Ginger Baker is furious. The legendary 70-year-old drummer brandishes a cane as he stomps across his South African yard toward a documentary filmmaker named Jay Bulger. Baker leans through the open door of Bulger’s Toyota 4Runner, angling the cane toward him.
“You’re really going to hit me with a [expletive] cane?” says Bulger, sounding incredulous and provocative at the same time.
After all, there’s a cinematographer next to him, with the camera rolling.
“I [expletive] well am!” Baker barks. “I’m going to [expletive] put you in hospital!” The former Cream drummer thrusts the cane forward. There’s an “Oof!” from Bulger, then Baker straightens up — he’s wearing sunglasses that can’t hide his wide-eyed glare — and storms into his house.
Bulger looks at his reflection in the car’s visor mirror. Blood trickles from his nose. “Ginger Baker just hit me in the [expletive] nose,” he says matter-of-factly.
The altercation, painful as it is, isn’t a total waste. After all, it makes for great footage. “In my mind, I’m thinking, ‘God, this is pretty awesome,’ ” recalls the cinematographer, Eric Robbins.
And thus was born the opening scene of “Beware of Mr. Baker,” the first documentary by Bulger, a Washington native who, at age 30, already has been a boxer, an international fashion model, a music video director and a freelance writer. The movie has scored a coveted premiere slot at the South by Southwest film festival later this week. Bulger hopes it will kick-start his career and, maybe, revive interest in Baker’s.
“Ginger Baker is the greatest drummer of all time,” Bulger says.
And, “He’s a really strange character.”
Ginger Baker is known as one of the most powerful, innovative drummers in the history of rock. The flamboyant showman is credited with: helping to popularize the rock drum solo with his bombastic, polyrhythmic “Toad”; being among the first rock musicians to realize the percussive potential of African tribal music; being one of the original superstar drummers.
His musical career began when he was 17 in London, playing in traditional jazz bands and then in Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated. Before Baker and bassist Jack Bruce joined Eric Clapton to create the blues-based Cream, they both played in the eponymous Graham Bond Organization, well-respected among its musical contemporaries. After Cream, Baker barged his way into Blind Faith, a high-profile collaboration with Clapton and Steve Winwood that lasted only a year. Soon after, the drummer started Ginger Baker’s Air Force, a band that combined his rock and jazz influences. A year later, Baker headed to Lagos, Nigeria, where he jammed with Afro beat pioneer Fela Kuti in his quest to learn African rhythms.
“I knew about things like Fela because of Ginger Baker,” says bassist and music producer Bill Laswell. “Ginger was the one who made me think we can actually go to these places and play with people. It’s no different than going to Detroit or Chicago, it’s just a little farther.”
Baker’s passion and talent, however, were often overshadowed by his heroin use and fits of lunacy. By now, he’s on his fourth marriage and has fled as many countries — England, Nigeria, Italy and America — because of problems with drugs or taxes or immigration. Abrasive, difficult and bitter over the small share he receives in royalties for Cream’s music (most of the writing credits had gone to Clapton and Bruce), he cut many family ties and burned many musical bridges. This may explain why Baker is often passed over for the likes of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham and Rush’s Neil Peart when it comes to “greatest drummer” compilations, such as a 2011 Rolling Stone piece that ranked Baker ninth out of 10. It’s a point not lost on Baker. “Ginger Baker: Hellraiser,” his 2010 book, is subtitled “The Autobiography of the World’s Greatest Drummer.”
By the time Jay Bulger came into his life, Baker was an angry, solitary, pain-ridden, morphine-sucking relic, ripe for rediscovery.
Like Baker, who coincidentally shares the same height, 6 feet 4 inches, and birthday, Aug. 19, Bulger had boundless creative energy.
“He was just someone who really needed to have freedom of expression,” says mother Nancy Bulger. “He was creative right from the start. He liked to experiment. He liked to try different things.”
As an 8-year-old, he’d set up a lemonade stand in front of his family’s three-story rowhouse at 34th and N streets in Georgetown, with an antique cash register and sign that read “Fresh Squeezed.” Then, he’d sell lemonade made from a mix, with a few lemon seeds thrown in to feign authenticity. Jay would smile innocently at the sidewalk traffic, making $200 on the best days. When he outgrew the routine, he had his brother, James, who is four years younger, man the stand.
“I paid him $2 an hour,” Jay says with a chuckle. “Which he thought was a lot.”