At the Crossroads

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

In the quarter-century since his departure from Lagos, Baker has continued to be a globe-hopper: During the early Eighties he resided in a small community outside Milan, Italy, where he divided his time between running an olive farm and overseeing a music school he created. He's also been a member of three bands (the Baker-Gurvitz Army, Masters of Reality and BBM, which also featured Jack Bruce and Gary Moore); drummed on Album by Public Image Ltd.; and made a slew of light-selling solo efforts with the assistance of avant-producer Bill Laswell. But his best post-Cream CDs are unquestionably Going Back Home and Falling Off the Roof, a pair of mid-Nineties jazz releases made for Atlantic. These pieces earned Baker his best press in ages, and he expects no less from Coward of the County, due on April 6. Baker is clearly proud of the disc, which features a cameo appearance by acclaimed saxophonist James Carter and a band of Denver jazz stars: trumpeter Ron Miles, saxophonist Fred Hess, bassist Artie Moore, keyboardist Eric Gunnison and more. "It's the best record that I have ever made," he declares.

Appearances aside, Coward's title is not a tribute to Kenny Rogers. Instead, it's an allusion to a June 1997 phone call by an unknown party that Baker believes set into motion the events that have made much of his past two years so unpleasant. Back then, he employed Liz Ledsham, a young English woman, as a groom for his horses, despite the fact that her work permit wasn't entirely in order. However, he swears he was trying to amend this situation: "She was probably two months from getting her green card. We'd been working on it for over a year, just to make sure she could stay here legally."

Before this task was accomplished, Baker was visited by what he refers to as "two Department of Justice thugs--and I can't describe them in any other way. They were thugs, and I was old enough to be either of their fathers." The men dragged Lesham away in handcuffs and threw her in the pokey, where she lingered for more than three weeks--"including her 23rd birthday," Baker fumes. She was immediately deported after her release, with Baker picking up the tab for her flight back to England. But a few weeks afterward, the feds were back, and this time they carried with them a document informing Baker that he was under investigation for employing an illegal alien.

The charge against Baker was complicated by his own status as a visitor to the United States. He is married to an American and has lived in the U.S. for a decade, but he is not a citizen. Instead, he holds what he says is "basically a work visa that's given to someone of extraordinary talent. They don't issue many of them, but that's the best I can do, because I am never going to get a green card."

Why not? Because Baker has three black marks on his record--a marijuna arrest in 1970, another one in 1971, and a 1972 citation involving an attempt to fraudulently obtain a visa. Baker blames the last of these counts on the staffers working for Robert Stigwood, his then-manager; he says their failure to mention his previous convictions while obtaining a visa on his behalf caused him to be deported in the middle of a tour with Salt. He's just as dismissive of the marijuana violations.

"Marijuana, in my eyes, is like tea," he roars. "It's non-habit-forming, absolutely non-habit-forming--and since I had a heroin and cocaine habit for 21 years, I know what I'm talking about. But the problem is, you've got these idiots like [Utah Senator] Orrin Hatch. I mean, Orrin Hatch should be stuck up against the wall and shot--and I would pull the trigger. Happily!

"The drug-enforcement people can make lots of money off the heroin and cocaine dealers and make it look like they're doing their job by busting the marijuana people," he goes on, his outrage building. "That's the easy route, because marijuana is far harder to transport than heroin or cocaine. It's much more bulky, and it smells. So they bust the marijuana people and take bribes from the heroin and cocaine people. I know, because I was involved in this. In my latter years as a junkie, I was getting my stuff free by working with some of the big dealers, so I know how many ex-drug-enforcement agents are in Switzerland, living the life of Riley in their fifties. And I know how much heroin was coming into America in body bags from Vietnam, because I was in Hawaii back in the Vietnam thing, during one of the times I was trying to get off of it. They say if you go somewhere nice, it helps, but Hawaii was absolutely soaked with heroin! There was so much of it that I finally ended up flying from Hawaii to Jamaica instead."

Predictably, such arguments didn't convince the INS to leave Baker alone. He used every high-powered connection he had at his disposal, including Colorado senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, but the case continued to linger--and after a vacation to the Bahamas last October, he was initially refused readmission into the States. "I had to stay in England for a month," he reveals, "and I only got back because my dentist, who is in Maryland and does a lot of dentistry for diplomats, got ahold of the head woman of the American embassy in England and told her that I was needed back for urgent dental treatment. I got my passport back the day after he phoned, but you can only pull that once, and I'm faced with the possibility of the same thing happening again every time I leave the country. If I don't leave the country, I'm okay, but I've got family in other countries. I've got a daughter in Amsterdam and my ex-wife and another daughter in London, and I have to be able to go and visit them if something happens or if I'm needed over there. But if I leave, I might not get back--and that's no way to live. For Christ's sake, I'm in prison here."

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