Atonal Apples, Amplified Heat: Ginger Baker, RIP

There are some people who, it seems, endure long after others would have collapsed in a dissolving heap, people who, even with the deck stacked against them hand after hand, stay at the table, albeit often moved to a table that is somewhere in the darkness, away from the brightness that they once helped generate.

And so we learn of the death of Ginger Baker.

By and large, Baker is known for his superb drumming and awful singing when he was a member of Cream, a band that lived just 2.5 years but which has an afterlife like musical carbon 14.

Of the three members of what is often cited as the first “supergroup,” when there were such things, now having given way to recordings by a given “star” who is performing “with” another “star,” who may or may not be of the same genre, Eric Clapton is really the only one who continued to have a career in the broad public eye. Immediately post-Cream Clapton created Blind Faith, which included Baker, but it really didn’t make much of a stir—brilliant music notwithstanding—as it was mired in controversy because the original cover of its debut album was a color photograph of a topless 11-year-old girl. It was soon replaced with a sepia-toned photo of Clapton, Baker, Stevie Winwood, and Ric Grech, but the proverbial damage was done publicly and given internal acrimony the band lasted a year.

Baker went on to other things like Ginger Baker’s Air Force, which made it to the close out bins at record stores faster than he could hit a tom-tom. (Speaking of which: Baker’s “Toad,” from the “Wheels of Fire” album—incidentally the first double album to go platinum when this was truly the result of people buying physical artifacts—was undoubtedly played on desktops (as in physical classroom furniture) by more teenage boys than any other rhythm before or since.)

Clapton’s star rose while Baker’s collapsed into something of a black hole. To get a sense of that black hole there is nothing I can recommend more than the documentary “Beware of Mr. Baker.”

The term “crotchety old shit” comes to mind.

(The third member of Cream, Jack Bruce, the musician that I have always considered to be the—dare I use the awful pun—the cream of the band, put out a multiplicity of jazz-infused records, and did work with a variety of artists ranging from ex-Procol Harum member Robin Trower to the Golden Palominos. It saddened me in the last ‘90s when he became a member of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, clearly a means through which musicians were able to help fund their existence by playing covers of their own songs. Bruce died in 2014, age 71. Baker was 80. Does bile extend life?)

I can’t help but wonder whether the generation of musicians that Bruce and Baker were a part of is one that will never be replicated in that they were of a time when there were albums, FM radio and Rolling Stone, not a flood of digital notes and endless news and commentary. Those musicians managed to establish themselves in the consciousness of many and to remain there despite the absence of anything that would bring them to the fore. What they did has a resonance that will continue.

As I wrote this, it was all I could do not to stop and slap out the opening of the epic “Toad” solo, something that I probably haven’t even thought of in 40 years.

Audio: Cream – “Toad”

From Fresh Cream, 1966.

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