In 2009, Ginger Baker demanded I come live with him in South Africa to write his story and fulfill my lifelong dream of becoming a Rolling Stone journalist.
I did it, but the article wasn’t enough for Ginger. He insisted that I make a movie about him, “So they can hear the music, idiot!” After I directed Beware of Mr. Baker, an award-winning documentary, he responded, “You can take your awards and shove them up your ass!”
Whatever I did, it was never enough for Ginger. I like to think he held me to the same impossible standard he held himself. I owe him so much. I’m glad he is no longer in pain.
As Ginger Baker always said: God is punishing me for my past wickedness by keeping me alive and in as much pain as he can. Since the day we met, it’s all he ever talked about. He didn’t want to end up like jazz legend Elvin Jones, one of his idols, who spent his final years dying onstage, dropping notes and getting bad reviews.
Ginger Baker’s body was failing him, and at 80 years old, he couldn’t play the double bass drums with the intensity he asked of himself. And yet, up until last spring, he did just that, climbing onstage with a catheter bag, supporting his family the only way he knew.
Baker lived a life without compromise or consequence. He did whatever he wanted to do. He said whatever he wanted to say. He never held back. And if you crossed him, you might be challenged to a duel. He was the real life Colonel Kurtz birthed from Charles Dickens’ asshole. It made him angry that he got too old to beat up Yankees. He didn’t like playing anything less than perfect.
Ginger Baker was most at home in Africa, and that is where he intended to live out his life. Every morning in Tulbagh, South Africa, nestled in the Witzenburgh Mountains, he would wake up, ride one of his 36 polo ponies around his polo field, only to dismount with a quip to yours truly: “You fell off the stupid tree and hit every branch on the way down!”
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He was the greatest shit talker who ever lived. He had an attractive young wife, six dogs, and a big TV to watch football and the History channel all day long.
“I can’t be killed,” he would frequently say, before retiring to bed, realizing he might outlive the small fortune he made from his Cream reunions.
He was possessed by demons. PTSD. His life was defined by the sounds of the Nazis bombing his London home and the moment he stood on the tracks as a young boy, watching his dad go off on a train to be killed in battle. He never wanted to be left behind again.
He didn’t suffer fools well, and drama followed him wherever he went; he relished it. He was always in a dispute; a disaster of his own making. He was terrible with money. He gave the teller at the bank he was dating power of attorney. He flew in black Nigerian players to compete at a whites-only polo club. The fist fights in town kept him alive.
Ginger loved his animals more than humans, and when the assassins and voodoo priests cut his horses’ tendons in the night, they started an all-consuming conflict. Ginger would frequently walk out into the dark South African nights, yelling at God and the baboons, as he beckoned them to grant him his final blaze of glory. He was a divisive, calculated and righteous recalcitrant who challenged anyone or anything that fell at odds with his ethos; and before you knew it, Ginger had alienated himself in yet another part of the world.
I think he was the greatest drummer, ever. His life’s work covered so many bands, genres and continents. Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, Graham Bond Organization, Cream, Blind Faith, Ginger Baker’s Airforce; he was always moving forward. As his contemporaries rested on their laurels, he drove a Range Rover from London in 1972, across the Sahara Desert, to Lagos, Nigeria, where he would play and record Afrobeat music for the remainder of the 1970s with Fela Kuti and the thriving Lagos music scene. He introduced African rhythms to the west as he built the first 16-track recording studio on the continent. “I don’t fit in a fucking box, Jay!”
What’s indisputable is that Ginger Baker had perfect time. Take my nose, for example. Years of boxing had left it crooked. When I was leaving South Africa, we got into an argument over my leaving, and he smashed me in the face with a steel cane. I went to the local doctor who gave me a mirror; it was broken, for sure. And yet, it was perfectly straightened. Ginger Baker fixed my nose.
Like Kurtz, he just wanted to be taken out. Instead, he would have to flee South Africa in 2013 after squandering his fortune, taking only his one Dalmatian, Jakie, with him. He returned to England, broke.
The last time I saw him, in 2015, he played at B.B. King’s Blues Club. We hadn’t spoken in a while but he knew I was there. After finishing a cigarette during a drum solo, he flipped the butt in the air and smashed it into the audience in my direction. After the show, as he sucked into a nebulizer, he admitted the Cream reunion concerts in 2010 at Madison Square Garden should have been his last. His osteoarthritis and the emphysema had made it impossible to play two sets a day. His hands and feet shaked and quivered. He didn’t want to be seen like this. I know because he told me so in his hotel room as he threw a Coca-Cola bottle at my head. It missed by a foot. “I can’t even wack you weak Yankee cunt!”
In recent years, he would experience hardship and poverty. Ginger was always quick to thank God for Eric Clapton’s financial support. He loved Jack Bruce but resented him to his dying day for not giving him the share of royalties he thought he deserved from Cream, the band he started. He was suffering from an infection in the sternum, the result of open-heart surgery, early onset dementia, COPD, and kidney problems. You would think he was blackhearted until you saw him melt around his stepdaughter Lisa. He was ready to go.
Ginger drove sports cars off cliffs in Algeria. The night Jimi Hendrix died, Ginger Baker was with him. He smoked at least 40 cigarettes a day for 60 years. From 1960 to 1982 he quit heroin approximately 29 times. Four wives. Three children. He was a living testament to the stiff upper lip that gained Britain its empire.
So long, Ginge. Don’t worry, like you always said: “The devil takes care of its own.”