To find the heartbeat of a song, many look to the skin of a pulsating drum kit. For several bands in the ’60s and ’70s, that percussive heartbeat was at the mercy of a man named Ginger Baker. A wild-eyed, manic drummer with impeccable timing, Baker since has fallen off the musical map for many, despite having worked with the likes of Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Fela Kuti. With an acidic personality, he seldom made close friends and broke many-a-marriage. Director Jay Bulger found himself on the receiving end of Baker’s wrathful and erratic behavior during the course of making his documentary on the undeniably fascinating musician.
Paste: How did you decide on picking such an explosive beginning?
Jay Bulger: The best movies are always the most daunting. He is potentially this despicable character, so I said, “Fuck it, let’s start off with his most despicable act in the movie.” This movie wasn’t about making people love him or hate him, it was about creating an argument within one’s conflicting resolution for this person, a walking contradiction. He’s undefinable. You can’t put him in a box, and you can’t put his music into a box, so I decided to start off with a bang and work my way back. It gets people engaged from the very beginning. That was my very last day of filming, and he stepped in and decided to direct his movie. After he broke my nose with his cane, he said, “I only wish you got it on camera.” He wanted people to know him. He also wants people to stay off his property. I think he saw us leaving and was afraid that people would think he’s interviewable now.
Paste: But why Ginger Baker, a man who could have served as a stand-in for Animal on The Muppets?
Bulger: It’s the greatest musical adventure never told. I hope there are more of them. I don’t think there’s anyone in the world who’s gone through the lengths of the world on travel or adventure. What’s more interesting to me about Ginger, especially more than any other frontman or singer, like Neil Young—whose music is all Neil Young—is that Ginger is one of the greatest collaborators, so the music that he plays is all different. Rhythmically, he’s always Ginger—he has a very distinct sound—but the collaborations are more diverse than say, Neil Young, who as a singer has a much more defining sound.
Paste: While his music is certainly a draw for audience, wouldn’t you say that most of the drama arises from his infamously short temper?
Bulger: He’s a deeply competitive man who demands perfection. He wants to be in control and wants to be the band leader. When he’s faced with musical competition, he steps it up. Don’t expect to be his pal when it happens. He’s confrontational, but hey, I’d like to think he’s able to express himself musically whereas in reality, he may have Asperger’s or be mildly autistic. He’s complicated and contradictory. He’s volatile at times, sweet and generous at times, selfish at others—he is a very complicated guy. The drums are the oldest instrument around, and I think he was predestined to smash them. They’re manic drummers for a reason. I can’t help but think that spilled over into real life.
Paste: Apart from the assault in the first scene, did Mr. Baker behave himself?
Bulger: Some fool wrote the other day that Jay Bulger only needed to point the camera and he had a masterpiece. I was like, “let me tell that asshole…” At one point, I was not only filming, but doing the sound, miking him up, and doing everything else. So let me say, for the record, that he was one of the most difficult interview subjects I’ve had. He was volatile; he didn’t give a shit about being in the movie, about fame or fortune. He did the interview as a favor for me because he felt that I was a man of my word. Whoever said all I needed to do was to point the camera, tell them, you can also get hit in the face with a cane. If pointing a camera was all I needed to do, then I would’ve made the Bill Withers doc.