Ginger Baker, a life unmatched


This is not a proper eulogy for Ginger Baker.

I didn’t know him as a person, I never saw him perform live and I never had the opportunity to interact with him. All I know is the music as it was recorded, the interviews as they were given and the remarks given within both. All of that was tremendous, for better or ill, and it all left a mark.

And when I heard he had passed away at the age of 80, a lot of thoughts and memories and emotions flooded back. It was vivid.

I think a lot about the early days of my own music and rock fandom. There was the time devoted to the alternative icons of the day, and then the aftermath of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and from there, the hard rock torch bearers who paved the way for all that were to come later: Led Zeppelin, the Who, Pink Floyd and so on.

Far unworthy of a mere “so on” categorization was Cream. A powerhouse of a trio that took the blues and turned the format on its head, took the music and supercharged it to the point that music changed. It was so volatile a mixture — Jack Bruce’s thundering bass, Eric Clapton’s blazing guitar and Baker’s voluminous drums — that the group barely survived two years. But if you live by the ripple you caused rather than the length of life, then Cream is still reverberating 50 years beyond their breakup.

My first thought of Ginger Baker is always the intro and the frantic following 10 minutes of “N.S.U.” from Live Cream, a record I’ve loved so long I nearly did a backflip when I found an original copy at a record shop in Paris last winter. His double bass pounding and immaculate-if-frantic jazz timing throughout the piece makes for one of the more frenetic listens of the entire genre. Bruce’s bass is bouncing and pulsating. Clapton’s guitar is scorching and its most unhinged, the freest and wildest his playing would be throughout his career.

But listen back through this song, it’s Baker who is literally pounding this thing into the listener’s psyche. While Bruce rumbles under the register and Clapton leans his bodyweight into his pedal board to conjure up his brilliant, psychedelic tone, Baker is completing near-super-human feats behind the kit to keep this entire enterprise moving in a positive direction. He’s a whirling dervish of legs and arms tucked beneath a mess of curly red hair and assuredly a cigarette or two, all working to make sure this music reaches the frantic heights it deserves to reach. It’s inspiring. It was also unsustainable.

It does not take much scholarship into the life of Cream to know that this particular combination of brilliant musical minds was particularly combustable. Bruce and Baker were at each other’s throats before the band began, and Clapton had far too many options to just sit back and allow all this to continue without some semblance of change.

So Cream folded. Baker and Clapton briefly continued alongside Steve Winwood and Rich Grech as Blind Faith, but that was soon over. So too was Ginger Baker’s Air Force, his rock/jazz interpretation of the traveling big bands of the 1940s whose playing was inspired, if not necessarily economically wise.

And thus begins Baker’s tenure in the wilderness. The 2012 documentary Beware of Mr. Baker is particularly informative in this instance, highlighting Baker’s travels through Africa and, in the meantime, also documenting his inevitable run-ins with the law, disgruntled family members and a music community unwilling to deal with his abrasive nature. This is not at all a happy story of music genius and inspiration — it’s clear that Baker grated on everyone who got close, and that his lasting interpersonal legacy was one that left more scars than soft memories. He was difficult to the extreme, and often made poor choices with regards to his relationships.

All this contributed to the man we are without today. Save for a stint in Chriss Goss’ Masters of Reality in the early 1990s and his jazz tours in the years following the documentary, Baker spent a good chunk of his professional life in relative obscurity — well known, but not for any of his percussive work of the decades following Cream. Watch the documentary and take note of Clapton’s face when he’s forced to recall Baker as a person rather than this larger-than-life character, one who wielded so much influence and was so often so, so mad at Bruce that it still leaves one of the few true rock and roll icons of our time clamoring to get it together when his name comes up. Clapton struggled to summarize Baker appropriately. Baker himself said that by keeping him alive against his will, god was punishing him for his enduring wickedness

But those years of pain obscurity aren’t where Baker’s story stopped. A brief reunion with Cream at the Royal Albert Hall was rightly praised as a most welcome comeback. Watch those performances now, and, in the place of the frantic band of musicians in their early twenties is the work of three well-honed professionals, confident in their musical abilities — abilities that surpass most if not all comers — and their chemistry together after more than 35 years apart. They play with passion and precision and inspiration. If it’s not the carnage by volume of Cream’s original stint, it’s a statelier, more refined declaration of prominence. It’s brilliant, and in the current moment, necessary.

Bruce died in 2014, nine years after the Cream reunion, at the age of 71 following a bout of liver disease. His status as one of the great bass players in rock or blues or jazz was never questioned, even if his career alone never matched Cream’s heights. He was missed and will continued to be missed. Clapton has carried on, as he has since 1968, playing his guitar in homage to Robert Johnson and the forbearers of blues in an effort to bring the music to a larger audience. His hits and misses can be debated but his standing cannot.

And the anchor of all of this was Baker. He was far from a perfect person. But he formed one half of one of the greatest rhythm sections rock and roll will ever see. And he was never boring. In spite of all the issues and all the complications surrounding the man who was so positively human, the music world will always miss that kind of spirit when it’s gone.

Oct.7, 2019

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