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Beware of Baker


Ginger Baker behind the kit. Life magazine once called him "the devil himself with drumsticks."

If you're a fan of classic rock—serious classic rock—you recognized Baker's name immediately. And if you did, you should check out Jay Bulger's documentary/biography, "Beware of Mr. Baker."

I always thought Baker's drumming, heavily influenced by African traditions, was the most melodic of the late '60s and early '70s, supporting the song like no one else could. I also admire Keith Moon and Mitch Mitchell, Baker's most prolific contemporaries, but Baker's style was distinct: rhythmic, but much more.

Interviewed in the movie, Eric Clapton says just as much. The filmmaker starts to ask a question about how Keith Moon compared to Baker, and Clapton immediately waves his hand dismissively, a look of near-disgust on his face. It's clear Baker is a significant person in his life. I've never seen him so animated in an interview.

As talented as Baker was, the movie portrays him as an exceedingly unlikeable person. For example, he and Jack Bruce (Cream's bassist) could never get along, going back to their stints with early '60s bands fronted by Alexis Korner and Manfred Mann. During a fistfight, Baker pulled a knife on Bruce. Both of them have their own versions of the story, of course. Although their tension provided much of Cream's energy, Clapton was caught in the middle and tells us he eventually had too much. He walked away from the group.

The film doesn't gloss over Baker's years-long heroin addiction, nor does it flinch when portraying Baker as a lousy family man, a hateful father, and a brainless spendthrift. In fact, during the filming (done at Baker's ranch in South Africa), he tells Bulger that he's never been in a worse financial position and would have to take an offer on his ranch if someone made one. Maybe if he hadn't spent his windfall from the 2005 Cream reunion shows buying dozens of horses for polo, his situation would have been different. Maybe if he hadn't quarreled with Bruce—yet again—during that tour, his situation would have been much different, as the band could have toured and played as many shows as they wanted. But again, Clapton found himself caught between his two bandmates, and he walked away again. Plans for a 2014 reunion tour were scrapped after Baker quarreled with Clapton, whom Baker calls his best friend.

That said, the movie is full of contemporary rock drummers—Neil Peart and Stewart Copeland, among many others—who all say Baker was the prototype for rock drummers, someone who inspired them and someone for whom they have great respect. In the end, it's clear Baker had a huge impact on the art of rock drumming. He comes across as a giant.

On the other hand, more than one person in the documentary points out that any musical venture Baker was involved in never lasted. And his personality, as depicted in the film, shows why. The opening scene shows him attacking Bulger (from Bulger's perspective) with his cane, swearing and saying, "I'll put you in bloody hospital." At the end of the movie, we see the same scene and hear Baker explaining the reason for his attack: Bulger was going to interview some people who knew Baker, and Baker exploded: "I don't want those fucking people in my movie." At the end of the film we see Bulger with a nasty nose wound from Baker's cane.

Beware of Mr. Baker indeed.

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
(Anonymous)
Jan. 8th, 2015 10:45 pm (UTC)
I watched a documentary on Netflix about Baker...clearly one of the most divisive members of any band he played in. I assume genius has its' quirks, but he struck me as self-absorbed with little consideration of his band mates. One cannot deny his talent and ability even in the throes of his drug addled mind. It is fascinating to me that with the live he has led hes has outlived almost all of the great musical talent of his time.
patrick_vecchio
Jan. 8th, 2015 11:07 pm (UTC)
I'm pretty sure you watched "Beware of Mr. Baker," because I watched it on Netflix. And yeah, a lot of his contemporaries are gone: the entire Jimi Hendrix Experience, for instance.
anita_margarita
Jan. 9th, 2015 03:56 am (UTC)
I'll add it to the Netflix queue, though I have a feeling from your description that it'll be... I don't have a word for it. We saw Be Here to Love Me about Townes Van Zandt, and The Devil You Know about Todd Snider, and came away feeling confused and let down. Not that artists should pretend to be saints when on camera, but it is sad to see a human with so much talent and ability be ---- (looking for word that combines dissipated, self-destructive, and uncaring).
patrick_vecchio
Jan. 9th, 2015 04:16 am (UTC)
I'd known for a long time that Baker was—well, all of the words you use. I just didn't realize how bad he was. But on the other hand, I'm sitting here now with the headphones on, listening to "Tales of Brave Ulysses." My God, he was good: elegant power, not a beat wasted.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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