The article wasn’t enough for Ginger, as he then demanded I become a documentary filmmaker: “So they can hear the music, idiot!” I then directed Beware of Mr. Baker, our award-winning film, to which he responded, “You can take your awards and shove them up your ass!” I owe him so much. I’m glad he will no longer be in pain.
As Ginger Baker always said: God is punishing me for my past wickedness by keeping me alive and in as much pain as he can. Since the day I met him, it’s all he ever talked about. He didn’t want to end up like Elvin Jones, a shadow of himself, dying on stage, dropping notes, getting bad reviews. But like most every boxing champion, he got back into the ring, with a catheter bag, supporting his family the only way he knows — playing the drums.
Ginger Baker’s body was failing him, and it was impossible at 80 years old to play the double bass drums with the intensity he demanded of himself. And yet he did. Up until last spring.
At the expense of money, relationships, and his career, Ginger Baker lived a life without compromise — or consequence. He was a man of his word. He did whatever he wanted to do. He said whatever he wanted to say. He never held back. And if you crossed him, you might be challenged to a duel. He was the real-life Colonel Kurtz birthed from Charles Dickens’ asshole. He was uncomfortable with being too old to beat up Yankees. He didn’t like playing anything less than perfect.
Ginger Baker was most at home in Africa, and I like to remember him in his twilight, where he planned to live out his dying day.
Every morning in Tulbagh, South Africa, nestled in the Witzenberg Mountains, he would wake up, ride his 36 polo ponies with his stable hands around his property, his polo field, only to dismount with a quip to yours truly: “You fell off the stupid tree and hit every branch on the way down!”
He was the greatest shit talker who ever lived. He had an attractive young wife, six dogs, and TV to watch football and the History channel all day long.
“I can’t be killed,” he would frequently say, before retiring to bed, realizing he might outlive his Cream reunion riches.
He was possessed by demons. PTSD. His life was defined by the sounds of the Nazis bombing his home and the moment he stood on the tracks as a young boy, watching his dad go off on a train to be killed in WWII. He never wanted to be left behind again.
He didn’t suffer fools well, and drama followed him wherever he went. He relished it. He was always in a dispute, a disaster of his own making. He was terrible with money. He gave the teller at the bank he was dating power of attorney. He flew in black Nigerian players to a whites-only polo club. The fistfights in town kept him alive.
Ginger loved his animals more than humans, and when the assassins and voodoo priests cut his horses’ tendons in the night, they started an all-consuming conflict. Ginger would frequently walk out into the dark South African nights, yelling at God and the baboons, as he beckoned them to grant him his final blaze of glory. He was a divisive, calculated and righteous recalcitrant who challenged anyone or anything that fell at odds with his ethos; and before you knew it, Ginger had alienated himself in yet another part of the world.
I think he was the greatest drummer, ever. His life’s work covered so many bands, genres and continents where he burned other bridges and battled. What is indisputable is that he had perfect time, and he always got in the last word.
Take my nose, for example. Years of boxing had left it crooked. When I was leaving South Africa, we got into an argument, and he smashed me in the face with a steel cane. I went to the local doctor who gave me a mirror: It was broken, for sure. And yet, it was perfectly straightened. Ginger Baker fixed my nose.
Like Kurtz, he just wanted to be taken out. Instead, he would have to flee South Africa in 2013, returning to England, broke. He would only take his one Dalmatian, Jakie, with him.
The last time I saw him, in 2014, he was playing at B.B. King’s Blues Club. He knew I was there, and he chain-smoked through yet another drum solo, flipping his cigarette in the air, smashing it into the audience with his drum stick in my direction. After the show, as he sucked into a nebulizer, he admitted the Cream Reunion Concerts at MSG in 2005 should have been his last. His osteoarthritis and emphysema had made it impossible to play two sets a day. His hands and feet shaked and quivered. He didn’t want to be seen like this. I know, because he told me so in his hotel room as he threw a Coca-Cola bottle at my head. It missed by a foot. “I can’t even whack you, you weak Yankee-cunt!”
In recent years, he would experience hardship and poverty. Ginger was always quick to thank God for Eric Clapton’s financial support. He loved and resented Jack Bruce to his dying day for not giving him the fair share of royalties he thought he deserved from Cream, the band he started. He had open-heart surgery. He was suffering from early onset dementia. You would think he was blackhearted — until you saw him melt around his stepdaughter Lisa. He was ready to go.
Ginger drove sports cars off cliffs in Algeria. The night Jimi Hendrix died, Ginger Baker was with him. He chain-smoked for 50 years. He took heroin for decades. Four wives. Three children. He was a living testament to the stiff upper lip that gained Britain its empire.
So long, Ginge. Don’t worry, like you always said: “The devil takes care of its own.”