Harsh Texture

Beware of Mr. Baker

Profiles Ginger Baker, one of the finest rock drummers to emerge in the 1960s and also one of the most self destructive

Music documentaries have never been out of fashion. It's a reliable format that adopts an equally familiar template: open with a dynamic performance piece, then a series of talking heads gush over the as-yet introduced subject with all manner of hyperbole, finally the film contextualizes and proves the worth of the subject.

In all the films released on musicians, none ever began with the subject physically assaulting the film crew until “Beware of Mr. Baker”. He’s just been told that other people will be interviewed about him to round out the feature. Baker responds by splitting open the nose of his documentarian with his walking cane.

I’ve managed to resist the charms of Cream for all my adult life. So the procession of talking heads who fall over themselves to name Baker the greatest drummer of his generation feels a bit much. After all Baker’s tenure in the pop culture spotlight lasted a few years. His collaborations with Eric Clapton in Cream and Blind Faith stretched just from 1966 to 1970.

Throughout my life when the greatest drummers were often debated Baker seldom came up. Even through the 00’s it was a competition between Jon Bonham and Keith Moon. To be fair, Art Blakey and Max Roach and Bigfoot didn’t come up either. But it's a bit odd of how far out of the public conversation Baker fell. My local rock-only station will play the Wind Cries Mary to this day interspersed with Nu Metal holdouts and third generation Evanesence clones, but “White Room” or “Sunshine of Your Love” never cracks their rotation. If I could guess, those singles are just too much of their era relative to Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, or Black Sabbath. 

Baker did precious little to bolster his name after his heyday. Chased out of Britain and America he lands in Nigeria in the early 70s and builds their first advanced studio. He joins up with the legendary Fela Kuti. They produced an album that clued-in the West to Kuti, yet Baker’s proclivities soon resulted in a falling out between them. Alone, Baker spent the ensuing decades wasting his talent and fortunes. He’d occasionally re emerge from obscurity, a brief stint in Masters of Reality or some touring dates, but soon disappear again to pursue his self destructive vices.

While many of the British Invasion musicians grew up in the rubble of World War 2, Baker lost his father to the conflict. It was a fiery, hero’s death that nevertheless left tracks through Ginger. For the rest of his life he would actively destroy every relationship, whether to family, bandmates, or well wishers with incredible viciousness. Beware Mr Baker is full of wronged individuals, and those who speak of him as one would of a mean German Shepherd. Perhaps surprisingly, the film can’t find many who are outright hostile to Ginger despite legitimate grievances. They all seem to have made peace with his presence in their lives. Many were lured in by his established reputation and hoped to live the rock n roll lifestyle vicariously through him. Family members speak with a generous sympathy. It’s in Baker’s nature to recreate his abandonment, a sickness of the soul that is fundamental to his character.

The film finds many instances of Baker professing his love for blacks. By the time of filming Baker’s married into a black South African family.  When stateside Baker made a great show of proving his mettle as a jazz drummer. He challenged the greats to duels. Art Blakey, Max Roach. There’s something quixotic about Baker’s pursuit of their regard, as though chasing a distinction he could never attain. After all, you can’t get kicked out of a club you can’t enter to begin with.

Published: Feb. 25, 2018, 7:14 p.m.
Updated: Feb. 25, 2018, 7:14 p.m.