The Dangers Of Courting Rock Royalty
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now it's time to open up the pages of the Washington Post Magazine. That's something we do just about every week for interesting stories about the way we live now. In this case, interesting doesn't really capture the long, winding road that Jay Bulger took to make his new documentary "Beware of Mr. Baker." It's about Ginger Baker, the legendary drummer in the '60s rock trio Cream. The film premiers at this year's South by Southwest Music and Film Festival this week.
But the story of how Bulger, a former model, boxer, music video director and freelance writer, wound up making a film about Baker, who didn't particularly want to be the subject of a film, well, that is an interesting story. And Jay Bulger is here with us now to tell us as much of it as he can in the time we have.
Jay, thank you.
JAY BULGER: Hey. What's happening? How are you?
MARTIN: So tell us a little about Ginger Baker and why you wanted to make a film about him – for people who aren't familiar.
BULGER: Ginger Baker is the original madman, junkie, superstar drummer who everyone thought was dead but somehow survived, and has gone through many lives on many continents with many wives and burned bridges until he ended up where he is, in South Africa with his 29-year-old wife and 39 polo ponies, and that's where the movie takes place. But over the...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Yeah. Really. What's not to like about that? Yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BULGER: Over the course of time, as the movie unfolded, he actually recently moved back to England. But, I mean it takes place, he goes from being a rally car racer, to a polo farmer, to an olive farmer, to the world's greatest drummer. I mean most importantly, he's the world's greatest drummer, indisputably.
MARTIN: For people who, you know, follow music, or even just like it, Ginger Baker, Eric Clapton, and Jack Bruce formed this group and he is credited with popularizing the drum solo in rock music. And let me just play a short clip of this. We have this in our archives. This is Cream's live version of "Toad," and he's got this nearly eight-minute drum solo, which sends people into a frenzy. There's really no other way to describe it. Here's just a little bit.
BULGER: Scorsese thought so. That's for sure.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOAD")
MARTIN: Just to give a sense of how influential a figure in music he is, I'm just going to play a clip from the documentary with people speaking from bands, like Black Sabbath, E Street Band, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and they're talking about the impact that Cream had on the music scene. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BEWARE OF MR. BAKER")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: They were the beginning of many, many things.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Cream absolutely might be called the first progressive band.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The first super group.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: The first band that played in big arenas.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: The first jam band.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: They were breaking out of the chamber of pop.
MARTIN: So, you know, given the history like that, you'd think the guy would want somebody to make a film about him. But the film opens and the piece about the film opens with him hitting you in the face.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Did he break your nose, by the way?
BULGER: He broke my nose with a cane. Yeah. But I mean...
MARTIN: What was up with that? Is that his way of saying hello?
BULGER: Well, I think - look, you can look at it a lot of ways. I mean you really got to watch the movie to figure it out because it is the kind of building block of the film. And the film is about a man who would do that and about that moment. And he's a person who, as I was saying, he's gone from continent to continent just going forward and leaving people behind.
Towards the end, when I was talking to Ginger, I asked him to take his glasses off because he does the whole movie with his tinted sunglasses, and finally I was like, you know, you've got to take the glasses off. We've got to see your eyes. And then we see this, for the first time we see a man, you know, this boy or, you know, this vulnerable human being, because he's kind of, you know, I mean I wouldn't say he's at the end of his rope because at so many different points in his life he would be at the end of his rope. But more importantly, I asked him about his first memory and he said, you know, the first memory I had was when my dad went off to World War II and I broke away from my mom and I ran after that train crying because I knew he wasn't coming back. And his dad went off to World War II on that train and he died. And he said he'd never be left on those tracks again and he was never left on those tracks again, musically, physically, emotionally.
The movie is really a character study and a psychological breakdown. It's honest. There's no judgment.
BULGER: It's just who he is.
MARTIN: Who he is. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Jay Bulger. He's the director of the new documentary "Beware of Mr. Baker." It premieres this week at the South by Southwest Film Festival, and it turns out he's kind of interesting himself.
Let's talk a little bit about your road to making that film. As I mentioned in the introduction, you are not a filmmaker by training and you just - you've had a lot of different careers and iterations yourself and you just decided you wanted to make this film.
BULGER: No, I've made a lot of music videos and I've directed commercials and I've written for people but, you know...
MARTIN: But to get – initially to get in touch with him...
BULGER: To get to Ginger Baker I...
MARTIN: ...you told him you were writing a profile for Rolling Stone.
BULGER: I had never written for Rolling Stone. I hadn't, no, I have not.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BULGER: But I had directed things before and it was my original intention to make a documentary and, but I...
MARTIN: OK. But how did you come up with the idea that you were writing a profile for Rolling Stone when you'd never written a profile for Rolling Stone. They didn't know you were writing this profile.
BULGER: I called him and I - no, they didn't know. But I called Ginger up. I got his number. You know, first of all, you know, I watched this documentary, if anyone hadn't seen it, it's very obscure. But Tony Palmer made it. It's called "Ginger Baker in Africa" and, you know, in 1972 - look, I'm from Washington, D.C., the most rhythmical city in the United States of America. So when I saw this documentary of Ginger Baker, you know, at the height of his fame, fortune, he's done Cream, he's done Blind Faith, he's done - he's become a bandleader, started his own band in Ginger Baker's Air Force, and he decides it's not enough. And he gets in the first Range Rover ever produced and he drives from London to Lagos, Nigeria, where he goes and meets the African icon Fela Kuti, who is just starting out. And Ginger played the drums with him. And when Fela Kuti ran for president of Nigeria, Ginger Baker was the lone white man on his committee.
I mean when I saw this documentary about him, especially the music, like I said, growing up with go-go music, you know, Fela's music has always really spoken to me, so when I saw that this madman not only went there but drove there to get off heroin, I was like I got to meet this guy.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BULGER: And so, you know, so...
MARTIN: Because what's not to like? You're right, right?
BULGER: He's just a maniac. I couldn't believe that no one had told his story before.
MARTIN: So the idea of making up a Rolling Stone profile which didn't yet exist was kind of small.
BULGER: Well, I called him up. No, I called him up and I said, I started talking to him about the Africa stuff, he sounded interested. And then, you know, I was like look, you know, I write for Rolling Stone and yeah, you know, the Rolling Stone thing sounded like it was my in. And he invited me to come live with him and...
MARTIN: And so you made it true. So...
BULGER: Yeah, I made it true. I did.
MARTIN: You made it true.
BULGER: That was really important.
MARTIN: Because they did accept the piece and the film did happen and...
BULGER: I made it true.
MARTIN: ...and it's premiering at South by Southwest. So congratulations. So what's the moral of this story? What do you think?
BULGER: Which moral? My moral or Ginger's?
MARTIN: Exactly. Either. Both. Both.
BULGER: Well, you know, that's what I was saying. Like Ginger Baker went back on the road after not playing music for five years, and he sold his horses, his car, his Range Rover, his farm and he goes back to being the one thing that he's always been and we were there to capture it.
And the moral of the story is that whether you like the guy, you hate the guy, you got a respect him because he always gets up off the camera. He's an indomitable, indestructible force who, you know, I revere because he cannot be conquered, he cannot be defeated. And, you know what? He might be Lex Luthor. He might be an anti-hero. He might be an unlikable character, but you got to love a guy who cannot be destroyed.
MARTIN: Jay Bulger is the director of the documentary "Beware of Mr. Baker." It premieres this week at the South by Southwest Film Festival. Jay Bulger and his journey to making this film was profiled in this week's Washington Post Magazine in a piece by Kris Coronado titled "When Jay Met Ginger." And Jay Bulger was with us from our studios in New York.
Jay Bulger, thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations on the film. Keep us posted.
BULGER: Thank you so much. D.C., represent. What's up?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. And remember, to tell us more, please go to NPR.org and find us under the Programs tab. You can find our podcast there. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter @TELL ME MORE/NPR. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow.
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