Remembering Ginger Baker and Why He Was Pissed at Westword

Ginger Baker in a 2012 interview to promote the documentary Beware of Mr. Baker and in a screen capture from the film.
Ginger Baker in a 2012 interview to promote the documentary Beware of Mr. Baker and in a screen capture from the film. BFIFestivals via YouTube/Snagfilms via YouTube
Ginger Baker, who died in Great Britain on Sunday, October 6, was among the greatest drummers in rock history, most famously for Cream, a power trio that teamed him with bassist Jack Bruce and guitarist Eric Clapton. But he was also famed for his irascibility. As documented in the 2012 film Beware of Mr. Baker, the onetime Colorado resident could be as explosive in person as he was behind a kit, as I know from personal experience.

Baker was at his most idiosyncratic during the 1993 to 1999 period when he lived in Elbert County, near Parker. As the late Linda Gruno noted in our first profile of Baker, published in 1995, he and his wife, Karen, founded the Mile High Polo Club, an organization whose board of directors included avid polo fan/gonzo laureate Hunter Thompson and Denver trumpeter Ron Miles, a key collaborator on a series of recordings that eschewed rock bombast for straight-up jazz.

Those ’90s-era albums — Going Back Home, Falling Off the Roof and Coward of the County — boasted lineups that combined Denver-area talents such as Miles, Fred Hess, Artie Moore and Eric Gunnison with national heavyweights like Charlie Haden, James Carter and Colorado alum Bill Frisell, and their sustained excellence proved conclusively that Baker's percussive skills couldn't be contained by a single genre. But that should have been obvious already. As evidenced by his contributions to the 1971 platter Fela Ransome-Kuti and The Africa ’70 with Ginger Baker, on which he helped introduce the Afrobeat pioneer to Western audiences, his varied skills, as well as his essential hipness, had been established decades earlier.

I got my own chance to chat with Baker in 1999, shortly before he left the state, and he definitely lived up to his reputation for censorship-free opinions and general crankiness. At one point, he briefly interrupted the conversation to scream "Shut up!" at his dogs when they began yowling at a new arrival — a tactic that didn't exactly silence them.

By sharing such anecdotes, I knew I was risking Baker's wrath, and after the article was published, he was indeed pissed off. But his complaints weren't about being portrayed as a combustible old grump. Rather, if memory serves, he was livid about an anecdote I'd included from an old Cream biography about Bruce once supposedly destroying his drum set. Never happened, he angrily insisted.

More than twenty years later, I finally have a chance to make amends. The original piece is reproduced below, sans the offending line. Somewhere, I'd like to think Baker is smiling — but probably not.

click to enlarge Ginger Baker playing with Eric Clapton in 2005. - SCOTT GRIES/GETTY IMAGES
Ginger Baker playing with Eric Clapton in 2005.
Scott Gries/Getty Images
"At the Crossroads"
March 25, 1999

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. 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 during 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 (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.

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 marijuana 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."

On top of such worries, Baker's got serious tax difficulties. "According to the immigration department, I do not live here," he says. "But the tax department has decided that I do live here and therefore wants to take a large amount of tax out of money that I don't even earn in America. Well, I don't think that's very fair. They fought the American Revolution because of taxation without representation, which is the exact position I'm in. Not only do I have no representation, but I'm paying for armed thugs to walk onto my property and threaten me. That's why I've point-blank refused to pay taxes since all of this happened. I refuse. And if that means I can never return to America, I'll never return!"

Compared to the colonies, South Africa is looking awfully fine to Baker. In his words, "It's the most beautiful place I've ever seen. My land has a quarter of a mile of river frontage along one side of it, a tremendous house, fruit trees of every description, and more water than you can dream of. And it's so high up that there's no mosquitoes, which is very rare for Africa. Plus, if I get temporary residence in South Africa, the money I don't earn there I don't pay tax on. That, to me, is sensible."

Also appealing about South Africa is the polo scene, which Baker regards as far superior to the one in Colorado. So disgusted was he by other polo organizations here that he formed the Mile High Polo Club. Featuring personalities such as journalistic eccentric Hunter S. Thompson on its board of directors, the club staged matches that regularly concluded with jazz sessions anchored by Baker. But his enthusiasm for the concept waned after his groom was deported. Because of his contention that American grooms are incapable of meeting his high standards, he decided to do all the work himself and wound up damaging the rotator cuff in his shoulder and cracking three ribs in an accident that inspired the name of his Falling Off the Roof disc. "I had to have two major operations," he says, "and the one on my arm was a big operation. Now my ulna nerve doesn't go where everybody else's does; they had to cut my arm open, take the muscle out, move the nerve over and put it all back together again. It was major reconstruction that was completely tied to what happened with my groom.

"When we were making the new album, my right arm was only at about 75 percent," he adds. "It was very painful — and so was recovering from the surgeries, because I didn't want to stay on drugs any longer than I had to. The anesthesiologist used three times the normal dose to put me under because I'm so resistant to this stuff, and after the surgery was over, the doctor was very happy to prescribe whatever I'd need to kill the pain. I could have gotten more, too, but I said no, because I knew what could happen. See, I still like it. It makes me feel good — so I stopped."

Today Baker's arm is in fine shape, and he's looking forward to touring in support of Coward of the County — but probably not in the U.S. "Jazz isn't very big in America, which is very sad, because this is where it was born," he says. "Europe is where you can make money playing jazz, so that's where we'll probably be going, either late in the spring or in the summer. And since it costs the rest of the band the same to fly from Denver to Europe as it does for me to fly from South Africa to Europe, my being there doesn't really affect anything."

If Baker sticks to this schedule, his upcoming Denver appearance will be the only opportunity in the near future for Americans to hear the Coward material performed live without first traveling over an ocean. But although the thought of leaving Colorado, and his many dogs, makes him a tad sentimental, it hasn't softened his resolve.

"I've done so much work on this property that I haven't really finished," he notes. "I've built two wonderful barns, and the house was beginning to look good, and I've fenced everywhere and planted over two hundred trees. I thought it was my home, and I'm going to be very sad to leave it. But I've done a lot of thinking over the last two years, and several last straws were broken. So I'm going to do what I have to do."
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts