Jim Sullivan recounts his testy interview with the legendary percussion great upon his passing at 80
It was early June, 2014, and I was on the phone talking with Ginger Baker, who wasn’t exactly excited to be doing yet another interview, but there you go: It comes with the job. He was best known as a rock drummer of course– Cream, Blind Faith, Masters of Reality, Public Image, Ltd., Hawkwind and so many more – but he was in jazz mode now. And he had a gig to promote in Boston with his band, Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion.
I’d been pulling teeth throughout the half-hour interview, alternately enduring and humouring him as he gave one-word answers and pissy dismissals. His tone hovered around disinterested, dismissive and antagonistic.
“Interviews, I don’t like,” Baker softly barked at one point, making the obvious a tad more crystal clear.
It was nothing personal. Pretty much anyone who tried talking to him got it. Interviews can lead toward self-reflection and this is not turf Baker was comfortable treading. Nor did he cotton to silly questions and to him most of them were that. Still, time had been carved for the man to “talk” about his world, while the ambient sound of a TV rattled on behind him.
Finally, it came to this exchange.
I’m told you’re in constant pain. Does the medication alleviate that?
(I repeated the question.)
Yeah. Yeah, it does. I don’t move around much if I can help it. Traveling is a nightmare, even more than half an hour in a car is painful. I try to travel with as little as possible.
There is going to come a point when the end happens. People are going to be writing your obituary. What would you like the first line of you obituary to read?
I don’t know. That I’m a drummer. Heh-heh.
Not the best rock drummer?
I wouldn’t want that to be said at all.
Just drummer period?
Best drummer. Yeah, to say I was the best drummer.
Yes, before going much further we must amend the “rock drummer” statement. Despite his tenure in Cream and Blind Faith – what you’d probably call “classic” rock bands if not supergroups – Baker insists he doesn’t and never has played rock. It is undeniable that with Cream, Baker – the first rock drummer to use two kick drums – recorded the genre’s first drum solo on record, “Toad.” And he is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, inducted as part of Cream in 1993.
VIDEO: Ginger Baker performing “Toad” during Cream’s farewell concert.
On Sunday, word came from Baker’s family via Twitter that Baker, 80, had left this mortal coil, following the release the previous week that he was in an English hospital and “critically ill.” I know when I talked to him, he was fighting degenerative osteoarthritis and COPD and, of course, his own bad self. Heroin has a funny way of trying to reclaim its place in the lives of recovering addicts.
At the end of June, Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion took the stage at Boston’s Wilbur Theatre. Baker had a habit of cutting sets short, walking off stage and ending shows prematurely. He probably wasn’t 15 minutes into this one when he left, the kit and started off, stage left. In the audience, jaws dropped and knowing grimaces crossed faces. Then, he paused, turned and went back to the mic. “I’m an old man and I’ve got to take a piss,” he explained. Truly, one of the funniest/coolest things I’ve heard on stage.
He left, he (presumably) pissed, he came back and returned to resume a great concert with a hot band: percussionist Abass Dodoo, bassist Alan Dankworth and saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis. It was a jubilant, high percussive and polyrhythmic celebration of tribal rhythms. Jazz and Afro-beat, recalling Baker’s work with Nigerian superstar Fela Kuti. He did, in fact, play “Ailo Biaye,” a Yoruban song he recorded with Ginger Baker’s Air Force in 1971 and then a few years later with Kuti. No horns, of course, but a massive drums-and-congas duet.
Ginger Baker was in his element. With musicians he respected. With an audience that … well … paid to see him. He warned us about shouting out for old favorites from Cream or Blind Faith. (Truly, it would have been stupid for any of us to do that.)
Baker was touring behind his first record in 16 years Why? It’s all-instrumental jazz and Afro-pop except for the title song where you can hear a repeated, strangled cry of “Why?” Not a bad question, really, so I asked: Why make a record? Why tour? “To put food on the table,” he answered.
In the doc, Baker said he didn’t listen to music and responded that it was like asking a bus driver if he would go driving for pleasure after work was done. I said, it’s like you play music so in your spare time, you don’t want more of it.
“I know some people do,” he said, “but I don’t. I don’t really find it super. I don’t enjoy listening to other music much at all.”
Baker was notorious for hating most rock drummers. Keith Moon and John Bonham took his wrath. He even blasted the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith – not that he knew his name – during our interview. I brought him up because Smith praised Baker in Jay Bulger’s critically acclaimed 2013 documentary Beware of Mr. Baker.
Many musicians had a lot of good things to say about him – ex-Cream-mate Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, the Police’s Stewart Copeland, Carlos Santana, the Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts, Metallica’s Lars Ulrich …
“Some of them were musicians I’m not particularly fond of,” Baker said, following it with that choking heh-heh semi-laugh. “The drummer of what’s that silly band, Red Hot Chili Peppers? He was surprised I’d never heard him play. Well, I hadn’t. I’d never heard the Red Hot Chilli Peppers either.”
Who did he like? Old friends who were now dead heroes: Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Max Roach and Phil Seaman. Beyond family, beyond other musicians, those friendships are the most important thing to him.
This, indeed, is where Baker got most expansive during our talk. “It was the guys I was listening to [growing up]. I thought they were all fucking great and then meeting them, they accepted me on the same level as they were which was very rewarding. They could have just laughed and said, ‘Go away you silly man’ and that didn’t happen. They all became very good friends of mine. Mutual respect, you know.”
Did Baker get pleasure from drumming? “I still enjoy playing,” he said, as flatly as he said everything else.
AUDIO: Ginger Baker “Why?”
Here’s a quick hit history: Tough, working-class upbringing during WWII, (father, a bricklayer, was killed in the war); jazz beginnings, heroin addiction; playing with English blues greats Alexis Korner and Graham Bond Organisation; the supergroups Cream and Blind Faith. First “rock” drum solo, “Toad.” Cream bassist Jack Bruce called him the “loudest drummer I’d ever heard,” adding “I liked them ‘cause I could go off and have a smoke.” The Grateful Dead’s drummer Mickey Hart, on Cream: “They were like Vikings. It was like scorched earth. They were there to take heads.”
Moving forward: Early on, Baker surfed the world music wave with, among others, Afro-pop star/political agitator Fela Kuti. Baker developed an alternate upscale existence as a polo player and multi-horse owner. He did various other musical projects with his name, some with others (Public Image, Ltd., Hawkwind). In 1992, Baker joined the hard rock group, Masters of Reality briefly and recorded an album spawning a top 10 hit, “She Got Me (When She Got Her Dress On).” Then, more jazz.
Four marriages, lots of kids. Many former houses in different countries. Garnered much attention because of Beware of Mr. Baker, which has a 98 % Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating.
During this interview, Baker’s preferred answers were: Grunt, one-word answer, one-sentence answer, rueful chuckle and “Wot?” (This is how he says “what.”) He does suffer from some hearing loss, but he also uses “wot?” to suggest the ridiculousness or impertinence of the question. In the movie, one thing that comes through: Baker has little time or regard for anyone he doesn’t consider a drumming peer.
But I figure I’ll start by talking about a mutual acquaintance Baker has recorded with …
I know Public image, Ltd. singer John Lydon pretty well. And his is one of the first and last voices in Beware of Mr. Baker. He calls you “a man who stands for something in life that probably most of you do not, no matter how awkward this character may appear to you.”
You played on four tracks of PiL’s 1986 album, called Album. What made you want to work with John?
I don’t know what you mean.
He, a punk rock legend, and you the same from the hippie era. What about his music did you like that you wanted to be part of?
I didn’t even know he was gonna be a part of it. I just came to do some sessions.
Were you told Lydon was part of it?
I don’t remember really. It was a long time ago.
I ask because it was collaboration I might not have expected and it turned out very well.
AUDIO: PiL Album (1986) featuring Ginger Baker on drums.
Many people are being introduced, or reintroduced, to you through Beware of Mr. Baker. Did you enjoy the movie? Did you think it was accurate?
Some of it was OK and some of it was not.
What wasn’t OK?
Some of the people interviewed. I didn’t know that they were going to be interviewed. People that really had nothing to do with anything.
One thing I enjoyed in the film was learning about your jazz band roots, and then your work in blues bands, into and out of Cream and Blind Faith and then this total immersion into Afropop, with Fela. Can you tell me about that period? It seems one of the best of your life.
Uh, sorry, I don’t know where you’re coming from.
What did it feel like from making that transition from a rock (and rock star) oriented setting to going to Nigeria, finding these new polyrhythms, kind of starting fresh?
I’ve never been in a rock-orientated situation.
AUDIO: Fela Kuti Live With Ginger Baker
OK, what would you call Cream and Blind Faith?
It’s good music. It’s people like you who put labels on things.
We critics do tend to do that.
You want to put everything in a little box and put it on the shelf.
I know that can be confining and doesn’t …
In both Cream and Blind Faith, the vast majority of what we played on stage was improvised.
Well, there is rock music that’s improvised, but that’s not what you felt this was, right?
I don’t really understand.
What about the pleasure you found playing with the other drummers in Nigeria, the discovery of that music and the joy in it. How did that feel to you?
Oh. … Pass.
All right, let’s skip to the present, where you are right now. I got your new CD, Why? and enjoy it, this mix of jazz and Afro-pop. Is this the music you’ll be featuring when you go out on tour?
What other music would I be doing?
OK, dumb question. It would make sense you would play this. But is there other music aside from this record or do you intend to play just music from this record?
Well, we’ll probably play most of the stuff that’s on the record.
Improvisation is what you do so you won’t play it exactly like the record?
No, we never play the same tune the same way twice.
For people who are thinking about going, can you give them an idea of what to expect?
They should enjoy it. Heh-heh.
You don’t like to expound on much, do you?
No, I don’t.
Other musicians have told me, “Look, we play music because that’s how we articulate best, so we don’t have to speak.” Is that true in your case?
Wot? I don’t know, I think so …. Yeah, I talk with the drums, that’s it. Heh-heh. Not with my vocals cords.
Your drums are your vocal cords.
In a way, I suppose, yeah.
In the movie, you say as a kid you found an outlet for that energy and anger you had simply by banging on your desk. Then someone showed you a drum kit and you think, damn, I’m a drummer. This seemed a pivotal point in your life – something you not only can do, but do really well. Was it a moment of discovery?
It had to be a big moment of discovery for you.
I don’t know about that. I realized I was a drummer.
VIDEO: Art Blakey v. Ginger Baker 1973
The most emotional part of the movie I think is you talking about the relationships you have with your drummer idols and friends. Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Max Roach and Phil Seaman. Those friendships seem the most important to you and you almost start crying. Can you talk about those friendships and what makes it so important?
(I repeat the question)
It was the guys I was listening to. I thought they were all [expletive] great and then meeting them, they accepted me on the same level as they were which was very rewarding. They could have just laughed and said, “Go away you silly man” and that didn’t happen. They all became very good friends of mine. Mutual respect, you know.
You guys, you five, you’re part of an elite, special club, then?
I have no idea.
All right, too heavy. Speaking of, I did love your response to Jay Bulger’s question “Do you find yourself to be a tragic hero?” You essentially told him to go home and stop trying to be an intellectual.
You do speak your piece, do you not?
You do not suffer fools gladly?
You’re very candid about heroin being part of your life for 19 years. I’m sure there were some positive things that came out of it – there had to be, look what you did – but lots of negatives. Did it have an affect musically? On your personal life?
Oh, I don’t really think about it.
Phil Seaman introduced you to it …
No he didn’t. The movie might suggest it but the movie’s [expletive] wrong if it does that. I wrote a book where the story is in it. Read that.
How did you get introduced to it then?
It was a guy named Dicky Devere, another very good drummer. I was using smack before I met Phil and when Phil found out he burst into tears. He was warning me: Don’t do it and I was already doing it and he didn’t know.
I’ve known musicians who’ve been addicted and it can be pretty debilitating in most cases, but you also had a very creative period while using.
How do you mean debilitating?
It was not debilitating?
No, not at all. There are people at the top who do too much all the time and just go out and get hurt. There’s people who use it with respect, so they’re capable of doing what they’re doing, doing their jobs. It depends, really.
Why did you quit if it seemed to work?
Well, it worked for a while. Heh-heh. I decided to get off in 1964 and it wasn’t until 1980-81 that I actually managed to do it.
Eric Clapton talked about your compulsion for both drums and drugs. He said, “Ginger was pretty dismissive and antisocial, seriously antisocial.” But he added, that you “had the gift, the spark, the flair, he had the panache. His musical abilities are full spectrum. He is a fully formed musician. He can write and compose and arrange and he is harmonic.” It seemed very telling and on the money. Is this the way you look at yourself as a musician as well?
I am a musician, yeah. I read and write music and do all the things like that that musicians are supposed to do.
Do you have resentment that you didn’t get credit for co-writing back in the Cream days? Like moving “White Room” from 4/4 time to 5/4?
(pause) There was stuff I was very involved in that I never even got a thank you for, yeah.
Does it gnaw at you some or do you think, well, that was then, I have to move on?
(pause) It will never go down well with me, no.
The Cream reunion in 2005: A one-time only thing, right. Will you do it again?
I don’t think so.
VIDEO: Cream reunion concert at Madison Square Garden October 24, 2005
Why did you do it in the first place?
I didn’t want to do it in the first place. Heh-heh.
What persuaded you to do it then?
And he said …
Um … I don’t know. He phoned me up and we had a long chat, OK.
What he said made sense?
Well, I’m glad I did it now, yeah.
You did make a pile of money, $5 million I heard. Yet, the money didn’t exactly stay with you. Managing money has been a problem your whole life right?
Yeah, I make all the wrong friends and trust all the wrong people.
I know from reading about you that it was a great loss to leave your ranch in South Africa and sell all your horses and go back to England. Are you bitter about that situation?
Leaving South Africa, selling your ranch …
Yeah, it was heartbreaking.
You’re in England now. Do you feel like you’re almost starting over in a way? I know you’ve had to do this at various points throughout your career.
Yeah. Well – heh-heh.
People say so many things about you, some pro, some con. What’s the major misconception?
Yeah, but there’s got to be some you can pick out?
Give me a for-instance.
That’s what I’m asking you: What’s something that’s been spread about you that you think is not true at all?
I’ve not got a clue. I don’t know. … I don’t know what people say about me, do I?
Well, what’s in the movie: Some of the things about your personality, your rocky relationship with various family members …
What about my relationship with my family?
It’s suggested that over the course of several marriages and children that it hasn’t been a very smooth ride.
How do you mean?
You’ve caused a fair amount of damage doing what you’ve done – from being with groupies, to not paying attention to your kids at certain times …
Who told you that?
Again, I’m getting this from people who spoke in the movie.
You’re talking about [my son] Kofi?
He would be one of them. He says some pretty nasty things about you.
Take what Kofi says with a pinch of salt.
Yet, there’s a clip of you and him drumming side-by-side, playing jazz at a polo club in Colorado. You seemed so happy together, doing that. And then later, not at all.
I don’t know ….
We never really had a problem. Not really. The things he said sometimes piss me off, but then I’d straighten him out.
Can I switch to polo for a moment, Ginger?
That was a big part of your life – you played it lots and called it as big an addiction as heroin.
I don’t do polo anymore.
Do you miss it?
Little bits of it, but I fortunately reached a point where I realized I wasn’t able to play to the standard I wanted to, so I had to stop.
All right: Let’s move that thought to drumming. I know you don’t play “Toad” anymore. You’ve got emphysema and have said you’re battling degenerative arthritis of the spine, and taking meds constantly. Have you lost much as a drummer?
Nothing! Well, stamina, yeah, but I’m still playing. I think I’m playing better than ever because of that. I still enjoy playing, if I’m playing with people where I enjoy what I’m hearing. I enjoy playing.
And now, a few words from Kofi…
Kofi Baker plays in a Cream tribute band called The Music of Cream. His band-mates are bassist Malcolm Bruce (Cream bassist Jack Bruce’s son) and guitarist Will Johns (Cream guitarist Eric Clapton’s nephew). I interviewed Kofi last year and we talked a bit about his father.
“I just broke my hand four days ago punching a wall,” he said. “I’m realizing I’m actually my dad! A lot younger, but I’m living as Ginger Baker at the moment which is really stupid.” [Kofi punched the wall because of noise complaints near where he was practicing.]
I said that when Ginger and I spoke, aside from the disinterest and latent antagonism, he mostly said “Wot?”
“Wot?! Wot?! Wot?!,” Kofi said, again laughing. “Don’t ask him a question that may be even slightly … you can’t ask him any questions, really. If you ask him about horses and polo [Ginger’s passions], he’s fine. … I’m so much like him in personality it’s really stupid. My mum used to say to me, ‘How are you so much like him when you weren’t around him?’ Because he left home when I was about six or seven. My sister’s saying ‘You’re fucking just like our dad!’ And I’m ‘Oh fuck, I don’t want to be like my dad.’”
I noted when I saw Ginger and Kofi in Beware of Mr. Baker interacting and playing drums together in Colorado it was rather touching.
“If you look at the film, that part in Colorado, when we sit down and play together, that was the best part of my life with him,” said Kofi. “I could connect with him on a level that I love and he loves. I’m baffled as to why he would throw that away.”
As to the relationship then (a year ago) …
“Unfortunately,” Kofi said, “I think he’s got to that point where it’s pointless talking to him. For a start, he can’t hear anything. Emailing him now, he’s just messed himself up health-wise so much. He’s been on heroin and morphine his whole life and I think it’s really taken its toll. I don’t really talk to him anymore. There was this Rolling Stone interview where I said ‘My dad’s dead to me.’ It wasn’t meant ‘Fuck off.’ It was meant like he’s kind of already gone. He’s past that point of no return.”
VIDEO: Beware of Mr. Baker – Full Movie