The second-best rock documentary of the year, after the poignant comeback story Searching for Sugar Man, is that film’s wild opposite: a stranger-than-fiction portrait of the heroically talented, thoroughly misanthropic drummer Ginger Baker. Beware of Mr. Baker – directed by Jay Bulger and now playing at Film Forum in New York – covers the genius, terror and improbably long life of a man who hit the jackpot early, with Cream and Blind Faith, then repeatedly sabotaged his success, reputation and personal life with a hair-trigger temper, poor financial choices and a preference for drugs and exile over attachment and responsibility. The consequences dog him to this day.
Baker’s trail of catastrophe across Britain, Europe, Africa and the U.S. – bluntly tallied by Bulger and recalled by Baker, now 73, with cold rationale in an exhausted-devil’s growl – includes a 19-year heroin addiction, ruptured bands, serial bankruptcy and destructive relationships with his children and ex-wives. There are long spells away from drumming as Baker pursues another draining obsession, polo – maintaining fleets of horses on a succession of failed farms. The film’s title comes from a sign at the entrance of Baker’s most recent estate in South Africa; by the closing credits, he’s lost that, too.
There are also periodic returns to the kit, with his force and time intact – bold, brief alliances such as Baker’s mid-Eighties membership in Public Image Ltd. with ex-Sex Pistol John Lydon. But even now, you get close to Baker at your peril. Beware of Mr. Baker opens with the drummer bashing his director on the nose with a metal cane.
Cream and Lava
Hitting things has been Baker’s sole salvation. Born in London in 1939, just as World War II broke out, Peter Edward Baker was four when his father died in action. The loss enflamed a natural tearaway personality, which found an outlet when the teenage Baker fell under the spell of the American jazz drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach. Closer to home, the great British percussionist Phil Seamen introduced Baker to a crucial influence – traditional African rhythms – and, to worse effect, heroin. (Baker claims in the film that Seamen, an addict, warned him off the drug, without success.)
By the early Sixties, Baker was the most sensational and admired drummer on the British R&B scene, driving its hottest combo, the Graham Bond Organisation, with volcanic technique and precise, fluid swing. Baker also made life hell for the other half of the rhythm section, bassist and future Cream member Jack Bruce. Bulger, with aptly raw animation, a remarkably forgiving Bruce and no apologies from Baker, recounts the night Baker slashed at Bruce with a knife – in the middle of a Graham Bond gig.
Bulger also includes a clip of that band’s miming cameo in the daft 1965 British movie Gonks Go Beat!. For a more effective summary of Baker’s prowess on the verge of Cream, you need the Organisation’s debut studio LP, The Sound of ’65 (available on an import CD with the follow-up, There’s a Bond Between Us). The repertoire is standard blues changes, heavy on covers. But one track, “Oh Baby,” includes a preview of Baker’s epic live solos with Cream: the rolling thunder across the toms, that titanic kick-drum stutter. There is also an early version of “Train Time,” Baker and Bruce’s drums-harp chase on Cream’s Wheels of Fire.
The Air Force, Fela and True Jazz
Bulger first profiled Baker at home in South Africa, in all of his cantankerous glory, for a 2009 Rolling Stone feature. In Beware of Mr. Baker, the director expands on Baker’s prime time with Cream and Blind Faith, lacing the latter’s snarled reminiscences with wary insight from bandmates Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood and the grateful enthusiasm of disciples such as Stewart Copeland of the Police and Metallica’s Lars Ulrich.
But Bulger, who hadn’t even heard of Baker until six years ago, also pays solid attention to the often great music Baker made after his most famous groups blew apart, including the Afro-big-band fantasy Ginger Baker’s Air Force (a robust ensemble light on songs) and a rhythmically explosive collaboration with Nigerian singer-provocateur Fela Kuti. Bulger includes generous footage of the latter: Baker performing in Lagos with Fela and his big band, Africa ’70, before the two fell out over Baker’s new polo buddies in Nigeria’s ruling class – Fela’s sworn enemies.
Beware of Mr. Baker gets closest to the drummer’s heart in two sequences – one on the live battles Baker staged in the Seventies with jazz idols Blakey and Elvin Jones; the other on Baker’s fine Nineties streak of true-jazz albums. Those records are, of course, out of print. The film should inspire the hunt. Going Back Home, from 1994, and ’96’s Falling Off the Roof (both on Atlantic) are credited to the Ginger Baker Trio, a super-threesome with guitarist Bill Frisell and master bassist Charlie Haden: Cream minus the amps, more elegant and less blues-bound in its improvising. Baker’s 1999 album, Coward of the County (Atlantic) is buoyant, heated swing with a Denver-based group, the DJQ20, and guest saxophonist James Carter: hot stuff left hanging when Baker suddenly left Colorado, under a cloud, for South Africa.
Beware of Mr. Baker ends with another cycle of bankruptcy and exile. Baker is also seen playing drums again, onstage in Austria. It has been an ongoing return. Baker – who once heard his own death (from an alleged overdose) announced on the radio in the late Sixties – recently played three British dates with a quartet.
At one point in the film, Bulger asks his subject to summarize what makes a great drummer. Baker barks one word: “Time.” Whatever else he lacks, he has that still.