The Devil and Ginger Baker

Inside a gated compound in South Africa, one of rock's most legendary drummers is still making enemies

Ginger Baker performs in Camden, London.
Rob Monk/Classic Rock Magazine via Getty Images
August 20, 2009

"Fuckin' hell!" Ginger Baker shouts at the South African sunrise. His ritual morning curse complete, the 69-year-old drummer for Cream takes a deep pull on his morphine inhaler and throws his body back into the leather recliner where he spends the majority of his days. As the drug takes effect, his tanned, weather-beaten face contracts and his vivid blue eyes go wide. His girlfriend, Kudzai, a beautiful 27-year-old from Zimbabwe he met on the Internet, hovers over him counting out his daily handful of antidepressants, stomach pills and painkillers. "What are you looking at, Yankee!" Baker barks at me, his voice cutting through the silence like an animal shriek. Now that the morphine is running strong, he pops up out of his chair with the nervous energy of a teenager, but still he walks like a creaky old man. Over the course of his life, during which he's raced bicycles and played polo, Baker has broken most of his ribs, mangled one of his arms and had his front teeth smashed in. He was recently diagnosed with a degenerative spine condition and the onset of emphysema. "God is punishing me for my past wickedness by keeping me alive and in as much pain as he can," Baker says bitterly. Then the man who helped invent the rock drum solo stomps over to the door of his ranch house, trailed by his pack of six dogs, and coughs out what sounds like part of a lung onto his front lawn.

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Throughout his five-decade career, Baker has been one of rock's most influential and innovative drummers, combining the raw power of Keith Moon with the subtler rhythms of jazz and African percussion. He has played with everyone from Eric Clapton and Johnny Rotten to Max Roach and Fela Kuti, but he's just as famous for being one of music's original junkie madmen, alienating family, friends and band members at every stop. Since 1999, Baker has been living in a self-imposed exile in South Africa, having been forced out of homes in England, Nigeria, Italy and America.

In 2005, when Cream briefly reunited, the New York performances imploded with Baker and bassist Jack Bruce fighting onstage. "It's a knife-edge thing for me and Ginger," Bruce said afterward. "Nowadays, we're happily co-existing in different continents . . . although I was thinking of asking him to move. He's still a bit too close."

Here in the heart of South Africa's wine country, it would be hard for Baker to be further removed from the rock world he spent his adult life terrorizing. Tulbagh is a racially divided farming town of wealthy white landowners and poor black laborers 80 miles northeast of Cape Town. Baker came here to play polo and live in seclusion: The entrance to his 80-acre spread is marked by a gigantic sign that reads BEWARE MR. BAKER. Yet even in this remote corner of Africa, decades after superstardom and his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Baker can't escape controversy. After years of battling both the IRS and British tax collectors, he is at the center of a host of new lawsuits in South Africa, and rumors about him have spread throughout the nearby villages. "Ginger Baker is the biggest local drug dealer," goes one. "He always has three black women by his side," runs another. And then there's the one tale that holds at least a hint of the truth: "He only lives here because he has been chased out of everywhere else."

Now, after following his morning morphine with a cup of tea, Baker sees something that sets him off on a fresh rant. Kudzai has moved his drum set – the same kit he used onstage at the Cream reunion – and the dark-green tom-toms, giant cymbals and double bass drum that defined his distinctive sound are propped haphazardly in a corner of the guest room.

"DO YOU KNOW HOW LONG IT'S GOING TO TAKE ME TO PUT THAT BACK TOGETHER?" Baker erupts. Kudzai, who had never heard of Baker before they met a year ago, offers to help, but he angrily waves her away. "GET OUT!" he shouts, painfully bending over the kit.

For the next hour, Baker meticulously reassembles the tools of his trade, carefully matching the angle of each cymbal, only to take them off in disgust and hurl them against the wall. "I used to have two roadies do this for me," he mutters. Five cigarettes later, Baker is breathing heavily and covered in sweat. The drums are back in their rightful position.

"I bet you expect me to play for you now!" Baker shouts, suddenly looking at me. "Persistent cunt!" Since the Cream reunion, Baker has performed in public only a few times, when he has picked up his sticks to play for the crowd after a polo match. The sport has been his all-consuming passion for years: Baker owns 39 polo ponies and regularly sponsors charity matches for orphan kids stricken with HIV.

Grabbing a set of sticks, Baker slams his body into the seat behind the drum kit. As he flails away, it's as if he's back at the Fillmore, pounding straight-8th grooves into the double bass drum, creating a rhythmic hypnosis from a dizzying array of rimshots, smashing cymbals and 16-note fills. A master of polyrhythms – multiple time signatures played simultaneously – Baker seems less like a broken-down former drug addict and more a force of nature.

"His playing was revolutionary – extrovert, primal and inventive," says Rush drummer Neil Peart. "He set the bar for what rock drumming could be. I certainly emulated Ginger's approaches to rhythm – his hard, flat, percussive sound was very innovative. Everyone who came after built on that foundation. Every rock drummer since has been influenced in some way by Ginger – even if they don't know it."

The solo finished, Baker gently places his sticks on the drums and threatens to cut my head off with a sword before storming back to his leather chair in the living room to spend the rest of the evening in silence.

"Ginger's just a grumpy old man!" Kudzai says. "He yells, but inside he's a good man." If so, he hides his endearing qualities well. As he passes his days in South Africa, racked with pain and pumped full of drugs, Baker seems intent on devoting his remaining energy to railing against the world. After the other pioneering drummers of his era, Bonham and Moon and Mitchell, have all passed away, Baker is alive and breathing, albeit in a three-pack-a-day way. He has survived, it seems, through a kind of sheer foulmouthed perversity, a manic brutality that pervades both his drumming and his life. "If a plane went down and there was one survivor, it would be Ginger," says his first wife, Elizabeth Ann Baker. "The devil takes care of his own."

Peter Edward Baker was born on August 19th, 1939, in a working-class neighborhood of London. The son of a bricklayer, Baker was four years old when his father was killed in World War II. As a kid, Baker had a single dream: to compete in the Tour de France. He rode his bike for mile after mile, pushing himself to prepare for the grueling marathon. "I was a good fucking cyclist because of my build – tall and thin," Baker recalls. But on a rainy day in 1956, as he raced across town, a taxi threw the 16-year-old, crushing his bicycle.

Not long after, at a party, Baker's friends dared him to sit at the drums. He was a natural. "The high-hat, the bass drum, the cymbals – I don't know how, but I could do it all," he says. At that moment, Baker forgot all about a new bicycle – he wanted drums. He also discovered that he could outlast every other musician in the room. "Long-distance cycling conditioned me for playing the drums," Baker says today.

By age 17, he was earning 16 pounds a week performing in a traditional New Orleans jazz band. He spent hours poring over the science of the beat, learning how to write music and constructing his personalized drum kit. "Time moves differently with Ginger," says jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, who recorded with Baker in the Nineties. "You could find 100 drummers to play the same tune, and Ginger would find something different to do with it."

The still-teenage Baker became a fixture in the Soho jazz scene – then the center of European beatnik culture. He learned about African rhythms from his hero, the English jazz drummer Phil Seamen. "Ginger was the first drummer to understand the importance of world rhythms and turn them into something commercial," says Chip Stern, who produced one of Baker's later jazz albums. Seamen also introduced Baker to injecting heroin. "Ginger was a loner," says Cream songwriter Pete Brown. "It helped him escape. It also went with the perception of the tortured artist. He was following in the footsteps of Charlie Parker."

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