you’ve clearly neglected your Emily Post.

The doc opens with the stuff reality-TV dreams are made of. Director Jay Bulger, who had lived with and filmed Baker for several months at the drummer’s home in rural South Africa, tells his subject that he’s flying back to America to talk to people from the drummer’s past. Baker is none too pleased about this and, resembling Richard Harris in Unforgiven (1992), whacks Bulger hard on the nose with his metal cane, drawing blood. Among the many surprises in the film is how many similarly abused people from Baker’s life are willing to talk to Bulger. Three out of four wives, all three grown children, former bandmates Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, and lifelong musical partner/nemesis Jack Bruce all participate at length, most expressing qualified if not outright affection despite Baker’s ill treatment of them over the years.

Less surprising is the series of champion drummers who line up to heap praise on the man who, according to some, invented the archetype of the rock drummer. Stewart Copeland (Police), Nick Mason (Pink Floyd), Carmine Appice (Vanilla Fudge), Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Lars Ulrich (Metallica), Simon Kirke (Free/Bad Company), Neal Peart (Rush), Charlie Watts (Rolling Stones), Mickey Hart (Grateful Dead), Bill Ward (Black Sabbath), and Max Weinberg (E Street Band) all pay their respects; some say that, as teenagers, they decided to become drummers after hearing/seeing Baker perform. Had they been alive and in possession of a quantum of humility, the Who’s Keith Moon and Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham likely would have acknowledged similar debts. (The curmudgeonly Baker makes short work of the latter when his name is raised: “Bonham had technique, but he couldn’t swing a sack of shit.”)

Baker was born in London on the eve of World War II. His childhood was marked by his father’s wartime death and the sound of German bombs overhead. A rebellious kid, he fell in with a gang that, among other pursuits, stole LPs from a record store while he played decoy in the listening booth. On one of these ventures, he heard the jazz all-star record Quintet of the Year, with bebop pioneer Max Roach on drums, which set him on his path. After years of banging on school desks, the teenage Baker was given a chance to sit at a drum kit and found he could play it without instruction. “It’s a gift from God, and I had it—time, natural time,” he recalls in the film (pronounced “toime” in Baker’s thick Cockney). The pale, gangly redhead soon became known as the most promising young drummer on the British jazz scene, and eventually met his elder counterpart and hero Phil Seamen, who took the younger player to his basement flat and introduced him to heroin and African drums, both of which became integral to Baker’s life for many years.

He played with bassist Jack Bruce in R&B outfits Blues Incorporated (replacing Charlie Watts) and the Graham Bond Organization, beginning a combustible relationship as personally fractious as it was musically sympathetic. Months after forcing Bruce out of the latter band at knifepoint, Baker decided to form his own group, immediately setting his sights on Yardbirds/Bluesbreakers guitar prodigy Clapton. When Clapton suggested Bruce as bass player, Baker reluctantly agreed, and Cream was born. As noted by fellow musicians in the film, the original power trio was the beginning of many things: first prog band, first supergroup, first arena rock band, first jam band, first metal band. “The birth of heavy metal should have been aborted,” Baker grumbles in the film, though there’s no mistaking the impact of his hammer-of-the-gods style on the aforementioned Bonham, and “Sunshine of Your Love,” with its sludgy tempo, fuzzed-out Gibson, and doomy progression was the template for Black Sabbath’s sound.

Cream was massively successful, and Baker quickly eased into rock-star decadence. “When a promoter booked Cream,” Appice recalls in the film, “Ginger wanted a case of beer, two black hookers, and a white limo—or he wouldn’t play.” After releasing three LPs in two years, the band fell apart, largely due to constant clashes between Baker and Bruce. Clapton began a quiet collaboration with former Traffic leader Winwood, which Baker soon crashed, much to Clapton’s horror. The result was a supergroup’s supergroup, Blind Faith, which made one album and toured prematurely before dissolving, partly due to Baker’s bad behavior. The drummer rebounded with a personnel-heavy world-beat band, Ginger Baker’s Air Force, and live battles with jazz drummers—among them personal idols Art Blakey and Elvin Jones—before moving to Lagos in 1970, where he befriended and played with Nigerian legend Fela Kuti.

Staying for several years. Baker set up a recording studio and acquired a polo habit before being run out of town in a hail of gunfire by soldiers doing the bidding of a local gangster/record label executive. Thus began his true descent into years of hellish obscurity, struggling in England, Italy, Los Angeles, and Colorado before moving (under threat of deportation) to postapartheid South Africa, where Bulger finds him many years later, bitter and broke in a gated compound (the sign at the gate gives the film its title) with a young African wife and thirty or so polo ponies. Asked by Bulger if he considers himself a tragic figure, Baker seems to speak for the film when he croaks, “Go on with the interview. Stop trying to be an intellectual dickhead.” One must not only beware but obey this primitive artiste, this sophisticated savage. Indeed, given the bridges he’s burned around the globe and the heavy tracks he’s laid across modern music, Mr. Baker should be given wide berth. He’s earned it.

Beware of Mr. Baker runs Wednesday, November 28–Tuesday, December 11 at Film Forum in New York.