Meet Ginger Baker, The Most Terrifying Man in Music
In the opening scenes of a documentary about his life, Ginger Baker breaks the film maker’s nose with his walking stick.
The film’s title... Beware of Mr Baker.
Hardened music writers have been discussing online whether the world’s greatest living drummer is the industry’s worst interviewee.
It seems best, then, to approach his home with caution.
At a modest rented house on the outskirts of a Kent market town, his young Zimbabwean wife Kudzai answers the door.
Chain-smoking 72-year-old Peter Edward “Ginger” Baker is lying almost flat on a black leatherette adjustable armchair, BBC News 24 turned up loud on a widescreen TV.
The bone structure in the ghostly white face is unmistakable, the famous wild, red hair though is now white and receding.
The piercing eyes flick from the screen.
“So,” says Baker, in a low, rasping voice. Lewisham via LA.
“Have you come to write one of those articles about the ruination of Ginger Baker?”
He smiles disarmingly, flashing two rows of white teeth, replacing those lost to years of drink, drugs, fights and hard living.
The truth turns out to be far more interesting.
Baker has degenerative osteoarthritis of the spine.
“Sometimes, I wonder if the pain is God’s way of punishing me,” he says.
“To be in constant pain but not terminally ill. Drumming is agony.”
He can barely walk or sit, and spends long hours lying down. “I just think about putting a grenade in my back,” he says.
He lights another cigarette. “I also have COPD,” he says. “A lung condition.
"I find smoking helps with the pain of the arthritis. But it is killing my chest.”
Once voted the man least likely to survive the 60s, he has by some miracle survived into his 70s.
Baker had – and did – it all: the ferocious, almost feral talent, the millions, the industrial quantities of drugs, the groupies.
His modestly titled book, written with his daughter Ginette – Hellraiser: the Autobiography of the World’s Greatest Drummer – has him hanging out with Jimi Hendrix, sleeping with feminist trailblazer Germaine Greer and becoming the Rolling Stones’ first drummer.
Cream, his collaboration with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce, only lasted two years but the albums still burn bright.
He took heroin, he says, because he thought it would make him a better drummer like his jazz heroes.
He came off the drug “something like 29 times”, in the end moving to a remote part of Italy and becoming a labourer on an olive farm.
“It was hard work but therapeutic,” he says. “It got me clean.”
The son of a bricklayer, he also rebuilt the farmhouse he lived in with his own hands. “I was born up a ladder with a trowel in my hand.”
He speaks movingly of his father Frederick who was killed in the Second World War when Baker was four years old.
“He died because of that stupid sod Churchill,” he says. “The invasion of the Dodecanese was his worst disaster.
“My dad’s in the British cemetery on Leros. The last message they put out was ‘situation desperate’. He probably sent it ’cos he was the signalman.”
A prophetic letter Baker received from his father beyond the grave told him that his fists would be his “best pals”.
A restless spirit, he has lived all over the world, but has a special bond with Africa that began in the 60s when his jazz drumming hero Phil Seaman introduced him to the continent’s rhythms (and, on the same night, heroin).
Africa is to Baker what India was to George Harrison. In the 70s, he left the American music scene for West Africa, ending up in the Nigerian capital Lagos.
There he set up a studio with Africa’s most famous musician, Fela Kuti. Until recently he lived in South Africa on a sprawling polo ranch with 38 horses behind the “Beware of Mr Baker” sign from the film.
But when I ask about it Baker tells me a story completely at odds with the terrifying man at the heart of the film.
“When I was living in South Africa I upset these white racists who ran the local polo club where I was a member,” he says. “I hated them. They thought because I was white I was going to go along with them.”
In fact, Baker had developed his obsession with polo not in England but in Nigeria, with black and white players.
“After I refused to join their racist club, ‘Beware Mr Baker’ appeared in red graffiti on the fence,” Baker says, his eyes narrowing. “So I put up a sign next to it that said ‘Beware of Mr Baker’.”
Baker says the racists had their own private army, a militia that whites were expected to pay to keep their property safe. “I told them to f*** off,” he says.
Instead he held polo days for the local Aids orphanage and allowed black squatters on to his property.
In the end the dispute drove him out of KwaZulu-Natal and to the beautiful mountains of the Western Cape where he set up a new polo ranch.
There’s a line in the Cream song Born Under a Bad Sign: “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I would have no luck at all.” And trouble seems to follow Baker wherever he goes.
There have been plenty of people waiting to exploit his vulnerability as a rich drug addict and, later, his naivety.
“There have also been many good friends,” he says. “Eric Clapton has always been good to me.”
In his current hand-to-mouth existence, he says, Clapton is helping him still.
At Tulbagh, on the Western Cape, where Baker sank his last £1million and personally built new stables, he took on a woman from the local bank as a personal accountant.
“She had all my online banking passwords and sorted out my paperwork,” he says.
“She was taking money from my account and she then deleted all the evidence.”
A two-year court case followed, in which the woman, Lindiwe Noko, 25, claimed she had been having an affair with Baker.
“I was very fond of her,” Baker says. “But there was nothing sexual. That was all lies.”
The documentary was being filmed throughout this time. Baker was totally stressed out, losing everything.
He says the filmmaker, Jay Bulger, was always in his face, leading to the assault.
The court found Noko guilty but Baker never recovered his huge legal costs.
The ranch was lost like so many ventures before – a studio in Nigeria which lost him every penny made from Cream.
There was also a farm in Colorado he had to abandon and the ranch besieged by racists in KwaZulu-Natal. “Leaving my horses broke my heart,” he says.
Almost penniless, Baker returned to England with his 33-year-old fourth wife and a stepdaughter he clearly loves, perhaps even now making up for all those years of neglecting former wives and three children.
“So now I am back to drumming again,” he says. “I’m like Ronnie O’Sullivan who went back to snooker to pay the bills.”
His collaboration with Abass Dodoo, from a famous Ghanaian drumming family, Alex Dankworth and Pee Week Ellis, is as stripped back as his new life.
“I don’t play my drum kit, except at gigs,” Baker says. “I don’t need to rehearse, have never needed to. But mainly, it’s just too painful. It kills me.”
He doesn’t listen to music, he says. He is driven by wanting to create his own sound, his own rhythm, to be completely original.