Published in the Gaudie, Spring 2013
Ginger Baker, once voted the musician least likely to survive the 1960s, is a man as famous for his wildly difficult and unmanageable temperament and scorched-earth emotional policy as for his bewitching, revolutionary talents as a drummer. He has always been more reminiscent of a scribbled Ralph Steadman sketch (or Animal from The Muppets, whose creation he inspired) than a real human being.
Beware of Mr Baker starts as it means to go on, with the film’s director Jay Bulger being smashed in the face with the cane of the irascible Mr Baker, the grumpiest old man in a long musical tradition stretching from Lou Reed to John Lydon. Just as likely to roll his eyes with unconcealed disdain and call his interviewer a “dickhead” as to actually answer the questions, Baker is now rotund and mostly confined to a reclining chair, chain-smoking and guzzling from his morphine inhaler. This newfound stillness is quite at odds with the iconically cadaverous, flame-haired, mad-eyed, kaftan-clad public image of him from the 60s, when his rolling pupils and rhythmically independent limbs made him seem like some kind of super colour-saturated human thunderstorm.
Born in Lewisham, South London (in fact, he is my schoolmate’s great-uncle), Baker has wound his way around the world, setting up a drum studio in revolutionary 1970s Nigeria with Fela Kuti, crossing the Sahara alone in his Range Rover, holing up in the Italian hills in an attempt to get off heroin, starring as himself in a 1980s cop show; always leaving behind him a trail of destruction and recrimination. Bulger’s film focuses on the wild old man who grows out of a feral young one, and on what happens to the members of the 27 club who never quite managed to die. It is a portrait which manages to be honestly critical but also rather tender and admiring: a hilarious, sympathetic depiction of a talented but deeply flawed man.