Traveling To the Heart Of Darkness To Find Ginger Baker
Ginger Baker, best known as the drummer for the bands Cream and Blind Faith, is considered by many to be the world’s greatest drummer. He’s revered by just about every other great drummers of our time. He’s also been described as a motherfucker, terrifying, bigger than life, mad, cantankerous, a force of nature, self destructive, and even indestructible. Journalist and filmmaker Jay Bulger spent months living with Ginger in South Africa to create the documentary “Beware of Mr. Baker.” Bulger recently came by the SiriusXM studios to talk with Ron Bennington about the new film. Excerpts from that interview appear below.
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Ron Bennington: It’s an unbelievable ride, this film.
Jay Bulger: Thank you. Well, that’s what it’s suppose to be – as opposed to something that will judge him as a person or anything. I’ve been telling people – buy the ticket, take the ride. And go for the experience.
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Jay Talks About Ginger Baker’s Talent
Ron Bennington: Well, the amazing thing to see about this with him – obviously he’s a complicated guy and he’s been involved in all this stuff, but there’s something about just slowing down everything and taking a look at him playing the drums – and not only are you not used to people that can play like this, you’re not used to people that are as good at anything – as he is at playing the drums.
Jay Bulger: He is just unbelievable. When you look at the people that he’s constantly compared to, I find there’s no comparison. But through making this film, and as you saw in the film – like his experiences playing and drum battling with Art Blakey, with Elvin Jones…I left out the Max Roach – Tony Williams M’Boom, when they went on tour because it was later in life. I couldn’t find a place for it. But seeing Ginger play with the jazz greats who were more…who are more of a solo…and more of an improvisational art form where they’re not just sitting back there as the time keeper. They’re an improvisational…individual. I was surprised and honored to see and learn and to take in this world of jazz drumming that I feel like he is a part of that kind of Mount Rushmore of sorts.
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Jay Talks About How Ginger Got His Start Playing Drums
Ron Bennington: I thought one of the most amazing things about Ginger is that when he actually just said from the beginning – I was just kind of blessed. There’s nothing else. I was blessed with this and that’s it and off we go. It’s a God given talent. No real work after that. He just jumped on stage once he figured out he had it.
Jay Bulger: And then he obviously busts his ass and proved it. And played in a bombed out basement of an abandoned house next door for years on end, just soloing by himself.
Ron Bennington: Just living it. Just living it.
Jay Bulger: Just living it. It wasn’t until he hooked up with Phil Seamen, the great English jazz drummer that…that guy just took him under his wing and introduced him to the African rhythms and became a father figure that he never had. And I think he said about 22 after meeting Phil, he just hit – not his peak, but from there, it was just experimenting back and forth. He had enter mastery.
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Drummers Featured in the Film and What they Think About Ginger
Ron Bennington: I want to bring up some of the drummers that talked about him. Neil Peart is in your movie. Nick Mason, Stewart Copeland, Carmine Appice, Lars Ulrich – and these guys are just basically saying – for us, really there’s one drummer where it all starts.
Jay Bulger: Ian Paice, Van Halen, Charlie Watts – the people that I interviewed who didn’t make… Jack DeJohnette, it was unbelievable for me even to sit there. And I obviously love his music and his story, but to sit there with his contemporaries and for them to all say – he’s just on a different level – was obviously gratifying and a lot of respect.
Jay Bulger: Everyone knew how important the story was and how outrageous he was. I mean he’s such a folkloric, mythical character in musical history that everyone’s kind of forgotten about. And I see these people probably sitting back at some dinner party and they being like – whatever happened to that Ginger Baker guy? And you know these people are having 2 hour long conversations of the crazy stories that some of which have made the film. I mean he was that guy. I mean Keith Moon was obviously also kind of mythically off his rocker and eccentric and so forth.
Ron Bennington: But drummers are. (John) Bonham always had that thing and it goes across the piece, but the fact of the matter is – yes, he lived like a crazy pirate or Viking, whatever – I mean you do a great graphic of everywhere he’s leaving is on fire. Because it really was him going around the world and the damage that he would leave behind him.
Jay Bulger: He’s a conqueror.
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Jay Talks About Ginger Baker Losing His Fortune on Polo Ponies
Ron Bennington: Well, the film starts of course – he’s in South Africa, away from everything else in the world. He’s gone through fortunes upon fortunes upon fortunes. Shut the door on everybody. You break into him. You start to tell this story, but there’s… and I don’t want to give away too much because I really would love people to come into it the way I did.
Jay Bulger: We watched him blow his Cream reunion fortune which was significant.
Ron Bennington: Unbelievable.
Jay Bulger: In 5 years, he blew $10 million. I don’t know what he made, but around there probably.
Ron Bennington: On polo horses. It’s just insane. But the fact of the matter is, there’s some kind of almost lack of respect for money because I believe – I was given the talent from God. There it is.
Jay Bulger: There’s that. And I always think that he thinks he’s not going to live to see it run out. (laughs) He constantly sits back and goes – Jesus, I’ve out lived….
Ron Bennington: Well, he should be dead.
Jay Bulger: He should have died during the making of this film. He should have died…I mean the guy smoked 5 packs of cigarettes a day. He’s 73. He’s not working out. He’s treated his body like shit for 60…you know, his entire life. So, I think that’s also as you said, but also I think there’s another aspect of it – of him not thinking that he’s going to live to see the end of the money. Which is hilarious.
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Jay Talks About Gingers Work With Cream and Blind Faith
Ron Bennington: We all know Cream. We all know Blind Faith. What always killed me about that – in my mind, all these years of being fans of those bands – I always thought Eric Clapton, he’s just one of those guys that walks away from things – blah, blah, blah and it seemed like he actually…Clapton was almost just a bystander in those bands – of all the madness that was taking place in those bands.
Jay Bulger: Well, I think in Cream especially – you had Jack Bruce and Ginger who had played together in their well-honed machine and I think they pushed him to the furthest limitations and extent of his capabilities of which maybe – some would say – he’s never recovered from. I definitely think as far as…I don’t know, as far as ingenuity – I don’t think he pushed the limits ever again like he did with Cream. And then in Blind Faith, they only recorded one album, so then they would go on tour and Ginger would do half an hour long drum solos to supplement for the lack of work that they had created together. And as a result, it did become the Ginger Baker show on the Blind Faith tours.
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Ginger and The Graham Bond Organisation
Ron Bennington: It’s amazing to see some of that stuff. Like in real time. Also, this Graham Bond Organisation- I would love to see that band. The clip that you showed – that was so fucking great in that film.
Jay Bulger: Yeah, they’re unbelievable.
Ron Bennington: And just jumps out and so different from all the stuff that not only that you see coming later.
Jay Bulger: No, nobody knows who they are. And they have so many…they have like 2 or 3 albums and they’re unbelievable. And just like Charlie Watts says in the movie – what the Beatles were to the public, Graham Bond Organisation was to the musicians – because they were just pushing the envelope on the blues level.
Ron Bennington: And they never came over to the states, right?
Jay Bulger: Never came over to the states. And just kind of imploded – drug problems. Ginger was the manager of the band. So, go figure as far as how organized they were. (laughs)
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Jay Talks About Ginger’s Early Drug Use
Ron Bennington: Well, there’s that thing too because just about the same time as like Dylan and the Beatles are finding out about pot – those guys, because they have a jazz background – had been shooting dope for years.
Jay Bulger: You saw in the movie, Ginger is injecting heroin combined with like lysergic acid. (laughs) And that was like ’64 or ’65. Imagine what he was doing when the hippie movement came around.
Ron Bennington: So he just went…yeah, he was just off as a kid.
Jay Bulger: A maniac. I mean that band is so special. I mean the music…I hope if there’s one thing of the music…obviously the Fela stuff is out there, but people have been able to experience Fela through the Broadway play and this resurrection, but the Graham Bond Organisation stuff is just un-fucking-believable.
Ron Bennington: It’s phenomenal. It’s phenomenal.
Jay Bulger: It’s really great and it’s been such an honor to be able to present that to people who have never heard it before.
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Ginger Breaks Jay’s Nose
Ron Bennington: Ginger did break your nose.
Jay Bulger: He did break my nose, yeah.
Ron Bennington: Took a cane to your face. (Jay laughs) Broke your nose. Which is a story that you’ll dine out on for the rest of your life.
Jay Bulger: I know. I’m so honored, right?
Ron Bennington: Yeah. I love that it had to catch back up to you to be honored though, like there really was a street thing.
Jay Bulger: Well, I as a man…I spent a lot of time living with him and he always threatened me. And I always wondered what I would do like if it happened. Obviously, I’m not going to hit him back. But I did want an apology and I got one. Like just as a man, I felt almost like – not even so much important for me, like I felt like he wouldn’t respect me if I didn’t get my apology. And I went in there and I demanded one and he did apologize. And then the police came and then his wife tried to stab me with a screwdriver and it was crazy, but more importantly I got my apology. And I don’t know – he maybe respects me, maybe he doesn’t, but the making of this film and my relationship with him – I think it took that antagonistic bullying back and forth to get the story that I did. And I think there’s a lot of people that if they tried to make this film – and not even self congratulatory-wise like I boxed until I was 8 years old, I boxed in numerous…New York Golden Gloves – I can take a punch to the face. And if maybe I hadn’t been that type of person – I think I would have gotten my feelings hurt along the way because this dude is just terrifying. Unbelievable. He would kick my doors down in the morning when I lived with him. And just be like in a terrible mood or whatever and he’d be like – (Ginger, British accent impression) “Yankee World Series! Fucking baseball! Who plays the game besides you cunts?? It’s called Rounders and it’s a girls game.” And then he would just slam the door. And I’d be like – that was funny-slash-fuck-it’s-terrifying. Maybe one day, he’ll take it further and break my nose with a cane. And he did. His bark is worse than his bite maybe.
Ron Bennington: And his bite is also pretty bad though.
Jay Bulger: Which is great though. I mean as you said, it took me a minute to realize how uplifting of a moment it maybe could have been because I did feel like a certain respect and I wasn’t editing. I felt like we went there – he was at the top – he had like 38 horses, he felt like he had all this money and then as the years went on in the making of this film – he was broke and it was like he didn’t think he could play the drums again. And I thought I was down…I thought I was documenting the downfall of the indestructible man. Which is not the fucking movie that I wanted to make.
Ron Bennington: Right. But it wouldn’t have been surprising to you if you went over there and he was dead one day or whatever.
Jay Bulger: No. But I mean it was like if I could have written the movie – I would be like – look, it looks like he’s going to go down again and then he breaks my nose with a cane and then he goes back on tour and back on the road. I mean that’s the story of his life. This story that you witness, this little microcosm, this chapter, this incarnation has happened a hundred times. And if there’s one thing you can’t discount about him, it’s his constitution. I mean the dude is an indestructible force from Charles Dickens’ asshole. I mean he really is. He’s just like – he’s Jack Palance in “Shane”. He is Kurtz at the end of the river. He is the baddest mother fucker on the planet. And he’s real. He’s non-fiction. It’s unbelievable.
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Comparing Ginger Baker to Other Drummers
Ron Bennington: The thing is whatever you say about his strange personality – the music that he’s played and the stuff they did – and to me, when at one point you bring up Bonham to Clapton and Clapton is – oh, please, don’t. You don’t compare. You don’t do that. The fact that anyone could even say about John Bonham – please, let’s not go to that.
Jay Bulger: And that’s not him because he played in a band with him – that’s Clapton as a musician.
Ron Bennington: Yeah. That’s just like as a musician.
Jay Bulger: And everyone said the same thing. And the New York Times review by A.O. Scott has set off like a shit storm of all these people being like – Keith Moon! Bonham! Like I beg of you and people to watch the movie and then talk about Keith Moon and Bonham and Ginger because it’s true. As Ginger said – if they were alive today, they would tell you the same thing. I mean he’s not in the same category. He’s not a rock drummer. He’s an everything. He’s a master. He’s like a UFC fighter. He can do boxing. He can do jazz. He can do R&B, rhythm and blues, everything. I mean the guy is a master – a well-honed musician of his craft – who went to Africa to perfect it.
Ron Bennington: To just keep going further and further. I think to most people and I’m one of them – that I look at music and I take in the whole thing, but I focus on melody and lyric and so most of us that aren’t musicians don’t pick up the whole thing. What I love about your film is that it forces you to sit down and look at this, but it does it in a way that it’s just happening. The fact is that I honestly think that I look at drumming differently than I did before. And I’ve worked in radio for a long long time. But just sitting down and watching this and going – oh yeah, that’s just amazing. When it came up that he’s like – people think that I’m fast, but there’s just 4 different beats on all the limbs, I’m like – what? Can that happen? Can someone even do that?
Jay Bulger: Right. Well, he’s a polyrhythmic drummer. I think that’s where you separate him from other people that you would compare him to. I mean the time signature of Africa and the time signatures in his playing or…I mean look at “Sunshine” – like how he reversed it. And the stuff that he did was just so innovative and the sound…I think most importantly about his drumming that no one can discount is if you put a hundred drummers on a track or next to each other – you always know how to pick out Ginger because he is the ultimate individual on his instrument. Like just his acute tuning to the way he hits it to the way his relationship with that instrument…I mean they’re one. It’s an extension of his body, which obviously isn’t an original statement, but he’s really the one and only when it comes to his own sound. There’s no one as inimitable. Inimitable.
Ron Bennington: “Beware of Mr. Baker”. It’s really a ride. Best of luck to you with everything, man. I really appreciate you stopping by.
Jay Bulger: Thanks so much for having me on the show. And I’m so glad you guys like it and I really hope everyone gets to see it. Because it’s important. Because we live in a day and age where there aren’t people like him playing.
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Follow Jay on twitter @jaybulger and visit the films website bewareofmrbaker.com.
You can hear this interview in its entirety exclusively on SiriusXM satellite radio. Not yet a subscriber? Click here for a free trial subscription.
You can learn more about Ron Bennington’s two interview shows, Unmasked and Ron Bennington Interviews atRonBenningtonInterviews.com.