29 March 2010

Monday's mp3: World's Greatest Drummer?

BOOK REVIEW
Hellraiser: the Autobiography of the World's Greatest Drummer by Ginger Baker

Ginger Baker: Hellraiser: The Autobiography of the World's Greatest DrummerThe question taunts: Is Ginger Baker really the world's greatest drummer? This English rock and roll drummer who hit his peak 40 years ago? Known for his work with Cream as well as a number of jazz and blues artist, Baker was certainly highly influential. Allmusic.com calls him "rock's first superstar drummer and the most influential percussionist of the 1960s." Does that translate into "world's greatest drummer?"

You won't really find the answer by reading this book, which is far from the world's greatest autobiography. The book's introduction sets a tone in its revelation of the difficulties Baker had in finding a biographer/editor who was interested in his life story, and not just in sexual exploits or in selling mementos ostensibly collected as research. Baker finally published the book with the help of his daughter Ginette, though it's a shame neither of them thought to dig a little deeper, beyond the details of "what" to the juice of "why."

In truth, the untold theme of Baker's life appears to be an unrootedness and a difficulty setting boundaries and getting along with others, from bandmates to wives to business partners. Maybe it's his personality. Or perhaps it's his apparent complete lack of spirituality. While the Beatles and others in the turbulent 60's took time to explore spiritual paths (yes, sometimes in concert with drug use), this book offers no evidence that Baker was interested in such exploration. His drug use began because of peer pressure or because he thought it made him play better.

Baker reputedly was fascinated with African rhythms, and "got" them more readily than other Western drummers of the time -- to the point that Fela Kuti said "Ginger is one of us." But even his chapters set in Africa spend more time accounting road-trip adventures than delving musically, philosophically, or culturally into the roots of these rhythms.

One of Baker's recordings may make an argument for "world's greatest drummer" honors. But then, I could just be saying that because he was paired with Nigerian drummer Tony Allen at the time.

[mp3] Fela Kuti & Africa '70 with Ginger Baker: Ginger Baker & Tony Allen Drum Solo
from the album Live!

I knew little about Baker going into this book, aside from his rock credentials and the fact that he had collaborated with Afrobeat originator Fela Kuti on several projects. Unfortunately, I didn't learn much more about him through the nearly 300 pages that followed the stunning cover image of Baker sporting large white wings, a leather overcoat, and a wizened visage. The book is less the story of a life than an accounting of drumming and drugs with a rotating assortment of bands, locations, and hobbies (bicycle racing, then polo later on). Baker has led an interesting life to be sure, and some of the details he recalls in the book are fascinatingly detailed and will engage any readers deeply into rock or jazz trivia. But if you really want to know the mind and thoughts and sould of Ginger Baker, you'll have to wait for another book...or find him in his music.

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