“Bonham had technique, but he couldn’t swing a sack of shit,” says great drummer and sack of shit Ginger Baker to interviewer Jay Bulger. This is one of many aperçus in Bulger’s documentary Beware of Mr. Baker, which he began to shoot after a successful 2009 profile of Baker for Rolling Stone magazine.
Raised in London during the Blitz, Baker, who first distinguished himself as a jazz drummer, became a member of many hugely influential ’60s Brit rock acts, including the Graham Bond Organisation, Cream, and Blind Faith; this period is represented with copious vintage footage in which Baker appears behind the traps, a carrottop with a mad, Mephistophelean grin (or tumbling off his stool during the nadir of his long heroin addiction). Although he still prefers to be regarded as a jazzman, Baker’s influential syncopated double-bass drumming has sometimes singled him out as a father of heavy metal—an honor he declines. “The birth of heavy metal should have been aborted,” Baker says shortly after recollecting the botched abortion of his first child.
Breaking away—from families, from countries, from bands—is Baker’s signature move, made viable by his unique, tempestuous talent. When Bulger asks Baker if he regretted leaving people behind in his move to Nigeria in the 1970s, Baker responds, “What people I’d left behind?” Yet that move allowed Baker to play with Fela Kuti and set up the first 16-track studio in Lagos—giving some credence to Cyril Connolly’s dictum that “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” With his shark-like restlessness, Baker displays “the questing spirit of a true artist,” as Rush’s Neil Peart says, one of a gallery of celebrity drummers—including Lars Ulrich—who stop in to give their two bits so that Baker won’t be the worst person in his movie.
Inasmuch as there is an attempt to explain Baker’s fecklessness, it’s attributed to the death of his father in World War II, leading Ginger to seek father figures—and acceptance—in great jazz drummers. Bulger, who first appears taking a poke in the nose from cranky Baker’s cane, often appears interested in indulging an inscribed audience who enjoy vicarious thrill at rock-‘n’-roll recklessness, his tsk-tsk “That’s our Ginger” attitude epitomized in the chuckling way in which he refers to “the indomitable Mr. Baker” in his voiceover or in the interstitial cartoons that visualize Ginger’s ramblings as the voyage of a pillaging Viking ship, leaving flames in its wake from England to Nigeria to Italy to the States and finally to South Africa, where during the time of Bulger’s shooting Baker is residing with his fourth wife and her children. The film’s prologue, 18 months later, informs us that Baker, his fortune exhausted for the -nth time by his passion for breeding polo ponies, has sold his South African property and returned to touring. There is no word on his family.
In spite of Bulger’s errors of tone, the movie stands as an engaging tussle with the question of what is permissible with the excuse of art. One former collaborator of Baker’s, John Lydon (a/k/a Rotten), comes up with the most eloquent absolution: “I cannot question anyone with end results that perfect.”