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Behind the Curtain: Frustrations and Challenges with Ginger Baker
Sometimes, interviews don’t go well. It’s part of the business, and as rock journalist Steve Rosen can attest in his latest Behind the Curtain entry, it happens.
I’m often asked, “What is the worst interview you ever did?”
It’s an interesting turn of phrase, because lurking behind the suggestive and intriguing façade of the query is the true heart of what the person posing the question really wants to know and that is, “Who is the biggest asshole you ever met?”
Mainly this kind of inquiry comes from friends who are trying not to be indelicate in their line of questioning but I know what they’re after. They want to hear trash, dirty laundry. They want to know which musicians portrayed as decent sorts of dudes in the press are, in reality, total dickheads. Scumbags.
I can understand their curiosity. My friends, like most fans everywhere, find out about the artists they dig by reading magazines, scouring the Internet and watching online videos. As much as you can learn from gleaning information in this fashion, it’s still secondhand. It’s not the same thing as sitting in a room with someone. Not even close.
Back before I started writing, I read a lot about the guitar players who meant something to me. I wanted to know about them and find out who they were as people. I thought I could uncover all of that by reading everything I could, but when I finally met them in person, I felt like I was breathing the same air as an alien. I realized I didn’t know this person at all. They talked differently than I thought they would and they were funnier or less funny than I had imagined and things like that. Today, with the benefit of an abundance of live footage and YouTube videos, you can actually watch and listen to your heroes talking and interacting. That brings you a step closer, but it’s still nowhere as informed as looking straight into the eyes of that person.
I have been lucky enough to meet my heroes and overwhelmingly they’ve been wonderful human beings with a focused sense of passion for what they did. I have taken part in about 2,000 interviews spaced out over the past 45 years, and there have only been a handful of assholes. That word sounds immature and maybe lacking somehow, but I can’t think of a better one at the moment — so we’ll stick with it for the time being.
So before answering the question, “What is the worst interview you ever did?” I think it’s important to provide a little background. I don’t want this to sound like I’m going on a witch hunt or lashing out at certain musicians simply because they turned out to be miserable interviewees. That is not the story I want to tell here.
An interview is like a blind date. Well, sort of. You walk into a room to spend time with a complete stranger. You may know something about them because you’ve connected on social media and seen a photo and read about their likes and dislikes, but until you’re face to face and sitting across the table and sharing a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, you cannot know who that person really is or how you will react to them or how they will react to you. Chemistry, pheromones, the way a pair of blue eyes stare at you, a smile that melts your heart. None of these things can be deduced from a flat image on a screen or scrolling through words on a monitor.
Similarly, I don’t really have a clue who will be sitting at the end of my microphone when I walk into that record company office or hotel room. What I mean by that is of course I know this person I’m meeting is the guitar player in a famous rock band or the drummer in a legendary English blues trio. I’ve read about them and I know their history but what I don’t know until that very moment—what I cannot know—is who this person is on an emotional level. Is he angry at the world? Bitter? Genial? Someone with a good heart? Or someone with poison coursing through his veins and spitting venom with every word?
I have done a lot of interviews that haven’t gone well. I mean they sucked. Some musicians just don’t have much to say or for some reason they feel uncomfortable or maybe just had a bad day. They may have played poorly in concert the previous night or perhaps their cat was sick and they were pissed off and didn’t want to sit there tied to a chair talking about their newest record or what kind of guitar strings they used. Who knows what was inside their heads?
There’s another reason the artist may have felt as if he was caught up in a police interrogation and not participating in a friendly discussion about rock and roll. Me, I was the culprit. I was the reason. The dude sitting there didn’t like me. He may have thought I was some sort of ditz, an airhead, moron, loser, asshole. Pick your epithet. Which goes back to chemistry and how two people are going to interact. You never know.
Nonetheless, I always tried as hard as I could to extract something good from a conversation and when that didn’t happen, it always felt like I had failed. As much as I was upset and hoped the dialog would have flowed more smoothly, I would never characterize that person as a, well, yes, you guessed it, an asshole. Though I walked away carrying a cassette tape full of banal and useless chatter and may have thought I had failed as a rock journalist and may have even felt resentment and bitterness towards that individual, I wouldn’t have demeaned that person in any mean-spirited way. In other words, I wouldn’t have called him bad names. I would have chalked it up to bad chemistry. A bad match. Bad juju. A lousy blind date.
No, those musicians weren’t terrible human beings or lacking in some essential friendliness chromosome. If I had met them or any of you had ran into them standing in line at a coffee shop or buying guitar picks at the local music store and approached them to say hello and told them how much I—you—dug their music, they would have been more than obliging in stopping, chatting and spending a few moments with us. Though they were bad interviewees, they were nonetheless normal people having bad days or were simply uncomfortable in my presence. For them it was a close encounter of the worst kind. I could live with that.
I say all of that as preamble and explanation. I revere musicians and what they do and think that music is the highest form of art there is and that as people they are more emotionally and spiritually connected than the rest of us. As naïve as this may be, I really believe that but as I discovered over the course of four-and-a-half decades of meeting and talking with these legendary figures, some of them are as disconnected as an unplugged amp. It makes me sad to say this and it even breaks my heart but here is the truth: Assholes walk amongst them. Again, I can think of no more fitting word but I’m working on it.
I have written about some of those angry young men in this very space. Frank Zappa was cynical and acerbic while Jimmy Page was biting and contemptuous of every word out of my mouth. Ray Charles was menacing in his demeanor and Rick James tried to steal my girlfriend away. Doc Watson could barely contain his rancor and Todd Rundgren unleashed on me when I asked him a question about his guitars, which was strange because the interview was for a guitar magazine. Steve Howe and Bill Bruford, the guitarist for Yes and the former drummer for Yes respectively, were caustic and derisive.
Still, for all of the testiness, edginess and barb-laden insults hurled at me, I came away from those conversations with really cool interviews. They may have wanted to bash me over the head with their guitars by the end of the day but they still provided me with a lot of insightful banter. These were not nice people and even though they and some others—Marshall Crenshaw, Stephen Stills, Donald Fagen, Yngwie Malmsteen [snide and self-absorbed in our first meeting, Yngwie turned out to be a charming and freaking funny dude when we met for a second time]—put me through no little amount of grief and pushed me to the veritable limits of my professional patience, at least these individuals were still willing—even if I had to pry the words out of them as if I were extracting rotten teeth with rusty pliers—to give me what I came there for: A good interview.
There is, however, one musician who towers above all the rest in earning the title of the Biggest Asshole I Ever Met. Unequivocally and without a second’s hesitation, that ignominious distinction goes to former Cream and Blind Faith drummer Ginger Baker. From the moment he came on the telephone back on April 10th, 1975, Baker lashed, bashed, thrashed and trashed me for the 14 minutes of our conversation.
Yes, this was a phone interview. He was somewhere on the road with his then-band the Baker Gurvitz Army and I was in the preserve and safety of my little guesthouse in the Hollywood Hills. As I write this, I shudder all over again when I think, “What would it have been like if I had actually been in the same room with him?” It would have been the 10th ring of hell—Dante’s first nine rings couldn’t have held a sulfur-burning candle to the misery I would have experienced—presided over by one of the meanest people I’ve ever met.
What you have to understand is that Cream was and still is one of my favorite bands. I had a band back in the day called the Culver City Cream [Culver City is where I grew up] with my brother Mick on drums and neighborhood friend and bassist Greg Durschlag. We’d jam for hours on end playing “Crossroads,’ “Sunshine Of Your Love,” “Tales Of Brave Ulysses” and every other Cream song we could learn. I loved them.
So when I had the opportunity to talk Baker, I was beside myself. Ginger was playing with the Baker Gurvitz Army at the time and since he’d been with Blind Faith some six years earlier, he really hadn’t had much success. This was a particularly critical juncture in the drummer’s career and he needed the press. Oh, man, was I wrong. Still, when publicist Barbara Birdfeather called and asked me if I wanted to interview Ginger, I almost choked on the anticipation.
I listened to Elysian Encounter—the band’s sophomore album out at the time—and really dug the mix of rock and “People” and the reggae in “The Key,” two songs that were co-written by Baker. I couldn’t wait to talk to him about the record but what I wanted to know about most was Cream. In fact, I wanted to know everything about Cream and that was my first and last mistake. A fatal mistake.
That Thursday finally arrived and sitting at my desk in my little cottage in Laurel Canyon, I was totally psyched. Admittedly, I was scared because I so desperately wanted the interview to go well but I knew so much about Baker and everything he’d done that I felt pretty unstoppable. I dialed the number for the hotel that Barbara had given me—I can’t remember where in the country that was—and she answered the phone. We said our hellos and she told me to wait a minute while she fetched Ginger. After a few agonizing seconds he came on the phone.
I wanted to listen to the interview again before I started writing this. I wanted to make sure that what I remembered was actually what happened. Before putting the tape in the machine, I fell into a haze of positive optimism. I thought, “Maybe Ginger wasn’t as bad as I recalled. Maybe he did answer all my questions and my bitter memories were simply because I didn’t get the responses I wanted.” So wishing and hoping, I pulled out the cassette tape. I hit Play and within the first 30 seconds I was forced to hit Stop and remove the tape. I simply couldn’t listen to it. My memories—if anything—had sanitized the moment. It was horrible. Hellish. I almost felt nauseated listening to it.
To fully appreciate what transpired during this interview, here are some helpful insights:
- Imagine every word out of his mouth is dripping with venom and sarcasm and every response is meant to convey a feeling of, “These are the most idiotic questions I’ve ever heard in my life. I wish I was anywhere else but here. You are the stupidest person who has ever lived. I want to take a drumstick and puncture your larynx.”
- Baker speaks with a pretty heavy South London accent [you can hear that in his recitative-styled vocal in “Pressed Rat and Warthog”] so you have to picture me sitting there not only enduring his verbal onslaught but fixating on every word to even understand what he’s saying.
- Envision me slumped in my chair, receiver to my ear and eyes closed in abject defeat.
- Visualize me taking all my Cream albums, flinging them out the window like little black flying saucers, and watching them shatter on the near hillside [I didn’t really do this but I wanted to].
As I mentioned earlier, my first mistake was trying to get him to talk about his past. I should have never done that. I should have started with questions about the Baker Gurvitz Army and worked backwards. I think things might have turned out better if I had done that, but probably not.
Here are the first three questions and his responses:
Could we begin with a little background on you?
“I don’t know. That was a long time ago. And I really haven’t got that long [referring to the time allotted for the interview]. And you want to talk to me about what [Baker’s tone increases a couple degrees anxiety-wise]?”
Just a bit about who you worked with, say, before joining Graham Bond?
“Oh Christ, man, you’re going back 20 years.”
We’ll move forward a few years and maybe you could talk about Cream?
“Man, that’s all been done so many times with that story being told you know? And you’re still talking about five years ago, or in fact, you’re talking about nine years ago when Cream got together.”
At that point I had to collect myself and regroup. I had many more questions about Cream but I simply couldn’t go through more put downs and sarcastic retorts. It would have been a complete waste of time. I had heard about Ginger’s fiery personality and I should have known better. I just didn’t think that fiery mien was in fact an all-consuming inferno destroying everything in its path. Friend and foe alike. When he was with Cream, he used to have wars of words with Jack Bruce that have since become legendary. There’s a rumor that he used to bounce drumsticks off his cymbals and hit Bruce in the back of the head when they were onstage.
I have come to understand that anybody unwilling to talk about his past is secretly confessing in one way or the other, “I’ve already done my best work. I’ll never be better than I was. I don’t want to talk about it so f—k you.”
Still, not asking Baker about Cream would have been like meeting John Steinbeck over drinks and not talking about The Grapes of Wrath or smoking opium with DaVinci and failing to mention the Mona Lisa. It would have been stupid, shortsighted and a glaring omission.
I knew going in that the drummer wouldn’t be an easy interview, but I honestly had no sense of how belligerently he’d respond to every single question. After those first three queries, I was tempted to stop the interview and say, “I guess you’re not in the mood to talk. Maybe some other time.” But I persevered like a professional—or a complete idiot, I wasn’t sure—and pushed on. I knew I’d never get another chance to talk to him and I wasn’t going to give in to his infantile shortcomings.
We trudged ahead and I eventually asked him about the Baker Gurvitz Army project, an area of discussion I thought was safe. Wrong. Those responses turned out to be as vicious as his earlier remarks. After a few more minutes, I pulled the plug. I couldn’t take it anymore. By that time, I wasn’t even trying to hide my sense of defeat and disgust. Sarcasm oozed from my final words but Baker wasn’t even fazed.
Okay, well I guess that’s all the questions I have.
“Okay, well thank you very much”.
Okay, thank you.
It was so strange because when I listened back to his farewell, he sounded genuinely friendly. I couldn’t figure it out. Either he was consciously just putting me on and adopting an inviting tone in his voice when he said goodbye or he truly was a sociopath in some way and didn’t realize how cruel he had been.
Then—miracle of miracles—I was given a second chance in 2009 when Baker wrote his biography, Hellraiser. I made contact with the book publisher and asked if Ginger was doing any interviews. Inside there was a part of me screaming, “Do not do this. Do not walk through the gates of hell again.” But I was determined and when the publicist said he’d do an email interview, I was ready. I thought I’ll be able to vindicate myself and ask all the questions I couldn’t ask the first time. Since the interview was about his book and his book was all about his life, nothing would be off limits.
I was wrong again. If anything, Peter Edward “Ginger” Baker was even meaner and more condescending than he was 34 years earlier. Time had not softened him.
I read Hellraiser thoroughly and jotted down ideas. The problem with musicians writing their own biographies is that they either forget what’s happened in their lives or they simply think some moments aren’t important. This is exactly what happened with Baker’s book. There were huge holes in his story and that’s where I wanted to dig. I took several hours in preparing the questions and finally sent them along to the publisher who would forward them to Ginger. I was even going to remind him that we’d spoken many, many years earlier and he hadn’t been the easiest person in the world to speak to but I thought that would only be throwing gasoline on the fire and I didn’t want to start another all-consuming verbal conflagration.
I figured he’d take a couple days in responding to them since he’d want to take the time to thoroughly answer the questions. His interview came back the next day and I knew it would be exactly the type of garbage I waded through nearly three-and-a-half decades earlier.
At the top of his first email, he wrote, “Holy moly!!! A hell of a lot of silly questions … I will attempt to answer.” I wanted to retain his grammar and punctuation to give you an exact reading of what he wrote and to convey the notion that he was not going to try in any kind of serious way to answer my questions. When I pulled up his answers and looked at it all I could think of was, “Oh man, this is the same thing I did 34 years ago.”
Here are his opening comments to my questions:
Your first recording session was with Blues Incorporated. What was that like hearing your drums recorded for the first time?
“My first recording session was with the Storeyville Jazzmen on Dobell Records in 1957. What was it like? Cabbages and spinach.”
What was it like playing with Jack Bruce on those early sessions? Could you sense the magic between the two of you?
“What was it like again? If you read the book, we found Jack at a gig in 1962. He was a great bass player.”
The Sound of ’65 album with the Graham Bond Organization was your first album recording project—did you like the process of recording?
“Just a recording project like any other.”
Were you aware of how you wanted your drums to sound? How did you want your drums to sound?
“I have always tuned my drums to the other instruments. I wanted them to sound like drums and not lumps of wood.”
You first jammed with Eric while you were with the GBO–what was that like?
“As I said in the book, I really clicked with Eric musically. He had the gift of time.”
Were you aware of other guitarists around at the time?
“Not aware of other guitarists as none impressed me.”
You met Pete Townshend’s father, Cliff, very early on in your career. Did he ever talk about Pete?
“You read the book? I met Cliff Townshend on Archer Street and he did not mention his son.”
What did you think about the Who?
“I never thought of the Who as a great band.”
Any feelings about Keith Moon?
“Moonie was OK but nowhere near my standard.”
Years later, it must have come full circle when you gave the Who “Waltz For a Pig.” What did you think of their version/performance?
“What on earth do you mean by ‘full circle?’ I simply sold them the track as they needed one in a hurry.”
At least I wasn’t the only person he was insulting. As you can read, he put down the Who big time and trashes a lot of other musicians along the way as well. The rest of the interview was much the same. After submitting this email questionnaire to him and conducting the first conversation years before, I felt like the proverbial dog who was hit repeatedly for no reason at all and after a while the dog just slinks into a corner and cowers in fright. I was really heartbroken that even with this second go-round Baker had remained stubborn and insolent. But that’s the way it was.
I did break down and send him an email later that said how disappointed I was that he hadn’t taken any substantial time to answer my questions and how hurt I was from being subjected to his callous and insensitive remarks. Some of you will accuse me of being too soft-skinned and temperamental and maybe I am, but I still feel the way I feel.
He eventually emailed this back to me and though it doesn’t make up for being an asshole of extraordinary proportions, it does explain a little bit about him as a person.
“I’m very sorry old chap but you’re into a lot of technicalities that I never have been interested in…miking my drums?? That’s the job of the studio technicians.. only input from me was if the mikes were in my way…what mikes or where ??? Not concerned…. you seem to want me to invent feelings I just don’t have….hearing my drums on record the first time ?? Hallo ?? Only criticism I had was that you couldn’t hear the hi-hat or cymbals…surely it’s enough to say Jack swung like mad.. what else.. what was his sound like? Like a bass !!!…oh dear, I’m sorry to upset you by being truthful…I live by the truth… Hallo…why you get angry when you hear the truth…I’m not technically minded. I’m a feeler not a thinker…sorry if this doesn’t compute with you…that’s your problem…. you are like so many “rock ” fans…Mitch Mitchell technically adept !! Oh lord !!! You’re not interested in who I am just who you’d like me to be…I’ve been a musician for 55 years…. you cannot dissect music or feelings like a scientist…. the truth is the truth is all…ginger”
“The truth is the truth is all,” Ginger wrote. It’s an easy defense but the truth isn’t always what’s true or what’s real. “You cannot dissect music or feelings like a scientist…” he says. You can’t? If he’s right then everybody from the rock journalist and music historian to the psychiatrist, psychologist and everybody in-between is out of a gig.
In the end, what’s impossible to understand—to dissect—is the reason/s for Baker’s anger with the world. A spectacularly gifted musician, he is seen as one of the first true drumming superstars. He mixed jazz, world and rock influences in his playing in a way that no one had ever heard before. If Ginger had done nothing more than play that turnaround one and three beat on “Sunshine Of Your Love,” that would have been enough to cement his legacy. Maybe that was the very thing which contributed to his bitterness. Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton were given sole writing credits on that classic song and Baker always felt like his contribution of that unique drum beat should have been rewarded with a writing credit. Maybe so.
In 2012, a documentary titled Beware of Mr. Baker, came out which portrays the drummer as a tormented and savage soul who lashes out at everyone in his life including fellow musicians, his family and long suffering filmmaker Jay Bulger who is rewarded for his cinematic efforts to humanize Ginger with a punch in the face.
To this day, I love Cream and think Ginger Baker remains as one of the most inventive and copied drummers of all time. He is remarkable and I’m continually amazed by him. I listen to Cream bootlegs all the time and believe when they were at their creative heights, there was no greater band on the planet. Still, it’s sometimes difficult to listen to their music. I can’t separate the artist from the asshole. Cream moves me in a profound way and always will. I just wish the drummer in the band hadn’t been so mean. I wish he would have been nicer.
October 27, 2020
October 26, 2020