I’m a rock drummer, OK? Not a great one, certainly, but I’ve had my moments.
But until I saw Jay Bulger’s terrific documentary about the drummer Ginger Baker, “Beware of Mr. Baker” (on Netflix), I never truly understood the concept of “time.”
Or “toyme,” as the Cockney Baker pronounces it in the film. Or often spits it out:
Interviewer: What did you like about (any musician from his past whom he respected)?
Ginger Baker: TOYME! HE HAD TOYME!
Interviewer: So, why didn’t you like working with (any musician from his past whom he didn’t think much of)?
Ginger Baker: HE HAD NO TOYME!
Oh, sure, I understood about rhythm, about keeping a beat, and all the cool things one might do within the confines of that notion.
But I never really understood that “toyme” itself could be a musical medium, at least in Baker’s hands. I’m going to have a hard time (heh, unintentional) explaining what I mean by that, probably. But basically, this guy, Ginger Baker, seemed to be able to take time and subdivide it so that the component pieces themselves were music.
In other words, I heard Ginger Baker play things in this movie, that if you converted them to a series of identical clicks—rather than a series of sounds made by a drum kit—those clicks in and of themselves would be musical. It’s like painting with math instead of color.
That didn’t really help, did it? Oh, well. Listen to Cream’s White Room in the video above. Ignore the overly grandiose parts. Listen for how the drums seem to propel the music forward while simultaneously seeming to be slowing musical time down altogether.
That’s not really a great illustration of what I’m talking about either, but it is a great illustration of a rock song with a really cool fucking drum part.
So, yeah, I knew Ginger Baker was supposed to be this incredible rock drummer, and I knew that he was in Cream, the first rock “supergroup,” and I knew that I grew up hearing a few Cream songs, like “White Room,” and “Sunshine of Your Love,” on the radio and that the drums sounded really cool. And I guess part of me always wondered, if this guy was supposed to be so amazing, why didn’t he do much that I have heard of since then?
Well, one answer is that he did a bunch of stuff afterward, and a lot of it was really cool and worthy of listening to, but it just never came up on my (limited and weak) musical radar. I mean, sure, I’d heard of Ginger Baker’s Air Force—which AllMusic.com says was ”arguably the pinnacle of the legendary drummer’s achievements of the 1960s”—but I never sought their music out.
Another answer is that he did a bunch of music afterward that was perfectly awful.
And the ultimate answer is what unifies the first two answers—he was incredibly difficult to deal with. When he made really cool and worthy music, it wasn’t for very long, because every group he was in would implode within a short time. When he made perfectly awful music, it was because the only people left who would play with him specialized in the perfectly awful genre.
Dude was difficult. Incredible, once-in-a-generation talent. Uncompromising personality. Hardcore heroin junkie. Hell, combine any two of the three traits and you get “difficult.” Combine them all and you get a human Category 5 hurricane.
In all sincerity, after I finished watching this documentary, I thought, man, I am glad this movie got made. Not only was I glad the story was told, I was glad it was told this way.
Just to point out a couple of things I learned that were especially gratifying/mindblowing: One, the movie directly confronts a question that I’d wondered about, which is, if Ginger Baker is so great, what sets him apart from and above other celebrated rock drummers, like The Who’s Keith Moon or Zeppelin’s John Bonham? (Answer: just about everything aside from the fact that they all used wooden sticks as part of their jobs.)
And, two, Ginger Baker sat in regularly with Fela Kuti’s house band. In Lagos. In 1972. And kicked ass. (Fela Kuti was, well, look it up.)
In closing, I’ll point out that one of last year’s heavily hyped indie narrative films was “Whiplash,” about a young jazz drummer and how the pursuit of musical excellence compromised his humanity. I liked it fine. But, oh, boy, does “Beware of Mr. Baker” cover the same territory in a more compelling way. And it really happened.
If you are interested in stories about creativity and creative people, or if, like me, you just always wondered, WTF with Ginger Baker?, you’ll enjoy this film.
This post has been corrected to reflect the fact that Ginger Baker is not dead, which, I have to admit, was a pretty major factual error.