He may be alive, if clearly in bad health, and suffering badly from arthritis, lighting cigarette after cigarette and feeding himself morphine with a mask like Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. But drummer Ginger Baker is essentially from another time, a time when a musician could be talented and self-indulgent too. Do all sorts of drugs and still get up of an evening and do a fine job of work, completely in time - nay, leading his fellow players - in an intricate jam at a rock arena near you.
Nowadays, the bland pop world with its career opportunism bears no relation whatsoever to what Baker and his ilk were doing in the nights of their prime almost fifty years ago. In the documentary, Eric Clapton says that Cream did what they did without any thought of commerciality or ambition. Try taking those two elements away from most of the acts who have, God help us - “made it” - nowadays and see where you get.
But Cream weren’t pop stars, you query. Yes, but in terms of their standing and following, particularly in America, they might as well have been pop stars. Same as Jimi Hendrix was a pop star who performed Voodoo Chile on Top of the Pops. It’s just not like that anymore, and anyway, why would it be so anyway? All of the rock moves have been done.
Beware of Mr Baker would seem to suggest that the “prime” of which we speak, was a small window between 1966 and 1968. Through a two-year frenzy, Cream soared magisterially above most everybody else. The two other members of this supercharged, fire-cracker of a band were bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce and the aforementioned Clapton, lead guitar and vocals. The music was a head-spinning blend of psychedelia and thrills and spills of busy, energetic free-form jazz rock. Some think it all rather indulgent in retrospect - many would beg to differ and Cream reformed for a series of concerts at the Albert Hall back in 2005 which were warmly received.
In the movie, Jack Bruce quips that he rather liked Baker’s long drum solos because he could wander off and have a smoke. Eric Clapton couldn’t handle the endless fights between the other two and was reduced to tears more than once by their aggro. Baker, in fact once pulled a knife on Bruce which curiously didn’t annoy the Scot as much as his band-mate’s general attitude.
Jay Bulger, a young Rolling Stone writer, made this movie and you have to admire his sheer guts and determination. Baker actually hits him on the nose with his walking cane and draws blood. This occurs as Bulger prepares to depart from Baker’s home at the time, a gated ranch in South Africa (he has since sold the ranch.) The blow is by way of warning the film-maker not to go back to England or America and interview all the family. Baker has been married four times - three of the wives speak, although the current wife says a mere one word in the movie that speaks volumes about Ginger’s abilities as step-father to her children. Family also includes his two daughters and son from the first marriage and his sensible-looking, matronly sister who says she learned to control her own ‘Baker temper.’
Recovered from the blow across the nose, and duly ignoring the drummer, Bulger goes and talks to everybody concerned and makes a very fine movie in the process. He also talks to Carlos Santana and to Free/ Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke, to Stevie Winwood to Charlie Watts and various others.
There could be no similar film about Clapton, who was never the kind of ostentatious London geezer or wide boy that Baker could be. Clapton tended to grow cold and austere in interviews when he was going through - or trying to shake off - drug and alcohol addiction. Ginger, on the other hand, has railed and roared and cursed and sniggered his way through his almost 74 years, no matter what’s going on in his chaotic, wilfully crazed life. However, there are moments in this film too where the mask slips and you see the insecure kid who looked for father figures in the jazz drummers he idolised, people like Art Blakey and Max Roach.
Towards the close, Bulger asks the drummer to let him see his eyes behind the defensive shades he wears throughout most of the interview. Reluctantly, Baker takes off the glasses and you see deep desperation. Then as the credits roll, Bulger teases him and asks him to shed even just one tear - “this is a Hollywood movie” - which only evinces derision from his subject. But there are tears in earlier footage when he talks of Blakey and Roach.
Somehow the image that endures for this writer is the little boy crying and running after his father who had just boarded a train in London to go back to the Second World War in which he would lose his life. Somehow, young Ginger knew he would never see him again. Dad left him a letter that was not to opened until he was 14. In the letter, Baker senior told his son to never be afraid to use his fists, that they were the two best friends he would ever have.