When talk of classic rock drummers turns to Keith Moon and John Bonham, I smile and nod. What’s the point in arguing? They were both, in their distinctive ways, incredible—and in their early deaths, immortal legends. Who knows what their careers would have looked like had either lived past 32? But truly, for the all-around breadth of his influence, for the amount of respect he gained in musical circles around the world, no greater classic rock drummer ever lived, in my opinion, than Ginger Baker, may he finally rest in peace.
The famously restless, violently cantankerous drummer died yesterday at age 80, outliving most of his peers, despite living twice as hard for well over twice as long as many of them—a feat of strength we might impute to his athletic physical stamina and frightening will.
Like Moon and Bonham, he combined raw power with serious jazz chops. (Baker insisted he never played rock drums at all.) After his polyrhythmic pummeling defined the sound of supergroups Cream and Blind Faith, he burned out and moved to Africa to find sobriety and new sounds.
Baker traveled the continent with Fela Kuti to learn its rhythms, recording live with Kuti’s band in ’71. Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen remarked that he understood “the African beat more than any other Westerner.” (See him jamming in Lagos further down.) Baker’s discography includes classic records with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce, Kuti, Hawkwind, and other legends. He traveled the world playing drums for over fifty years. Why, then, did he have such a low profile for much of his later life? A 2012 documentary, Beware of Mr. Baker, based on a 2009 Rolling Stone article, offers some answers.
Baker’s serious drug addiction and terrifying personality alienated nearly everyone around him. The documentary opens with an endorsement from another prickly and unlikable red-haired character, John Lydon (formerly Johnny Rotten), whose Public Image Limited is yet another project Baker elevated with his playing. “He helped me rise,” says Lydon, and Baker would no doubt agree. He was not a modest man. He was, by most accounts, a right bastard, through and through, all of his life.
But he was too contrarian to be dismissed as a mere narcissist. As a musician, for example, he always thought of himself as a supporting player. “I never had a style,” he said in 2013. “I play to what I hear, so whoever I’m playing with, what they play has a great influence on what I play, because I listen to what people are playing.” His skill at destroying personal relationships was matched by his ability for forming deep, awe-inspiring, if short-lived, musical connections. It’s a dichotomy many drummers inspired by him have struggled to reconcile—taking lessons from Baker the drummer but not from Baker the man.
How do we separate the man from his art? Why try? His mad pirate life makes for an epic saga, and Baker is a wildly exciting main character. He had early ambitions of becoming a professional cyclist. Though they didn’t pan out, he always retained the characteristics: he was both fiercely competitive and fiercely collaborative. Later he picked up an even more rarified team sport—polo—keeping a stable of horses on his gated South African ranch, where he lived in his old age like a colonial ex-baron in a Nadine Gordimer novel. (He eventually had to sell the spread and move back to London.)
Baker was never one to make apologies, so his fans need not make any on his behalf. See him in some classic performances above—at the top, soloing after an interview, at Cream’s Royal Albert Hall farewell concert; then playing a solo in a Cream reunion in that same venue almost forty years later. After footage of him jamming in Lagos in 1971, we see what the internet calls the “BEST DRUM SOLO EVER,” further up. Just above, meet the man himself, in all his unrepentant glory, and hear from those who knew him best, in the full documentary, Beware of Mr. Baker.