The Surreal Life

The Surreal Life
Reviewer: Drew A
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Ginger Baker:
Hellraiser: The Autobiography of the World's Greatest Drummer
292 pages
July 09, 2010
ISBN 10:
ISBN 13:

Ginger Baker is a legend, s pioneering drummer who has transcended genres, playing with supergroups Cream and Blind Faith. Here, he tells his story for the first time and without any self-censorship.

 Subtitled "The Autobiography of the World's Greatest Drummer," legendary drummer Ginger Baker joins his fellow Cream band mates Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce with an autobiography detailing his life and career.  Considered by most to be one of the greatest drummers of the 1960s and of all-time (along with Keith Moon, John Bonham, and Mitch Mitchell, Ginger is a member of my "Big Four" drumming greats from the classic rock era), he is mainly known solely for his work alongside Clapton in Cream and Blind Faith. However, Ginger had a high profile and successful career both before and after those bands and as one soon learns from reading the book, he has had an incredibly interesting and bizarre life as well!

Ginger starts the book off quite naturally with his birth and childhood in London and takes us through his entire life, progressing in each chapter to highlight defining eras in his career. While it's not necessarily a straight-ahead narrative (there is a fair amount of jumping around within each chapter as well as between chapters), overall he tells his tale in a linear fashion, ending around 2009 (when the book was published).

Ginger grew up during WWII London and lost his father, who was killed in the war, when he was a small child. Growing up, he was a typically headstrong and mischievous boy who had a talent for bicycle racing, which became one of the earliest of his many passions. While he was a music fan from a young age, it wasn't until he sat down on a lark behind someones drum kit at a party that he found his true calling in life. His natural talent for drumming led him to practice relentlessly and take lessons while learning from the top jazz drummers of the day in and around London. Eventually, Ginger joined a succession of bands (and also began his lifelong addiction to drugs, mainly heroin) before he ended up in Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated. There he met up with the man who would be his arch nemesis for the rest of his musical career, legendary bassist/singer Jack Bruce. Eventually, they left Korner's band along with their keyboard player, Graham Bond, and formed the seminal mid-1960s blues/jazz/R&B band, the Graham Bond Organization. After numerous rows with Bruce, onstage and off, Ginger ejected him from the band before deciding to form his own group with a hugely popular blues guitarist on the scene that he'd met, Eric Clapton. The resulting band, which ended up including Bruce (at Clapton's insistence, as they had been in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers together), was, of course, the legendary Cream. However, the explosive mix of Baker and Bruce, and Clapton's role as perpetual peacekeeper, took its toll on the band (and Ginger's hearing!) and after a few years of global stardom, Cream split in early 1969. After his stint in the 1969 supergroup Blind Faith (with Clapton, Steve Winwood, and Rick Grech), most people lost track of Baker apart from the brief Cream reunion in 2005, but this is where his story gets really interesting (and strange).

A love of African rhythms and culture led Ginger to move to Nigeria in the early 1970s, where he built and operated a recording studio outside of Lagos (where Paul McCartney and Wings recorded parts of their classic Band On the Run album) and became involved in musical endeavors with many local musicians, the most famous of whom was Fela Kuta. From Ginger's time in Nigeria to the present, he has had many brushes with thugs, guns, threats, drugs, and women...his life has been in danger so many times that it's a miracle he was never killed! After getting into polo and desert rally racing, however, he left Nigeria in the late 1970s and moved first back to England, and then to the USA. Stints in California and then Colorado coincided with the end of his first marriage, two subsequent short-lived marriages, and numerous health scares. He also spent most of his adult life getting clean from heroin only to end up hooked on it again, the cycle repeating numerous times. At present, due to immigration issues and visa difficulties in both the USA and his native England, Ginger has settled in South Africa, where he is running his own polo club and seems to be fairly settled and happy, if not at peace.

While his story is entertaining and surreal in parts (think of a rock'n'roll version of Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" to get an idea of what Baker's life has been like), it's also quite sad in many ways. He's had a sporadic but successful musical career since the demise of Blind Faith, moving on to Ginger Baker's Air Force and Baker Gurvitz Army in the 1970s, and since then numerous jazz bands (his true passion, musically) that have been critically successful. As for his other passions, besides women and heroin, Ginger had a stint racing Range Rovers across the deserts in Africa during his time there, but his overriding passion since the mid-1970s has been polo. The numerous places he's lived between then and now all centered on his ability to have the necessary space to build his own polo clubs. However, this has drained him of a lot of money and led to him at one point, when living in Italy, working as a bricklayer in order to afford food!

Throughout his book, Baker has stories of his encounters with many of the legendary figures of his era, from Pete Townshend (and even Townshend's father Cliff, who was a prominent jazz saxophonist in London after the war), the Beatles, Stones (his appraisal of Mick Jagger was hilarious), good friends Charlie Watts, Keith Moon, and John Bonham, Hendrix, and others. He is still close friends with Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood, while his lifelong feud with Jack Bruce shows no signs of abating, especially given that by the time of the 2005 Cream reunion, they were still at it. One thing I will say is that, apart from everything I've read over the years regarding the two of them, it seems from this book that Jack was a real jerk to work with and the real reason Cream split up; this is only strengthened and corroborated by the fact that Clapton was in agreement with Ginger on pulling the plug on Cream not only in 1968 but again in 2005.

While Ginger's writing style is quite candid and at times uproariously funny, he does have a tendency to jump around a bit, especially in the chapters where he is focusing on a broad period of time in his life. It can also quite shocking, at times, how nonchalant he is when describing his numerous affairs, especially during the time when he was married to his first wife Liz (whom he was married to for almost 20 years and who he had all of his children with). However, while he's not necessarily self-deprecating, he's quite honest and usually humorously blunt about what happened.  My only complaints about the book are that, apart from how scattered it can get in certain spots, Ginger tends to give short shrift to some rather important parts of his life (ie Cream in particular) while going on in greater detail when discussing his horses and love of polo. He also doesn't go into too much detail behind certain events that would seem to warrant it; there's a lot of the feeling that you're reading "this happened and then this happened, and then this happened," etc. However, the book overall reads more like a series of anecdotes and episodes that are put into chronological order than a straight narrative memoir, which is good and bad. It certainly makes for an interesting and enjoyable book, however.

Hellraiser is an apt title for Ginger Baker's life story as he has certainly done his fair share of living up to that name! However, he's also a musical giant and one of the all-time great drummers. To call his life story bizarre and surreal would be an understatement, but this is well worth a read for any fan of the man and his music.

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