Ginger Baker Is a Very Typical Jerk

Beware of Mr BakerI just watched the documentary about iconic drummer Ginger Baker, Beware of Mr Baker. It is quite good, but I don’t mean to talk about the movie here. I want to discuss Baker himself. You see, he really is a vile man. And if you eliminate his amazing musical abilities, he is just like countless men that I’ve known. It’s a curious thing. There is a mixture of narcissism and hopelessness that don’t seem to go together. He clearly thinks that the most wonderful and perfect thing is himself. But that hasn’t made him happy. So he blames the rest of the world.

There is a telling moment toward the end of the film. Baker is, bizarrely, into polo. As a result, he owns about thirty horse. He has to, because apparently, no one will allow him in their polo clubs because, as I said, he’s a vile person. While petting one of his horses, he says, “Horses don’t let you down. Nor do dogs. They all know who I am.” Who is he? I assume he means the center of the universe. This is coming from a man who is known in the music business as one of the very greatest drummers, but someone who no one wants to work with because he’s so unpleasant. He is estranged from his children. Even his current wife seems to have glommed onto him as the best of bad options.

If I hadn’t know so many men who are like this, I might think this is all a function of Baker’s musical brilliance. But it isn’t. Most men who behave as he does don’t have anything particularly impressive to offer to the world. So I’m sure that if Baker had simply become a coal miner, he would be exactly the same. So it’s hard for me to consider him just a lovable rogue. He’s very unlovable. But people are more willing to give him a pass because of his past accomplishments. Obviously, I’m not.

Another moment, just about a minute after Baker’s comment about horses and dogs, the filmmaker, Jay Bulger, asked him if he thought about going back into music. This is following Baker’s never ending complaints about being broke. Bulger tells him that he may be forced to if his ranch is going to be foreclosed on. And he adds, “Besides, it’s who you are.” And Baker, ever the charmer, spits back, “Oh, for fuck’s sake, why are we talking about this shit?!” I get it: Baker is unhappy. But this is just bully nonsense.

During the credits, Bulger runs through various clips of Baker insulting him. In some cases, it is clear that he’s half joking. But mostly, he’s just angry because he isn’t being asked the right questions and given the right respect. But there is no joking at all when Baker slams his cane into the nose of Bulger. The reason he does this is incredible. Baker doesn’t want him to interview people that Baker has left behind “on my film.” His film. His life. His world. But Bulger’s ultimate reaction to this is part of the problem, “I realized: the madman is alive and well!”

But not really. In that sentence, “madman” is a euphemism for what the Frankly Curious style dictates I call a “jerk” but would prefer to call something more colorful and forceful. And more important, Baker may be alive, but he is not well. He is miserable. And he is one of countless men who deal with their unhappiness about the fact that the world does not worship them by making everyone pay. As a James Thurber cartoon I once saw said, “You’re disappointed? We’re all disappointed!” Most of us manage to get through life without making everyone else more miserable than they already are.

12 thoughts on “Ginger Baker Is a Very Typical Jerk

    • A couple of people have said this same thing to me. It is quite an interesting film. It’s worth watching just for the little music history. But as a description of a man, it is fascinating.

  1. I’m not a musical fan of Ginger Baker, but a friend I worked with back in the 1980s once remarked that I was only the second person he’d ever met in his life who actually listened to the Ginger Baker solos on the live Cream albums!

    • He is amazing. And it doesn’t much matter what kind of music he does. It’s sad that his being such a horrible person limited his musical output.

  2. Nothing horrible about him!! Ginger has a heart of gold. He’s real and you jerks can’t handle it…You will never touch his genius…so give up!

    • I often wonder if people read what I write before fatuously commenting. The whole point is to separate the genius from the behavior. There are lots of geniuses whose art I admire. That’s not what I’m writing about here. If you can’t separate the art from the man, it is you who should give up.

  3. Great drummer, why were you all so surprised he is a jerk?
    I mean…he is a GINGER, it’s obvious he’s emotionless, the problem is that you black/brown/yellow heads can’t handle it.

    • I appreciate your joke related to Rubiconski’s comment. But looking at this article after all this time, I think I missed the mark. The point I was trying to make was really not about Baker; it was about how certain men respond to their own unhappiness by making others unhappy. Growing up in and around the construction business, this kind of thing was so common that it is a type for me. And it is a problem. Why do these men have such a feeling of loss and why do they respond to it in such an infantile way? I have no answer and I’ve been wondering about it for almost my entire life.

      • In Baker’s case, it’s probably a combination of ego, mental instability and the consequences of long term drug and alcohol abuse. He’s a very influential musician who used to be part of a great band. Now his glory days are behind him and he’s bitter and broken down. He believes that he’s been a massive influence on the history of rock music and hasn’t gotten his fair dues, despite the fact that you can read hundreds of glowing appraisals of his abilities on the internet. I’m not a psychiatrist, but he doesn’t sound like a particularly stable human being just judging from interviews and documentaries. I don’t think there is an answer. It’s just the way some people are.

        • I think that’s a very fair appraisal. But as I remarked in an earlier comment, I think I screwed up when I wrote this article. My interest is not really in Baker. Certainly his celebrity and drug use have made his problems worse. But his behavior is something I see all the time in American men — having grown up around the construction industry. My ultimate question is why it is that certain people think their unhappiness is license to make the rest of us unhappy. I understand that my depression is chemical — I can’t help it. So I back away from the world. I don’t get the other side of it. If you have the energy to be a jerk, you have the energy to think about it and know what you are doing.

          I feel sorry for all such people because I think what they ultimately lack is meaning in their lives. Baker shows that no end of people telling you how great you are will provide that meaning. But you are quite right: he does seem to be suffering from some marginal levels of schizophrenia. It’s not all bitterness and rage.

  4. I grew up listening to Cream. As a band they were amazing. He was a part of the band Blind Faith. That was a decent album. The problem is I don’t understand how Ginger Baker is considered to be such a musical genius. I tried to keep mind and ears open. I really did. Ginger Baker’s Air Force was to be a revelation. It was okay. But Ginger was supposed to be this great Be Bop drummer and a real innovator.
    Give me a break!!! This was a mediocre jam band at best and Baker couldn’t find a groove in the Grand Canyon. I have two words for Ginger: John Bonham. Here is another two words: Elvin Jones. Let’s keep going: Tony Williams, Greg Erico, Bill Bruford, Benny Benjamin,
    Clyde Stubblefield, etc. Shall I keep going? Baker couldn’t hold a candle to any of those guys. Plenty of brilliant musicians have been complete jerks and bullies. Some were also heavy drug and alcohol consumers. But they could play. Ginger Baker is the Soithern end of a Northbound Horse.

    • I think what’s important about Baker is that he brought jazz drumming to rock, where the drumming had been terrible. Thus he got a reputation. I think he’s a fine jazz drummer — or was when he was younger. But certainly to say he’s close to, say, Jimmy Cobb is ridiculous. But many people in the 1960s thought Ringo Star was a good drummer when he was barely even a drummer at all. So in that context, Baker was a genius.

      But I’m not that interested in that. I’m more interested in how celebrity turns a man into a total jerk. What he does at the end of the film is assault. He should have been arrested. But the filmmaker loved him and passed it off as, “That’s Ginger!” I don’t care if it’s Jesus Christ, that’s assault. And I would have no problem with Baker dying in a jail cell. (You’ll note that great but little known jazz drummers aren’t known for acting this way.)

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