Harmonic Convergence? Ginger Baker’s Crazy Story

It was an article of faith in my preadolescence that Ginger Baker, drummer, junkie and founder of the rock trio Cream would never outlive the 60′s (or the early 70′s at the outside). I met and interviewed him this past April, alive (though looking like one of those leering skeleton figures in a medieval woodcut), well (at any rate drug-free for the past 18 years) and fuming (with cause). “Will I be hassled if I smoke a fag?” were his first words, ready for an attack even from within his record label’s corporate redoubt.

This past spring has seen what might be described as an unharmonic convergence of seemingly unrelated events: the release of his third and finest jazz album, Coward of the County (Atlantic); the 25th-anniversary reissue of the Paul McCartney-Wings mega-album Band on the Run ; Mr. Baker’s virtual expulsion from America; and the re-emergence of dead Afro-Beat pioneer Fela Anikulapo Ransome-Kuti as a force on the post-election Nigerian political scene. “There is a great possibility that this is my last day in America,” Mr. Baker said of his peculiar situation. “This is America’s loss and a lot of Americans would agree with me.”

Let me try to sort this out. His new album, which is splendid, pretty well closes the book on Ginger Baker the hoary rock legend and returns him to his roots as a jazz drummer on the late 50′s, early 60′s London scene. His earlier two efforts, Going Back Home and Falling Off the Roof (both on Atlantic), were trio affairs that bore the twangy imprimatur of its estimable guitarist, Bill Frisell. Coward of the County , featuring Mr. Baker’s Denver-based combo, DJQ20, and baritone-sax-and-clarinet hired gun James Carter, is an altogether more swinging, horn-laden affair with a batch of impassioned, metrically shifty tunes by the group’s resident genius, trumpeter Ron Miles.

The album’s title, however, alludes to Mr. Baker’s recent unhappy dealings with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. For the past six years, Mr. Baker had been happily ensconced in Parker, Colo., devoting himself to his two passions, polo and jazz, in that order. (He credits his love of polo and polo ponies for keeping him off heroin.)

At the Salisbury Equestrian Park, he pioneered what I can only assume was the first fusion of polo and jazz, weekend matches followed by jazz concerts that were so successful, he believes, they excited the jealousy of a rival polo player (a.k.a. “the coward of the county”) who ratted him out to the I.N.S. Mr. Baker, it seems, had been using an undocumented English groom to care for his ponies. Crisis resolved, Mr. Baker went on a Denver radio show and blasted the I.N.S., a characteristically candid bit of folly, which he said prompted the agency to review his own somewhat tenuous residency status. (He had failed to mention two old drug busts on his original visa application years ago).

So Mr. Baker, feeling vulnerable to deportation on a moment’s notice, has decided to pack it in. He was in New York in April en route to South Africa, where he and eight of his polo ponies will try to make a fresh start in the Karkloof Valley, near the Karkloof (polo) Club, an hour northwest of Durban. “In South Africa, they keep horses to the standard I’m used to,” he said. “Polo in America is appalling.”

Mr. Baker’s new start in Africa brings him around to the subject of Nigeria, which has been much in the news–Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo won a rare and probably crooked election in late February–and much in Mr. Baker’s thoughts, though for somewhat different reasons. Mr. Baker spent the better part of the 70′s in Nigeria, where he first developed his passion for polo and cultivated a friendship, first begun on the London jazz scene, with Fela, Nigeria’s most charismatic, influential and frankly bizarre musical-cultural-political figure. Famously promiscuous (he once married 27 of his dancers in one ceremony), Fela died of AIDS-related illnesses two years ago. But his ghost has been kicking ever since General Obasanjo’s election. In 1977, during a previous stint in power, the General raided Fela’s communal home, fractured his skull, threw him in prison and fatally injured his grandmother. “That event … has become a shorthand in the Nigerian press for all the oppressive acts carried out during Obasanjo’s time as head of state,” said an unnamed Western diplomat in a recent Wall Street Journal story.

But what’s got Mr. Baker reliving his Fela period is the new “25th Anniversary Edition” of Band on the Run (Capitol), a digital valentine from Paul McCartney to his late wife and Wing mate, Linda. The album was mostly recorded in Nigeria, at the EMI studio there, and Mr. Baker rates a condescending mention in the liner notes written by company man Mark Lewisohn: “There was also some tension with the drummer Ginger Baker, formerly of Cream, who had left England for Nigeria and set up a recording venue in Ikeja. Baker wanted Paul to record all of his album at his place, ARC Studio; to keep the peace, Paul promised to go there for a day.” That one session produced a single track that made it on to the album, “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me).” The liner notes continue, “Pleasingly, Ginger Baker joined in the fun, playing a percussive tin of gravel on the song.”

“I am fuckin’ angry,” Mr. Baker said. He said he had made all the arrangements with the Nigerian Government for Mr. McCartney to record at his studio and that when Paul allegedly double-crossed him by switching to EMI, it was he who saved him from Fela’s wrath. “The actual truth of the matter is that Band on the Run would never have been recorded if it wasn’t for me,” he said. “I got a phone call that Fela and the army–this is about 40 strong–had arrived at EMI studios and stopped the session. They took over EMI.”

Mr. Baker said he thinks Fela’s response was prompted “mostly” out of his concern for the shabby way Mr. McCartney had treated Mr. Baker. (The drummer said he was the only white man to have sat on Fela’s Council, at a table shaped like Africa, where “we would make decisions about strategies for things.”) The liner notes provide a different, though plausible-sounding, account of the EMI incident, with Fela accusing Mr. McCartney of stealing African music. (Plausible to Fela maybe; one listens in vain to “Band on the Run” or “Jet” for traces of Afro-Beat or juju.) In any event, Baker said he had a chat with Fela at the studio and made things right: “I said, ‘It is Paul McCartney, we really can’t do this, blah, blah and the sessions continued. They wouldn’t have done it without my intervention. Paul McCartney is an asshole, make no mistake about it. Sue me, Paul, go ahead and sue me because you’ll lose several fuckin’ million dollars.”

I suggested to Mr. Baker that his undiminished capacity for outrage might see him through this current period of confusion, having to start all over again in South Africa as he’s about to enter his 60′s. “It does keep me going,” he said. “I’m well known as a fighter. I’ve had the world that I know dissolve before me right now. I’ll get through this, or I won’t, but I’m certainly going to try.”