Washington native Jay Bulger’s first documentary film, about drummer Ginger Baker, will premiere at South by Southwest Film Festival
By Kris Coronado,
Ginger Baker is furious. The legendary 70-year-old drummer brandishes a cane as he stomps across his South African yard toward a documentary filmmaker named Jay Bulger. Baker leans through the open door of Bulger’s Toyota 4Runner, angling the cane toward him.
“You’re really going to hit me with a [expletive] cane?” says Bulger, sounding incredulous and provocative at the same time.
After all, there’s a cinematographer next to him, with the camera rolling.
“I [expletive] well am!” Baker barks. “I’m going to [expletive] put you in hospital!” The former Cream drummer thrusts the cane forward. There’s an “Oof!” from Bulger, then Baker straightens up — he’s wearing sunglasses that can’t hide his wide-eyed glare — and storms into his house.
Bulger looks at his reflection in the car’s visor mirror. Blood trickles from his nose. “Ginger Baker just hit me in the [expletive] nose,” he says matter-of-factly.
The altercation, painful as it is, isn’t a total waste. After all, it makes for great footage. “In my mind, I’m thinking, ‘God, this is pretty awesome,’ ” recalls the cinematographer, Eric Robbins.
And thus was born the opening scene of “Beware of Mr. Baker,” the first documentary by Bulger, a Washington native who, at age 30, already has been a boxer, an international fashion model, a music video director and a freelance writer. The movie has scored a coveted premiere slot at the South by Southwest film festival later this week. Bulger hopes it will kick-start his career and, maybe, revive interest in Baker’s.
“Ginger Baker is the greatest drummer of all time,” Bulger says.
And, “He’s a really strange character.”
Ginger Baker is known as one of the most powerful, innovative drummers in the history of rock. The flamboyant showman is credited with: helping to popularize the rock drum solo with his bombastic, polyrhythmic “Toad”; being among the first rock musicians to realize the percussive potential of African tribal music; being one of the original superstar drummers.
His musical career began when he was 17 in London, playing in traditional jazz bands and then in Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated. Before Baker and bassist Jack Bruce joined Eric Clapton to create the blues-based Cream, they both played in the eponymous Graham Bond Organization, well-respected among its musical contemporaries. After Cream, Baker barged his way into Blind Faith, a high-profile collaboration with Clapton and Steve Winwood that lasted only a year. Soon after, the drummer started Ginger Baker’s Air Force, a band that combined his rock and jazz influences. A year later, Baker headed to Lagos, Nigeria, where he jammed with Afro beat pioneer Fela Kuti in his quest to learn African rhythms.
“I knew about things like Fela because of Ginger Baker,” says bassist and music producer Bill Laswell. “Ginger was the one who made me think we can actually go to these places and play with people. It’s no different than going to Detroit or Chicago, it’s just a little farther.”
Baker’s passion and talent, however, were often overshadowed by his heroin use and fits of lunacy. By now, he’s on his fourth marriage and has fled as many countries — England, Nigeria, Italy and America — because of problems with drugs or taxes or immigration. Abrasive, difficult and bitter over the small share he receives in royalties for Cream’s music (most of the writing credits had gone to Clapton and Bruce), he cut many family ties and burned many musical bridges. This may explain why Baker is often passed over for the likes of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham and Rush’s Neil Peart when it comes to “greatest drummer” compilations, such as a 2011 Rolling Stone piece that ranked Baker ninth out of 10. It’s a point not lost on Baker. “Ginger Baker: Hellraiser,” his 2010 book, is subtitled “The Autobiography of the World’s Greatest Drummer.”
By the time Jay Bulger came into his life, Baker was an angry, solitary, pain-ridden, morphine-sucking relic, ripe for rediscovery.
Like Baker, who coincidentally shares the same height, 6 feet 4 inches, and birthday, Aug. 19, Bulger had boundless creative energy.
“He was just someone who really needed to have freedom of expression,” says mother Nancy Bulger. “He was creative right from the start. He liked to experiment. He liked to try different things.”
As an 8-year-old, he’d set up a lemonade stand in front of his family’s three-story rowhouse at 34th and N streets in Georgetown, with an antique cash register and sign that read “Fresh Squeezed.” Then, he’d sell lemonade made from a mix, with a few lemon seeds thrown in to feign authenticity. Jay would smile innocently at the sidewalk traffic, making $200 on the best days. When he outgrew the routine, he had his brother, James, who is four years younger, man the stand.
“I paid him $2 an hour,” Jay says with a chuckle. “Which he thought was a lot.”
Like Baker, Jay also had a tendency to frustrate those closest to him. “He was kind of a pain in the neck, I guess you would say,” Nancy remembers.
Jay had difficulty staying on task, which had led his parents to restrict him to a diet that eliminated sugar. It’s a period he doesn’t recall fondly. “When kids would have birthday parties at school, they’d bust out the cake,” Bulger says. “I’d be licking my lips, and the teacher would be like, ‘No, no’ ” and would instead serve him crackers and natural peanut butter.
“I think that was my motivation for getting out of the house and drifting away from my parents,” Bulger continues. He rarely speaks with his father, Tom, a Washington lobbyist, and sees his mother, an educational consultant in Montgomery County, about once a year — less often than she would like. “That’s how it all started,” Bulger says. “I never stayed at home. I slept at a friend’s house every weekend since I was in kindergarten. They’d go to sleep, and I’d go down to the kitchen, snorting Fruit Roll-ups.”
“We really didn’t have a traditional family,” Nancy says. “I had a business in Europe for several years; Tom was a very active and successful lobbyist downtown.”
She thinks Jay may have felt something was lacking. “As far as Jay spending time away, he may have enjoyed that kind of structure that was people sitting around and watching television on Saturday night, board games and stuff like that.”
Their son’s hyperactive behavior led the Bulgers to enroll him in several schools through his elementary years. He left Washington Episcopal after second grade and Stoddert after fourth. The Bulgers were often called into Jay’s third school, the Potomac School in McLean, to discuss their son’s rambunctious behavior. But when the headmistress told Jay’s parents that their sixth-grade son was “ordinary,” Nancy had had enough. “I said to my husband afterward, ‘Ordinary? Ordinary? My child is not ordinary and he will never be ordinary, and we’re not going back.’ So we didn’t.”
Instead, the family moved to Chevy Chase, and Jay started seventh grade in a Maryland public school. A few years later, however, Jay’s parents separated, and the teen started acting out. After being goaded by a fellow driver who was revving his engine, Jay was arrested for driving his Volkswagen Corrado 135 miles per hour in a 35 mph zone. For six months, he had court-ordered community service on Saturday mornings at the National Zoo, where he shoveled animal excrement, starting at 5:30 a.m. and riding in a golf cart with an older colleague. “He’d be like, ‘Yep. Time for the elephants,’ ” Bulger says. “I’d be like, ‘Noooo!’ He’d be like, ‘Yep, the elephants. You shouldn’t have driven that fast.’ ”
At home, Jay relegated himself to his basement bedroom. Nancy sealed off a door to the outside so her son wouldn’t sneak out at night. “He was depressed,” Nancy says. “It was very dark down there. I never saw him.”
Eventually, Jay, who describes himself at the time as “skinny and angry at the world,” found an outlet for his pent-up rage: boxing. Unbeknown to his parents, he headed to the now-closed Finley’s gym on Capitol Hill, where he’d spar for hours every day. “It was just really good for him to have an outlet and express himself athletically,” says James, who, at 26, now works in D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray’s office as a constituent service liaison.
Pretty soon, Jay was running before school, and his trainer was keeping track of his grades. “He changed; he became more disciplined,” his mother says.
The sport became so important to him that it influenced his choice of college: Fordham University, located in a Bronx neighborhood with an active boxing scene, where he majored in business. “Jay the Box” began competing in Golden Gloves amateur boxing matches. In 2002, a photo of a bloody-nosed Bulger ran in the New York Daily News and got the attention of Manhattan-based international model scout Gail Simon Chafik.
“I saw this face with a bloody nose, and I was like, ‘Wow, this guy’s got a great face,’ ” she says. “I hunted around and found out how to contact him and sent him up to IMG.”
The top modeling firm soon signed the lanky, green-eyed 20-something with floppy, dirty blond hair. This amused Bulger, who, despite his rakish looks today, was an awkward teen. “I never thought I was good-looking,” he says. After graduating from Fordham in 2004, he decided to try out the high-fashion realm. His first job was in Paris. Other gigs followed for the likes of Calvin Klein and Armani.
Bulger says he had a hard time taking photo shoots seriously. “They’re like, ‘Come on, more sexy!’ And you’re like, ‘What? Okay, more?’ ” But the work was extremely profitable — some shoots paid $15,000 a day, Bulger says — and gave him an opportunity to travel the world, including Milan and Tokyo. His modeling income also bankrolled a fantasy he’d had since he was a TV-watching teen: directing music videos. “Back in the day, they would play the music videos, and it would say, ‘Directed by so-and-so,’ ” he recalls. From 2005 to 2007, under the name Dr. Mindbender, Bulger directed videos that ran on MTV2 and Fuse TV.
Friend and Manhattan-based mural artist Mitchell Schorr remembers visiting Bulger on a set. “I walk into a full-on movie shoot,” he says with a laugh. “They had a crane. There were people on walkie-talkies, and there’s Jay: ‘I’m the director!’ What seem to be the most absurd stories he will tell you are true.”
And then came an absurdity Bulger couldn’t have anticipated. While prepping Bulger for a Kenneth Cole campaign in October 2007, a makeup artist pointed out a small scab between the model’s nose and left eye. “I had noticed it, too, but I thought it was something that was having trouble healing,” Bulger says.
The 26-year-old went to his dermatologist. It was basal-cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer, and the growth was larger than anyone had thought. In the initial surgery, a silver-dollar-size hole was carved into Bulger’s face. Over 18 months, he endured 10 procedures. “It was a year and a half of having a completely dilapidated face,” he says. “It wasn’t fun at all.”
Though a plastic surgeon restored his face, with 150 stitches, Bulger was ready to leave modeling behind. He was frustrated with his lack of creative input and already had a tendency to break the rules — he stuck out his tongue on the catwalk at a 2005 show in Italy. The feeling was mutual. “None of them hired me twice,” Bulger says. “I’m not good at walking, supposedly.”
Without modeling, however, Bulger, who had spent all his money on music videos and medical treatment, was no longer flush with cash. He took a job working construction and brooded. Looking back, though, he says, “it was good. I was getting lazy with all of that easy money.” And it helped lead him to Ginger Baker.
It was 2008, and Bulger was working creatively again, directing videos for a Pepsi ad campaign. With surgery behind him and more money in the bank, he thought back to a project he had dreamed of: making a film about a crazy drummer named Ginger Baker.
A couple of years earlier, a friend had shown Bulger Tony Palmer’s “Ginger Baker in Africa,” a 1971 documentary that follows a wide-eyed and bushy-haired Baker as he drives across the Sahara to set up his studio in Lagos.
Bulger, who had never heard of Baker, was entranced. Though Bulger wasn’t a drumming aficionado, something in Baker’s complicated character spoke to him. When a Google search revealed that Baker had been living in obscurity on an 80-acre compound in South Africa since 1999, Bulger grew even more intrigued.
“I’m really interested in older people who have reached a point in their careers where they’ve done everything they mean to do,” Bulger says. “They don’t need to prove themselves. I’m not interested in Justin Bieber or anyone who’s my age, because what do they know?
“I’m sure a psychiatrist would go nuts with it, but I am really interested in complex people who currently reside in obscurity and who do so for whatever reason.”
Bulger decided to find Baker, finally tracking him down through a friend of a friend who knew Clapton manager Cecil Offley. Bulger got the drummer on the phone in spring 2008 and told Baker he wanted to profile him for Rolling Stone. Bulger neglected to mention a couple of pertinent facts: (1) He hadn’t written for the music magazine (or any major publication) before, and (2) Rolling Stone hadn’t assigned him the piece.
“I just called him, and it’s not like we hit it off, but I was really interested in his time in Africa,” Bulger says. “I was trying to find the entry point to Ginger, and that was the favorite part of his life. He was really excited that someone else was interested in it, because it was the most obscure story that he also thought was the most important.”
After numerous calls about Baker’s African sojourn, “All of a sudden he started telling me details from his personal, everyday life. He has really bad hearing, so one day he was like, ‘I can’t continue doing this. Just come here.’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ He’s like, ‘Just come here. Like now.’ I was like, ‘Uh, what do you mean? Where am I going to stay?’ He’s like, ‘With me, you idiot!’ ”
Bulger jumped at the chance.
Nancy lent her son $1,000 for the trip. “I said, ‘I just gave you my mortgage money, so this better be good,’ ” she says.
That September, Bulger drove into Baker’s rustic compound in Tulbagh — passing a sign just to the right of the rocker’s turquoise metal gates that declared “Beware Mr. Baker” in bold, all-caps lettering. Although Baker’s property was 80 acres, he lived in a modest one-story stone and brick house, surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.
Bulger stayed with the 69-year-old musician for three months, sleeping in a bedroom off the kitchen. The room’s window was bordered with white curtains, his double bed covered with a light purple comforter with matching throw pillows, creature comforts provided by Baker’s then 27-year-old Zimbabwean girlfriend (later fourth wife) Kudzai Machokoto, who lived there with her adolescent daughter. Baker’s pack of Rhodesian Ridgebacks and Dalmatians had the run of the property to ward off wild baboons, while Baker maintained a stable of 39 horses he used for the polo matches he organized on his own field. Despite a diagnosis of emphysema, Baker began his days with a morning horse ride, followed by a bath, before settling in front of his television to watch hours of the History Channel. His drum set, the same kit he played in the 2005 Cream reunion shows, resided in a nearby guest room, assembled but untouched.
Every day, Bulger would later reveal, the drummer and his guest met in Baker’s living room, which had natural wood paneling, exposed brick walls and a fireplace. Baker sat in a black leather recliner facing a large flat-screen TV — his legs twitching from a degenerative spine condition — taking frequent pulls on a morphine inhaler for the pain. Bulger took his place on an adjacent leather couch and attempted to unravel the details of Baker’s complicated life.
“He really liked telling stories. While he made it difficult for me, I think a part of him looked forward” to the interviews, Bulger says. “I think it made him feel good. He lives in the middle of nowhere, and he’s got this persona to keep up. I think that persona would be prone to speaking with a Rolling Stone journalist because he’s Ginger Baker.”
If Baker liked sharing the stories, however, he hid it well. The interviews were liberally sprinkled with abuse. “I’ve never been verbally humiliated or assaulted like I was during that beginning period,” Bulger says. Baker “would jump-kick my door down and be like, ‘World Series of baseball!? Nobody plays the [expletive] game except for you Yankees!’
“He really liked picking on me about that. He’d be like, ‘Baseball! It was a girls’ game called rounders!’ ”
Bulger’s own brash humor helped protect him. After bunking with Baker for a few weeks, he gave the drummer a small gift. “It was a paddle that said ‘[Expletive] off,’ ” Bulger says. “I said, ‘Look, whenever you want me to go away, just hold up this paddle.’
“While he threw it at me, I think he thought it was funny.”
As Bulger had hoped, the stories turned out to be worth the verbal assault. Baker talked about his heroin addiction. (“Ginger was a loner,” Cream collaborator Pete Brown would tell Bulger when interviewed. “It helped him escape. It also went with the perception of the tortured artist.”) And Baker discussed violent incidents, such as his onstage attack on Jack Bruce, when he thought the bassist had played over his drum solo. (“Nowadays, we’re happily coexisting in different continents,” Bruce would later say, “although I was thinking of asking him to move. He’s still a bit too close.”) Baker’s own words were candid and unapologetic. Take his response to those who call Cream a forebear to heavy-metal music: “We should have had an abortion.”
The interview process was an intriguing and yet touchy endeavor with the irritable musician. “We’d spend the day doing an interview, then I’d just try to get out of there, because if you leave on a good note, it’s fine,” Bulger says. He befriended Baker’s farm manager, and most nights the pair would head to a local bar to play poker and blow off steam.
One story illustrates the intimidating effect Baker had on the young writer. Bulger came home, high on mushrooms, and accidentally let the dogs out. He rounded them up but woke the drummer.
“I hear this voice. ‘Hello, who’s there?’ ” Bulger recounts. “I run into my room ... and I’m hiding under the covers thinking, ‘Ginger Baker is going to kill me.’ He goes out back. He has his flashlight, and he’s looking for someone. … I start thinking that maybe there is an intruder. Then, I start thinking, ‘This is bad. I’m living with him, and I’m just going to let him take on the intruder. Maybe I should help.’
“He’s this 70-year-old fearless beast tromping around the dark of this African night. I finally muster the courage to at least pretend that I’m concerned. I go outside and say, ‘What is it? I’m ready to help.’ He’s like, ‘The water main broke.’ ”
Bulger helped fix the pipe and never fessed up to letting the dogs out.
When Baker started to ask when he could expect to see the article in print, Bulger took it as a sign that it was time to go. He was worried, though, because the Rolling Stone piece had been a fiction meant to achieve his dream of making a documentary. “The Rolling Stone fib was my entry point,” Bulger says. It wasn’t until Baker told him they’d talk about doing a documentary after the Rolling Stone article that Bulger realized he’d really have to write the piece.
And though Bulger had called Rolling Stone from Baker’s house — so the editors would know he truly had access to the drummer — the magazine had committed only to taking a look at his article, not to running it. And at that point, Bulger was $10,000 in debt to his mother and friends. Still, he found a bright side: “Worst-case scenario, I could say I went and lived with Ginger Baker.”
Bulger left Africa in November 2008, and, to his relief, Rolling Stone accepted his story. After three drafts, “The Devil and Ginger Baker” ran as a seven-page spread in August 2009.
“The fact that he went out there and used our name isn’t totally kosher — but Jay’s not totally kosher,” says Rolling Stone assistant managing editor Sean Woods, who calls the piece “one of the craziest stories I’ve ever worked on.”
It was the fact that Bulger had gone to South Africa and gotten the irascible Baker to open up that most impressed Woods. “Most people can’t pull it off. That’s what’s great about Jay. He’s able to walk the walk. He gets good stuff from people. That’s the type of thing that can’t be taught in [journalism] school. As crazy as he is, he’s a lot of fun.”
After the Rolling Stone piece was published, Bulger talked even more people into taking a chance on an unknown. This time, it was the owners of Insurgent Media, a company formed in 2010 by the producers of films such as “The Cove” and “Moneyball.”
At first, co-producer Fisher Stevens was extremely skeptical. “I was like, ‘Who cares about Ginger Baker? Who is this guy?’ ” Then, Bulger played them footage he had shot of Baker, and, intrigued, the producers decided to back the documentary. “When somebody hasn’t made a film before, it’s a huge leap of faith,” says co-producer Andy Karsch. “As it turned out, Jay did 100 percent of it. If he wasn’t good when he started, he became good.”
In May 2010, Bulger returned to Tulbagh, this time accompanied by cameraman Robbins and editor Abhay Sofsky.
Baker and Bulger’s reunion was captured on film. There’s a high-five and a handshake as Baker takes a drag from a cigarette and asks Bulger how he’s doing.
“I’m great,” says Bulger, settling onto a couch as Baker’s dogs jump on him. “You look like you’ve got a smile on your face.” He points at Baker and grins. “You missed me!”
“Yeah,” Baker replies sarcastically, shaking his head. His denial ends there, though, making it seem that Bulger might be right.
For the next 21 / 2 months, Bulger drew more anecdotes and more abuse out of the begrudging Baker. A typical insult: “Trying to explain to a dumb American is very difficult.”
But Bulger was able to flesh out some of the stories he had touched on in his Rolling Stone piece, such as Baker’s introduction to heroin and the fact that Baker had been hoping to get high with buddy Jimi Hendrix hours before the rocker died of an overdose — an anecdote that later had to be cut when it didn’t fit into the film’s narrative. “I think Jimi and he were kindred spirits,” Bulger says. “I think Ginger … felt a deep loss on that day. To this day, it sincerely saddens him to remember it, and it’s hard to get him to speak about it in knowing where it takes him.”
Finally, the trio had filmed what they needed from Baker. But when Bulger and Robbins dropped by the drummer’s house on July 2, 2010, and told him they were off to find his former band mates, Baker became irate. “You just want to push up the people I moved here to get away from,” he said. “I haven’t spoken to not one single one since I left there. I don’t want any of them on my film!”
Then he broke Bulger’s nose.
“There was a part of me that was really stunned,” Bulger says of the assault. “Then angry, and then somewhat joyful.” Here was the passionate and wildly unpredictable bad boy Bulger had been inspired to track down in the first place.
Baker’s flamboyance and fury run throughout Bulger’s 100-minute documentary, which also includes frame-by-frame artistic re-creations of scenes such as the attack on Bruce, tantalizing archival footage of Baker waging drum battles with jazz greats Elvin Jones and Art Blakey, and interviews with stars such as Clapton and Charlie Watts.
Janet Pierson, producer of the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival, says the movie was one of the first she picked for this year’s gathering, “because I felt it was a great story about a great subject, done extremely well.”
Unlike a lot of music documentaries, which she says are about struggling and making it, drugs and recovery, falling apart and getting back together, Bulger’s film is unpredictable.
“In this story, you’ve got this rock icon — who you didn’t necessarily know everything about to begin with — and his life had this trajectory that was completely unexpected.
Bulger’s interactions with Baker add another unusual element, she adds. “I was like, ‘What’s going to happen next?’ And Ginger is so interesting.”
Producer Karsch says it’s to Bulger’s credit that, despite the stories of altercations, misbehavior and parental neglect that pepper the film, Baker remains someone with whom viewers can empathize. “Jay told a very honest story and made him compelling.”
Stevens agrees. He’s a newly minted Ginger Baker fan and anticipates the film will have the same effect on others. “I didn’t know anything about him,” Stevens says. “This will open a whole new generation up” to bands such as Cream and Air Force.
Such reactions are exactly what Bulger is trying to achieve with the film. Baker, he says, “is likable in spite of being, at times, an unlikable character. He’s likable through his relentless pursuit for his passion, for his journey of rhythm that has taken him through so many different lives that he is still living.”
As Johnny Rotten orders viewers in the film: “Love and appreciate, no matter how awkward this character may appear to you.”
Before that appreciation can happen, however, Baker’s story needs to reach nationwide movie theaters. There has already been some studio interest in the as-yet-unscreened film, says Karsch, though he adds that might not mean much. “ ‘Interest’ is the most amorphous phrase in the world when it comes to the movie business. It’s one of the distinct professions where you can literally die from encouragement.”
As he wraps up the Baker film, Bulger has been exploring the possibility of making two more documentaries: one on actor, musician and painter John Lurie; and the other on music producer Bill Laswell. Bulger also has a development deal with Insurgent Media to write and direct his first feature film. Bulger says it’s about a 20-something who returns home to the Washington area during the 2002 sniper attacks.
Oh, and he plans to marry Australian-born fashion designer Kat Grace, based in Bali.
Bulger’s mother, Nancy, still marvels at what her son has accomplished. “He just went there and made it happen,” she says. “It really says something about commitment to purpose.”
“There clearly has to be some method to his madness,” James Bulger says of his brother. “The way he gallivants. ... Any endeavor he gets involved with, he’s able to pull it off in his own way.”
Reached by e-mail to get his thoughts on Bulger and the film, Baker, who now lives in Kent, England, replies: 1. He always calls at the most inconvenient times. 2. He’s got verbal diarrhea which drives me mad. 3. He needs to state his case without long conversation.
It’s a response that won’t shock Bulger. “Technically speaking, we’re not best friends,” he says of Baker. “He’s not best friends with anybody. I think that I understand him. We have an understanding.”
When asked if he thinks he shares any similarities with the idiosyncratic drummer, Bulger becomes uncharacteristically reticent. “I wouldn’t want to say anything like that,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to — I don’t know. I’m not sure. Everyone else can figure that out on their own.”
For his part, when asked if he thinks he and Bulger are alike, Baker writes back two words:
Kris Coronado is a frequent contributor to the Magazine. To comment on this story, send e-mail