.

The Devil and Ginger Baker

Page 3 of 3

"Living in L.A. was quite hard for a former heroin addict," Baker says. "It's the smack capital of the world!" But he remained clean and met Karen Loucks, a college student who became his third wife. Then, in 1993, after settling a lawsuit with his record company over royalties, he moved to a ranch in Parker, Colorado, where he could raise his polo ponies.

Baker, now playing at an elite level, was drawn to the sport in part because of the status it seemed to confer on those who played it. "He's always wanted to be part of the aristocracy," says Loucks. Polo replaced heroin as Baker's costly new habit. "As soon as the royalty checks started coming in, the money was gone," Loucks says. "He's like a little kid with his money, since he never had it growing up."

Baker played polo like he did the drums: all out. "We were really wondering if he was going to be OK," says trumpet player Ron Miles, who performed with Baker. "He was really killing it on the field, and then he would just jump off the horse and play a drum solo." But Baker was soon in financial trouble again. In the late 1990s, as the IRS hounded him for income taxes, Baker was divorced by Loucks and in trouble with Immigration. Baker sold his Colorado spread, loaded up his horses and moved to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, where he bought a farm.

Once again, it didn't take him long to make enemies. Baker paid his staff more than other South African employers, and he allowed locals to squat on his farm – a policy that attracted criminals and transients. When a white militia offered him protection, Baker rebuffed them. "They said I needed them to protect me from 'the black devils' who were going to kill me," he says. "I told them, 'Fuck off!'" He also ran afoul of the local all-white polo club by fielding a team of black polo players from Nigeria – who promptly beat the whites. Baker found himself unwelcome in town. "They forced me out!" he says. "They wouldn't sell me supplies." Before he could sell his new farm, a riot took place among the squatters, who refused to vacate the premises, and Baker was forced to settle for a fraction of its value. He took his horses and moved to his current home in Tulbagh.

"One of the best things about not being married to him is that I don't have to be involved in the drama," Loucks says. "He's not evil. He has great intentions. They just go wrong."

"What?" Baker shouts at me as he places dog bowls around the kitchen. It's his reply to every question:

"What?"

"How are you?" I ask again.

Baker blames his hearing loss on years of listening to Jack Bruce's amplification, but it was further compromised by an incident last year. When Baker cut off a local Afrikaner farmer on the road, the man followed him to a gas station and punched Baker so hard that he blacked out and damaged an eardrum. When Baker came to, the man was trying to break his middle finger. "Who the fuck are you!" Baker screamed. The man left Baker his business card and drove off.

This morning, after the morphine kicks in, Baker heads to the two stables that house his 39 polo ponies. The doctors have warned him to stop riding, but without the horses, Baker says, he has no reason to live. "It's therapeutic," he insists. On the verge of entering his eighth decade of life, Baker can still play at a professional level.

The stable workers scurry into position as Baker visits every one of the horses, patting each on the head and calling them by name. He pauses when he gets to Gold Finder, a horse whose tendons were cut in the middle of the night last year by what Baker calls "assassins" – unnamed local enemies bent on retribution. Baker massages the horse's damaged leg and apologizes for the pain. The beast should be put down, but Baker has decided to keep Gold Finder, no matter the cost.

Ready for his morning ride, Baker mounts an aging horse, takes the reins of two more horses and begins to canter around the estate, trailed by a dozen polo players. Steam rises from his head as the morning rain hits his poncho. He surges into a gallop, mud flying off the crashing hooves as 10 men herd 30 horses between them.

After exercising the horses, Baker soaks in a tub and lets Kudzai bathe him. Then he retreats to his living room and lies back in his leather recliner for his daily dose of the History Channel. Dressed in Prada loafers, Prada jeans and a pink Dolce & Gabbana button-down shirt, he jabs the remote. His loafers hang off the recliner's footrest, kicking the air in rhythmic spasms, as if he is still smashing the double bass drums before a crowd of 150,000 screaming Nigerians.

A soccer match between Chelsea and Arsenal is about to begin. "You feel like talking?" I ask.

"You see that! Yankee! The television!"

"The soccer game?"

"Fucking Americans! It's football! 'World Series' of baseball! You're the only ones who play the stupid game! No talking during football, Yankee!"

For the next hour, Baker threatens the lives of the players while inhaling cigarettes. Then, suddenly, the estate's front buzzer goes off. Baker looks up at a monitor that's hooked up to four cameras around the property. A police car sits at the gate. "Kudzai!" he screams. She comes running and opens the entrance gate.

"Fuck!" Baker roars, storming off to confront the officer – who, it turns out, has come to investigate the death of Baker's dog. Two weeks ago, Turbo 1 was found dead in the front yard, poisoned with a chemical used by local farmers to kill jackals and baboons.

The police officer tells him that they have discovered nothing new – but Baker is sure the attack is related to his ongoing lawsuit against Lindiwe Noko, a teller at his local bank whom he hired to serve as his accountant. According to Baker, Noko stole about $50,000 from him. (Noko claims that she was romantically involved with Baker and that he gave her permission to remove the funds.) When the case went to trial, Baker offered to drop his trousers and show his penis to the court. "I've got a scar down there that only a woman who has been with me could describe," he says. The judge declined the offer.

"Unfortunately, he is generous to the people he should trust the least," says his son Kofi Baker, a drummer who lives in L.A. (In addition to Kofi, Baker has two daughters, all from his first marriage.) "They see his soft side, and they milk him for it. He never learns from mistakes."

"South Africans are the most inconsiderate drivers in the world!" Baker says, maneuvering his Range Rover down a steep mountain pass at 110 miles per hour. Overtaking a tractor-trailer, he swerves to the left, passing over the double line of the no-passing zone. He cranks up the volume on a Cream reunion CD and passes a Volkswagen that's in his way. Visibility is minimal, but Baker turns around in his seat to taunt the defeated VW. "Wanker!" he yells at the driver, a cigarette dangling from his mouth.

As we enter town, several locals wave from outside the Tulbagh Animal Hospital, where Baker donated $25,000 to build a horse clinic. At a nearby restaurant, Baker sits down for lunch with his polo team. Rain pelts the grass behind us, filling the awkward silence as the players wait for an opportune moment to discuss the dismal state of his polo field. The ground is flooding, and it will most likely not be ready for the season opener.

Baker has just received word that Jack Bruce wants to do another Cream reunion, a gig that would provide them with several million dollars. But despite a vast list of expenditures – new horses, 20-plus employees, a Range Rover, a Land Rover, six dogs, a young girlfriend, not to mention flying in Chilean polo players for the season opener – Baker isn't interested. "There is no way!" he says. "The reunion was 1968 all over again. Jack was playing so fucking loud. And he's shouting at me, saying that I'm playing too loud. Onstage – in front of everybody! And Eric got pissed at both of us. I think Eric now knows who the culprit was."

Lunch over, Baker throws his checkbook on the table and pays for the group with a sigh. Without a goodbye, he marches to the car. As we get into the Range Rover, Baker pulls out a stun gun. "If you think about getting super-stroppy with me," he says menacingly, "remember I've got this." The stun gun emits a loud crackle. "It's a people zapper!" he says. "It's for people who try to assassinate me. One day it might happen. I've already had enough threats to last me a fucking lifetime."

At home, Baker settles in his recliner after another dose of morphine and pills. With his Oakley sunglasses resting on the end of his nose and Kudzai on his lap, he watches a Beyoncé video on MTV. (He can bear pop music, he says, because of his hatred for current rock & roll.) Holding Kudzai by her waist, Baker begins to tickle her. "Gin-ja!" she squirms. "Stop tickling!" For the first time in days, he looks content.

"Tea!" he commands, sending Kudzai running. Switching to the National Geographic Channel, he watches a show on the big-bang theory. "You know, one day they're going to take all the best humans, go to Mars, leave us behind, and that's going to be it!" he says. "But death is the final great adventure! When I die, put me in a lead coffin and throw me out to sea!"

Baker lights a cigarette and turns his attention to CNN and the financial crisis in the United States. "The world is coming to an end for you Yankees," he says gloatingly. "And I'll be sitting here watching."

Later that night, I awake to the sound of dogs barking. "Who's there?" Baker screams. He stomps outside to investigate, the dogs running into the darkness ahead of him, Kudzai timidly following. Baker heads to the stables, ready for whatever awaits. Out of breath, his eyes wide in alarm, he looks down at the wet grass. The backyard is flooding.

"The water main exploded," he says. No enemies or assassins have come for him tonight. I tell him I'll fix the pipe.

Back in his living room, Baker tries to watch television and drink his tea, but he seems preoccupied. He keeps glancing over at the security cameras, which show nothing but the trees blowing in the high wind. He chain-smokes, his hands shaking as he pats the dogs that surround him. His sunglasses have been replaced by spectacles, and he can no longer hide his paranoia.

"Ginger, we fixed the pipe," I tell him.

He surveys my wet clothes. "Thank you very much. Good job." Then Baker catches himself. He points at the television. "Yankee – you see that?" The replay of the Chelsea soccer game has come on.

"No talking during football?" I answer.

Baker nods his head and grins, struggling to keep a straight face. Then, for the first time, we laugh together.

This story is from the August 20, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

prev
Music Main Next

blog comments powered by Disqus
Around the Web
Powered By ZergNet
Daily Newsletter

Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
marketing partners.

X

We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.

Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

While living on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was battling a lingering depression when his girlfriend handed him a guitar and suggested he play something. After spotting a bird on a telephone wire, Cohen wrote this prayer-like song of guilt. First recorded by Judy Collins, it would be performed numerous times by artists incuding Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge. "I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music."

More Song Stories entries »
 
www.expandtheroom.com