Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Beware of a Perplexing Legacy

I thought in honour of Ginger Baker's 74th birthday (Aug. 19) I'd post a short review of an excellent documentary on the cream of 60s drummers.

Take the power of John Bonham, the orchestral sense of Keith Moon, the "This is how I hear it" creativity of Max Roach, the attitude of a junk yard dog, and stick it all inside a massive ego and -- beware -- you have Ginger Baker.

Of course I'm referring to the image one gets of this iconic drummer as revealed in the documentary "Beware of Mr. Baker" by independent filmmaker Jay Bulger, which won the Grand Jury prize for best documentary at the South by Southwest film festival in 2012.

The film presents a quick review of Baker's career, and retraces much of his musical path both before and after Cream. Some scenes use cartoonish-yet-tasteful illustrations to set the mood. There are plenty of the requisite clips of past performances and interviews with associates and admirers. I believe it was 'the Fonz' who said "Live hard, live fast, you leave a good looking corpse". Not so Mr. Baker, who has certainly lived hard and fast. Years of smoking and substance abuse have left Ginger looking only slightly less like a corpse than Keith Richards. In one scene, he's shown on oxygen.

One has to ask whether Baker was always as acerbic as we see in the film, and whether he abused those around him the way he abuses the film's maker. Bulger keeps coming back to Ginger's upbringing and the loss of his father (a casualty of WWII) at a young age. It seems Peter Edward Baker had to learn to use his fists early on, and that appears to have stuck with him. Eric Clapton summed Baker up rather interestingly. He felt it would be too dangerous to be around him, but would 'always be there for him' -- a substantial tribute.

If you've not made up your mind about Ginger Baker -- the drummer or the person -- this film might help. Suffice it to say, he had a mighty impact on drums, drumming and the rock milieu. He was not the first to use a 14-piece drum set, not the first to use double bass drums, and certainly not the first to carry a jazz influence onto the stage. But his influence on drummers of the time and since is unmistakable and wide-spread.

What I found most interesting is that, despite all his bluster, Ginger Baker doesn't appear to be egotistical about his playing. Perhaps that's an important part of the formula that made him a mega-super-star.

Beware of Mr. Baker
Writer/Director:  Jay Bulger
Producer: Andrew S. Karsch, Fisher Stevens

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