How do we want our rock legends? Reformed and philosophical like Eric Clapton? Still evolving like Neil Young or Robert Plant? Or irascible and unrepentant like Ginger Baker, the erstwhile drummer of the late sixties’ super groups Cream and Blind Faith, and the subject of Jay Bulger’s erratically interesting new documentary?
Baker is, for classic hard-rock fans, a patron saint of progressive rock, metal and all things associated with maximum percussive heaviosity, but he’s also blessed with the “questing spirit of a true artist,” as Rush’s Neil Peart puts it. Unlike fellow drummers Keith Moon or John Bonham, though, Baker was a bandleader and composer who could swing with jazz players and was open to experimental collaborations, from jazz to punk to Afro-beat. Before Fela became a clap-along Broadway musical, Baker moved to Nigeria to play and record with Fela Kuti, the musical pioneer and political firebrand.
Bulger, the New York pugilist-turned-model-turned-journalist, originally wrote about Baker for Rolling Stone in 2009, when he pursued the rock legend to a farm in South Africa, where Baker was living with his fourth, much younger wife, children and several dozen polo ponies. In the documentary’s opening scene, it’s clear the warning of the title (from a sign on the gate of Baker’s South African compound) is no idle threat. The movie begins with the director attempting to hop in his car and escape from his subject, but not before Baker uses his metal cane to open a gash across the bridge of the filmmaker’s nose. What set him off was Bulger’s plan to talk to Baker’s family and fellow musicians before making his film.
Before this incident, Baker proved a generous, if self-serving, subject. His extended interview forms the spine of the film, told through many cigarettes and profanities, augmented with archival footage from TV shows and a previous documentary on Baker’s African sojourn. There is also some scratchy animation depicting Baker’s voyages as a Viking ship, pillaging its way from England to Nigeria, Italy, the United States and South Africa, leaving flames in its wake. His history reads like a rap sheet: slashing band member Jack Bruce with a knife; a two-decade long heroin addiction; marrying his daughter’s boyfriend’s sister; putting families through serial bankruptcies, neglecting and rejecting his now adult children.
There’s no attempt at psychological explanations here. Born in 1939 in London, Baker was raised fatherless (his dad was killed in the war), with the Blitz as his formative aural backdrop. He discovered drumming in his early teens and shortly after turned pro. While devoted to jazz drummers such as Art Blakey, Elvin Jones and Max Roach, he made a living playing the flourishing British blues rock scene, where he met his favourite frenemy and collaborator in Cream, the bassist Jack Bruce.
Bruce, along with Clapton, and later Blind Faith’s Steve Winwood still sound wary and concerned when talking about Baker, as baffled by his personal destructiveness as they are impressed by his musicianship. Support for Baker’s musical awesomeness is offered by a succession of rock drummers – Peart, Max Weinberg, Carmine Appice, Stewart Copeland, Lars Ulrich – but it’s more about excited teenaged first impressions than discussions of drum rudiments or double-bass technique. Throughout, Bulger tries, unconvincingly, to paint Baker as a difficult but admirable rebel. The lingering question in the documentary is whether his musical accomplishments were worth the trail of damage. One of Baker’s collaborators, former Sex Pistol and punk moralist, John (Johnny Rotten) Lydon gets to the heart of it when he declares: “I cannot question anyone with end results that perfect.”
Of course, the end results depend on who is adding up which columns. Too often, Baker’s road to excess does not seem to have led to the palace of wisdom, but to a familiar dead end.