The Conundrums of Ginger Baker
What’s the payoff in being compulsive?
“All of a sudden, there was something I really could relate to,” says Ginger Baker. “Max on Quintet of the Year is out of this fucking world.” The camera presses closer to Max Roach’s sticks, blurred as the sound grows louder and you no longer see his dinner jacket and bow tie, much less Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, and Charles Mingus. The zoom and the propulsive beat invite you to share Baker’s memory: he went on to steal the album, he says, even though he didn’t have a record player.
The song ends with one last cymbal slash, elegant and assertive, and Beware of Mr. Baker—now screening at New York’s Film Forum—cuts to Baker now, cigarette in hand, wild red hair gone grey. “My mum found the record, and she went fucking crazy,” he laughs. Cut to Baker’s sister Pat, prim and pink sweatered. She remembers, “Mum used to use the strap on him, and it made no difference.” Except that it did, at least as Baker recalls. So as not to be tempted to steal again, he stopped talking to his friends, he says, and in turn, they began to beat him and slice him with razors, illustrated by grim animation, slashes producing blood on young Ginger’s deeply shadowed face. “I wasn’t very popular when I went back to school.”
The animation here is accompanied by Baker on drums, pounding, thrilling, and intimating what he calls his “natural time.” That time makes him brilliant but it also eludes description or formulation, and this is the film’s—and the drummer’s—conundrum repeatedly. If he appreciates and even understands his gift, it also falls prey to his particular demons; Beware of Mr. Baker can only gesture toward these, with bleak animations and anecdotes. You might imagine the combination of horror and inspiration that came over director Jay Bulger when he found his film’s beginning, namely, Baker’s cane crashing into his nose. The camera careens and Bulger essentially falls into his car, trying to comprehend what’s just happened. He’s been staying with Baker at his home in South Africa, he explains, and now that he’s trying to leave, to complete the film, his subject has assaulted him: “You just want to push off the people I’ve moved here to get away from,” he roars, “I haven’t spoken to, not one single one of them, since I left there. And I don’t want any of them on my film.”
Again with the conundrum. If the film isn’t precisely Baker’s own, it approximates a story of his life and career, noting highlights and lows in the form of his recollections and stories told by colleagues and friends, all narrating his education in jazz clubs, his heroin use, his four wives, and oh yes, his love of “the African drummers.” The film animates his first view of his idol Phil Seamen’s needle tracks and his first listen to Watusi drummers, Baker’s flurry of beats dissolving into the booming of slaves’ drums, helpfully illustrated by a ship full of men in chains, dark and miserable and then, whoa, there’s the animated Baker too, red hair and pale skin and rowing with the other slaves.
The image is striking, certainly, and it makes the point, in case you might think of missing it, that Baker is now, in this moment of hearing the difference between a three-beat and a four, enlightened: “I was like, wow. The basic African rhythms were so fucking cool.”
Baker’s not the first white musician to credit black traditions or cultures, and he pursued his interest, “going to Africa” to play with Fela Kuti and Africa 70 (though, Tony Allen observes, the “war and violence” in Nigeria during the ‘70s were daunting). though If the film’s representation of this process—the storytelling and the story too—is rather too literal (and a little rudimentary), it’s safe to say that Baker took off from here, that he absorbed and recast those so-called basic rhythms, opening out his own sound and filling in with bursts of energy and pain and rage. Whether or not his inspiration compares in any way with the experiences of slaves on a ship may be beside the film’s broader point, that his technique and originality and time all have sources, that he celebrates at least some of these, and that he found his way into experiences beyond what his mum or his father (a bricklayer killed while serving in World War II in the Mediterranean) could have imagined.
As the film has it, Baker’s prodigious creativity was framed by (and perhaps premised on) by a mix of meanness and, as Wife #1 (Elizabeth Finch) puts it, insecurity. More than one interviewee—including Eric Clapton, a couple of other wives, and Baker’s children (his son Kofi is also a drummer)—remembers him as a “madman,” a bully, and a monster. Jack Bruce remembers that one night Baker almost beat him to death, and on another invited him to join with Baker and Clapton to form Cream. While this supergroup went the way of most of Baker’s projects—that is, a bad breakup—the film skips through it quickly, maintaining its focus, not so much on Baker, but on the difficulty of knowing him along with the veneration for his gift. So, while Finch claims she can always recognize his drumming because it is so very “personal,” Clapton asks and answers his own question: “Do I know Ginger well? I didn’t take the effort, the time, or the risk to step into his life,” he says, “I always pulled back when it started to get scary or difficult.”
While Bulger apparently took a risk (as his bloody nose suggests), it’s never clear in the film (his film?) whether he’s learned any more than Clapton. Baker’s perpetual enigma makes for a documentary subject both beguiling and inaccessible, receding and aggressing. His self-performance here coincides with the legend (“Ginger Baker is a motherfucker, that’s it,” enthuses Stewart Copeland, “He personally is what drums are all about”), and also raises questions. A couple of times, Bulger points his camera into the room in South Africa where Baker’s kit sits, unplayed. “You think you might have to go back to playing the drums again?” he asks. Baker snarls, “Why are we talking about this shit?” It’s exactly the right question. And Beware of Mr. Baker offers all kinds of answers.