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.)
Rolling Stone issue #10 had a cover date of May 11, 1968. 24 pages. 35 cents. Cover photo by Linda Eastman.
This is the issue that proved beyond any doubt that Rolling Stone was having a clear impact on the rock and roll scene it was covering. This is the issue where Jann Wenner proved he wasn’t afraid to bite the hand that feeds him. This is the issue that made Eric Clapton faint.
Clapton was on the cover and it featured the Rolling Stone Interview with Eric Clapton as well as a full-page ad for Disraeli Gears and Fresh Cream. But there was also a live review of a recent Cream show in Boston written by Jon Landau.
Cream has been called a jazz group. They are not. They are a blues band and rock band. Clapton is a master of the blues cliches of all of the post-World War II blues guitarists, particularly B.B. King and Albert King. And he didn’t play a note that wasn’t blues during the course of the concert. […] Yet melodically, the improvisation was indistinguishable from the one that took place on their next number, “N.S.U.,” and rhythmically they never did anything more advanced than a 4/4. By abandoning the chord progression of the song they started out with and improvising solely around the root chord, (which, by the way, is a far cry from having abandoned a chord structure, which Clapton says he is prone to do) they insure the incompatibility of the solo compared with the song. And ultimately what I wound up hearing was three virtuosos romping through their bag, occasionally building it into something, occasionally missing the mark altogether, but always in a one-dimensional style that made no use of dynamics, structure, or any of the other elements of rock besides drum licks and guitar riffs.
Ouch! Years later, Clapton admitted how this review affected him: “All during Cream I was riding high on the ‘Clapton Is God’ myth that had been started up. I was flying high on an ego trip; I was pretty sure I was the best thing happening that was popular. Then we got our first kind of bad review, which, funnily enough, was in Rolling Stone. The magazine ran an interview with us in which we were really praising ourselves, and it was followed by a review that said how boring and repetitious our performance had been. And it was true! The ring of truth just knocked me backward; I was in a restaurant and I fainted. After I woke up, I immediately decided that it was the end of the band.” (RS #450, 1985)
Is it an exaggeration to say that Jon Landau’s review broke up Cream? There may have been other factors, but it’s pretty clear that it had an effect.
When I was growing up, Eric Clapton was always held in high esteem by my father, and he instilled in me an almost immediate respect for the guitarist. He taught me that bands like Cream and Blind Faith were more than just rock bands, they were “super groups.”
In terms of Clapton’s own legacy, the sole record Clapton did with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers became Dad’s ultimate go-to record as proof of Eric’s dexterity.
“You know that someone spray painted ‘Clapton is God’ on a wall because of his playing on ‘Beano,'” he’d tell me, before explaining the meaning of “Beano.” For years, I thought the Mayall/Clapton Bluesbreakers was actually called “Beano” and became dismayed when I could never find the album of the same name.
Since I was prewired to appreciate Clapton, there was almost an instinctual attraction toward a new documentary on his early years. The unauthorized dvd, The 1960’s Review, focuses on the guitarist’s formative years, when his talent was untarnished by later career decisions that undermined the man’s credibility.
For some of us, partial obscurity is a badge of honor. Or of authenticity. The fundamental belief is that because a few of us have discovered something, what we have sussed out is better than if all of us do. It’s like this. We find it. Like it. We know that anyone with half a sensibility would like it, too, if they’re aware of it. So we don’t want them to know because if everyone likes something then it is, almost by default, no longer exceptional. While it is never the case that everyone likes anything, we still like it if the artists and musicians that we like are not liked by the great audio unwashed.
Now what may happen is that those whom we like get discovered by more people. At some point—and when this point occurs is something that is indefinable yet perceived—the level of popularity is such that we have “lost” those whom we once revered. The obscurity has been traded way.
And so we turn our backs and wander off, seeking out that which has yet to be embraced by the many. And the performer(s) in question make it, if not big, then at least bigger.