At the Crossroads

Celebrity drummer Ginger Baker prepares to leave Colorado. Will he be gone for good?

Ginger Baker is wrapped mighty tight. He's in the midst of a conversation from his sprawling property near Parker, where he's lived for just over five years, when the pack of dogs he keeps erupts at the sight of an unexpected visitor. Baker listens to their feverish yapping for a second or two before bellowing "Shut up!" at jackhammer volume--which only makes the dogs bark louder.

That's pretty much how things have gone lately for Baker, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member who's still widely regarded as a drum virtuoso even though his sixtieth birthday is rapidly approaching. Since June 1997, he has been involved in a running battle with two different government agencies, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Internal Revenue Service, and he's finally had enough. He's currently refinancing his Colorado land, but in all likelihood, the Baker who will be there most often is his American-born wife, Karen. In the meantime, Ginger has purchased 59 acres in Karkloof, South Africa, where he plans to raise and nurture his most treasured possessions: his polo horses.

Baker and his high-rent livestock are slated to fly from New York to the African continent on April 9, less than two weeks after a Monday, March 29, drum clinic and performance at Herman's Hideaway that has all the earmarks of a last Denver-area hurrah. The drummer will not come right out and say that the date is his way of saying goodbye to locals; he dubs the gig a "going-away thing" rather than a farewell extravaganza. But the show--which will be preceded by a silent auction of Baker memorabilia to benefit Project Linus, a foundation that gives homemade blankets to critically ill children--has an air of finality to it, and so do many of Baker's statements. At one point he hisses, "I have no security here, and I'm very bitter about it. But I don't have to stay. There's other places in the world."

Over the years, Baker has spent time in plenty of exotic spots, but he began his life in a down-to-earth one: South London. He was born Peter Baker in August 1939, on the cusp of a world war that took his father's life, but when his hair sprouted red, he was given the nickname by which he continues to be known. By his teens, he was an impassioned cyclist and art fancier, as well as a jazz enthusiast whose love of the music was matched by his propensity for mischief. His first instrument was the trumpet, but the racket produced by a percussionist in an Air Training Corps band with which he played convinced him to switch to drums. After pounding away for a matter of months, he joined a trad-jazz combo fronted by Bob Wallis, and shortly thereafter, when he was sixteen, he quit school and spent a year on the road. By 1960, he had gained both a growing reputation as a musician and an unquenchable thirst for heroin.

"This is what happened to me," he says. "I'd been smoking marijuana for a few years, and then, when I came across heroin, somebody told me it was just like marijuana, only better. And because I'd discovered all the lies that were being told about marijuana, I thought they were also lying about heroin. And I got myself very badly messed up. I was a registered addict in 1961, and in 1964, I made a decision that I was going to get straight--and it only took me another seventeen years to do it."

Fortunately for Baker, his taste for narcotics did little to impede his musical rise. In 1962 he became the timekeeper for Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated, taking over the slot from Charlie Watts, who'd left to become a Rolling Stone. A year later, Baker and two Blues Incorporated compatriots--Graham Bond and Jack Bruce--put together an act of their own, the Graham Bond Organization. Baker and Bruce scrapped frequently; during one memorable show, Bruce destroyed a drum set that Baker had built and modified himself. But in 1966, when Baker was in the process of forming a new group with Eric Clapton, a guitarist with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers who'd sat in with the Organization on a couple of occasions, Bruce was invited to fill out the lineup.

The result of this offer, of course, was Cream, the prototypical British power trio and the reason for Baker's 1993 Hall of Fame induction. The band was around only until November 1968 and issued a mere four albums durings its life span: Fresh Cream, Disraeli Gears, Wheels of Fire and Goodbye. But the combination of Baker's flamboyant, Max Roach-influenced beats, Bruce's booming bass and compelling vocals and Clapton's powerful solos, which had fans declaring him to be God without the slightest hint of irony, fired the loins of untold thousands of rockers. So beloved was the outfit that tickets for Goodbye Cream, a film of its Royal Albert Hall swan song, were initially sold at live-concert prices.

Today, the single most prevalent drummer joke on the Internet answers the question "What do Ginger Baker and canteen coffee have in common?" with a predictable punchline: "They both suck without Cream." But while Baker was never again associated with another group that combined critical acclaim and popularity on such a massive scale, his career after Cream has been intriguingly idiosyncratic. Immediately after Bruce went solo, Baker joined Clapton, Steve Winwood and Family's Rick Grech in Blind Faith, one of rock's first supergroups. An inability to live up to its hype caused Blind Faith to fold after just one platter, an eponymous 1969 release remembered best for the topless, barely pubescent girl on its cover. But Grech and Baker remained together as part of Ginger Baker's Air Force, a band whose two releases were mercilessly ripped by reviewers. Then, in 1971, Baker headed to Lagos, Nigeria, where he recorded a long-player with Afro-beat pioneer Fela Kuti (1972's Fela Ransome-Kuti and Africa '70 with Ginger Baker), formed Salt, a group that teamed him with Nigerian musicians, and built a studio that Paul McCartney used when making Band on the Run, a recording reissued earlier this month in a deluxe 25th-anniversary edition.

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