Ginger Baker: You really do need to beware of this man
Ahead of his Belfast show, the legendary Cream drummer makes it clear to Andrew Johnston why his reputation as rock's rudest man is still intact
Despite having inspired pretty much every rock skin-beater since the 1960s, Baker, now 74, elicits a different response from those who have to deal with him in person: sheer terror.
He may have popularised the drum solo with 1966's five-minute-long Toad and been among the first Westerners to introduce African rhythms into their playing, but his reputation for wanton belligerence threatens to eclipse any musical accomplishments.
In last year's documentary, Beware of Mr Baker, the subject bloodied director Jay Bulger's nose with his cane. He has walked off the set of Later... with Jools Holland, and reduced veteran rock critics to tears.
Even fellow musicians have found him a nightmare. Notably, Baker and Cream bassist Jack Bruce have been at each other's throats for decades, and recently, Bruce remarked that today he and Baker are "happily co-existing in different continents, although I was thinking of asking him to move. He's still a bit too close".
So, when this writer accepts the job of interviewing Baker ahead of his first Belfast appearance in nearly 30 years – at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival Marquee on May 7, with his new group, the Ginger Baker Jazz Confusion – it's with some trepidation.
The brief from Baker's 'people' is clear: "Do NOT call him a rock drummer or only talk about Cream. His new album, Why?, is coming out soon. Ginger loves the recording, so ask about that."
And so at 10.45am on the fateful morning, I dial a UK landline number as arranged. A young girl answers, and goes off to fetch Ginger. She returns to explain that 'Mr Baker' is taking a shower, and asks me to phone back in five minutes.
I decide to give it 10.
After another fruitless attempt to call, during which they could apparently hear me, but I couldn't hear them, the main man and I finally connect.
"Hello," Ginger rasps, the word rising up at the end as if it were the first time he'd said it. My plan is to start off with some chat about the new album, but sadly, a combination of a poor phone line, the Belfast accent and Ginger's hardness of hearing puts paid to any easing in. "What did you say?," he spits. "Talk slowly."
As I'm repeating my question about the new album at an appropriately intelligible speed, he interrupts: "Have you heard it?" I explain that his 'people' were not forthcoming with a copy, but I've heard some live tracks on YouTube ... "You've heard what?" Even as the words leave my mouth, it strikes me that Ginger may not know – or care – what YouTube is.
"Uh-huh," he grunts, summoning all the disgust he can into two syllables, almost daring me to continue – which I do.
Is he happy with the album?
Was it a fast recording process?
"We did it in two days."
If this were any other interviewee, I might be saddened or frustrated, but it's Ginger Baker. I'm probably lucky he hasn't hung up yet or threatened to smack me with his cane when he arrives in Belfast.
I steer the conversation onto his sidemen in the Jazz Confusion – a venerable bunch including the tenor sax maestro Pee Wee Ellis (an alumnus of Van Morrison's band), bassist Alec Dankworth (son of jazz icons John Dankworth and Cleo Laine) and Ghanaian percussionist Abass Dodoo, a long-time Baker cohort.
"Abass and I have been working together for several years," Ginger sighs, when I ask how he got the band together. "He's a nephew of a great friend of mine and another great drummer from Ghana [Mustapha Tettey Addy], and an old friend of mine brought Alec and Pee Wee. We got together for a rehearsal, and it worked straight away. So, we're just going on."
Anyone expecting the foursome to trot out Baker's old Sixties hits will be disappointed, but the promised programme of jazz, fusion and African sounds should be a treat for open-minded music fans – or people who just want to marvel at the septuagenarian sticksman's undiminished skills on the kit.
Ginger has been playing professionally now for more than 50 years, and has shown he is still capable of, and enjoys, performing. But what about all the travelling, and the waiting around? "I hate it," croaks the musician once voted least likely to survive the Sixties. "Hate it, hate it. I wish I had a little button I could press and be on stage and then press it and be back home." He allows himself a crusty chuckle.
Ginger certainly seems in relatively better form than he was for much of Beware of Mr Baker. "I've got sort of mixed feelings about [the documentary]," he mutters. "Some of it is great, and some of it is nothing to do with anything, you know. I've only seen it once and that's probably as many times as I'll see it." More gruff laughter.
A good portion of the film focuses on Baker's tumultuous personal life (on to his fourth wife, estranged from his son Kofi, riddled with debt, deported from numerous countries, recovering from drug addiction, struggling with illness). Does he feel he gets the recognition he deserves artistically? "I beg your pardon? I can't comment on that. I didn't make the film, did I?" he grumps, misunderstanding the question.
As well as the Jazz Confusion album, there's a career-charting box set entitled A Drummer's Tale due for release. The press release trumpets the fact that Ginger has personally compiled the track listing, so I ask if he enjoyed revisiting his back catalogue. "I don't know what you mean – to 'revisit'," he groans. "I just put a few tracks out. I haven't heard 'em for years."
I persevere, keen to know what it was like for him to listen to music again that he recorded many decades ago.
"I haven't listened to it," Ginger protests. "I just told you that.I didn't hear it. I didn't listen to it."
There's a tense pause, then a smug cackle, as if he's satisfied with how this latest torturing of an interviewer is going.
Ginger turns 75 in August. How would he have felt had someone told him in the Sixties that he'd still be gigging well into the 21st century? "I don't know," he snarls. "It's a hypothetical question." Could he have seen himself enjoying such a long career? "I dunno. I just play the drums."
How about regrets? Is there anything in particular he would have done differently? "About 20,000 things, yeah," Ginger laments. He declines to elaborate, naturally.
I point out it's in the notes I have been sent by his own management. "Well, you can't believe all you read, can you?"
Although he hasn't been to Northern Ireland in many years, Ginger and Cream played Belfast four times in 1967; at the Ulster Hall, at Queen's University and twice at the now defunct Romano's Ballroom. The tub-thumper's most recent visit was in 1980, when he returned to the Ulster Hall while briefly a member of 'space rock' outfit Hawkwind.
Does he remember any of the Belfast shows? "Nah."
Is he looking forward to coming back? "I'm just hoping I'm not going to get blown up."
Another Ulster connection is that in the mid-1990s, Baker and Bruce launched the supergroup BBM alongside Belfast-born guitarist Gary Moore – essentially Cream without Eric Clapton. Was that an enjoyable project? "No, I didn't really enjoy it very much at all." How about Moore's guitar playing? "It was all contrived."
As for old 'Slowhand' himself Ginger is less dismissive – slightly. "I'm in touch with Eric occasionally," is as much as he'll reveal about his relationship with the guitar master.
Finally, with nothing left to lose, I go for the $64,000 question: What are the chances of another Cream reunion?
"HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA," Ginger roars. "Oh, my word! Everybody asks that same f**king question. Why do people always ask me that?"
Because the fans want to know, I suggest. "DO THEY?" Ginger retorts, equal parts incredulous and angry that it might be the case. "NO! Cream's done. It won't be done again."
At this point, one suspects the interview is done, too. I thank Ginger for his time and wish him luck with the album and the tour. "Alright. Thank you," he replies.
I'm happy with that. Only with Ginger Baker could not slamming down the phone and getting the first flight to Belfast to thump a journalist with his cane pass for mellowing in his old age.
The Ginger Baker Jazz Confusion play the Festival Marquee on Wednesday, May 7, as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. For details, visit www.cqaf.com