In the white room with black curtains

In early 1969, following the breakup of Cream, the first “supergroup” power trio, Eric Clapton pondered his next move.

He had been in the Yardbirds during their formative years; he had done a memorable stint with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and he had been a key factor in the international success of Cream.  But a ferocious personality conflict between drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce, along with exhaustion from relentless touring, had taken their

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Blind Faith:  Ric Grech, Ginger Baker, Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton

toll, bringing the group’s existence to an end after only two years, much to Clapton’s relief.

Through it all, there was another musician he had been admiring from afar:  Steve Winwood, first the wunderkind singer/keyboardist of The Spencer Davis Group and then the founder and key sparkplug of the folk-jazz-rock band Traffic.

When Clapton heard Traffic was either taking a break or breaking up, he reached out to Winwood.  What say we get together and jam a bit and see what happens?  Winwood was keen to the idea, so they met in an isolated cottage in the English countryside to try out some new songs.

They’d been there only a day when there was a knock at the door.  Standing there was Baker.  “Here I am,” he announced.  Winwood, knowing Baker’s abilities, welcomed him in with open arms, but Clapton appeared deflated.  Oh shit, he thought, how did he even find us out here?

This anecdote serves as an illustration of Baker’s intimidating presence and aggressive perseverance, even in places where he wasn’t necessarily wanted.  As Britain’s The Guardian put it, “Certainly Baker’s physical makeup doesn’t really help to contradict most people’s image that he’s a direct descendant of King Kong or the Wild Man of Borneo.  He has a huge shaggy head of red hair and a beard to match.  Mere mortals have been known to quail before his glowering, rolling eyes.  His teeth are chipped, his grin evil.”

None of that mattered much when he sat down behind his massive drum kit and started ginger-bakerto play.  He is regarded by many, including most drummers, to be perhaps the best drummer ever, melding a jazz background and inventive African rhythms to create a singular approach that has inspired rock drummers for decades.  In the late ’60s, he pioneered the archetypal rock concert drum solo, and he introduced the two-bass-drum configuration which became standard throughout the industry in the ’70s and beyond.

Now the rock music world mourns Baker’s passing last week at the age of 80, a victim of multiple diseases that he suffered with for his last 10-15 years — obstructive pulmonary problems, degenerative osteoarthritis and progressive cardiac issues.

He was, by all accounts, a difficult man, which is why Clapton had been so wary about including Baker into the fold of Blind Faith, the new group he’d been nurturing with Winwood.

“I’m a prickly bastard, no doubt about it,” he said in a 2004 interview.  Indeed, a 2012 documentary about the mercurial drummer, entitled “Beware of Mr. Baker,” includes a scene when Baker attacked filmmaker Jay Bulger because he didn’t like how the project was progressing.

Born Peter Edward Baker in South London in 1939, “Ginger” (named for his shock of flaming red hair) took to the drums by age 14, inspired by jazz drummers like Britain’s Phil Seaman and U.S. legends like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich.  He first gained notoriety with The Graham Bond Organisation, an R&B band with strong jazz leanings, where he met and began clashing with bassist/vocalist Bruce.

Despite the unpredictable relationship between Baker and Bruce, the two agreed to work together again a couple of years later, this time with Clapton on guitar, forming Cream (so named because they were considered the cream of British musicians on their respective instruments).  From mid-1966 until late 1968, the trio reigned supreme, playing more

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Cream:  Clapton, Baker, Bruce

than 400 concerts and releasing four hugely successful albums, becoming monumentally influential even as they were imploding from within.

Baker always felt he wasn’t given due songwriting credit for many of Cream’s songs.  While he is credited for writing obscure deep album tracks like “Pressed Rat and Warthog,” “Blue Condition” and “Passing the Time,” he missed out on any credit for the big-royalty songs from their catalog.  He thought it unfair that copyright laws don’t recognize drumbeats (however inventive or catchy or as integral to a song as they may be) for songwriting royalties.  “It’s crazy,” he fumed.  “One of the most important things in pop music, any music, is the beat.  But in the eyes of the law, it’s melody, harmony and lyrics that matter.  I added the 5/4 time introduction to Cream’s hit ‘White Room,’ and I suggested to Jack Bruce that the tempo for ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ was way too fast and should be much slower.  These were both important contributions to those tracks, but I got no credit whatsoever.”

Baker also bristled when he talked about his drumming style during his days with Cream.  “I hear they consider me a pioneer of heavy metal drumming.  I loathe heavy metal.  I think it is an abortion.  A lot of younger rock drummers would come up and say, ‘Man, you were my influence, the way you thrashed the drums,’” he noted.  “They didn’t seem to understand I was thrashing just so I could hear what I was playing above the over-amplified volumes from the guitar and bass.  It was anger, not enjoyment.  And it was painful.  I suffered onstage because of all those Marshall amps turned way up.  I didn’t like it then, and like it even less now.”      

He found it amusing when he would be labeled “best rock drummer” in reader polls.

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Baker in 2007

“Oh, for God’s sake, I’ve never played rock,” he said in 2013. “Cream was two jazz players and a blues guitarist playing improvised music.  We never played the same thing two nights running … It was jazz.”

Baker’s playing made use of syncopation and “ride cymbal” patterns characteristic of bebop and other advanced forms of jazz, as well as the frequent application of African rhythms.  He often utilized differing timbres and tempos in his percussive work, using a variety of percussion instruments in addition to the standard drum kit.

Said Baker in 2012, “Drummers are really nothing more than time-keepers.  They’re the time of the band.  It’s the drummer’s job to make the others sound good.  I don’t consider I should have as much recognition as, say, a brilliant guitar player.  I think the best thing a drummer can have is restraint when he’s playing – and so few have that these days.  They think playing loud is playing best.”

If you listen to songs like Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home,” it shows Baker’s mastery of the high hat and the restrained approach he referred to in the 2012 comment.  Still, the incendiary drumming you hear in most live Cream recordings — most notably “Spoonful” from “Wheels of Fire” — is jaw-dropping in its complexity and performance.

Said Neal Peart of Rush last week, “His playing was revolutionary – extrovert, primal and inventive.  He set the bar for what rock drumming could be.  Every rock drummer since has been influenced in some way by Ginger, even if they don’t know it.”

Michael Balzary, better known as Flea, the bassist of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, said he was in awe of Baker’s legacy.  “There was so much freedom in his playing.  What a wild man.  Those rhythms we’ve heard all our lives, he just plucked them out of the sky.”

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Baker, Clapton and Winwood as Blind Faith, Hyde Park, London, July 1969

Following the short-lived Blind Faith experience, Baker formed Ginger Baker’s Air Force in 1970, a somewhat bloated group of jazz-rock fusion musicians that included, at various times, Winwood, Traffic flautist Chris Wood, Afrocentric drummer Rebi Kebaka and ex-Moody Blues guitarist Denny Laine, among many others.  They relied on lengthy jams and unrehearsed noodlings that found their way onto two LPs in 1970 but never sold well.

“I can only echo the words and thoughts that have been shared by various mutual friends,” said Laine following Baker’s death.  “I think we gelled musically in a way that is rare and that is really all that matters.  I will always defend his reputation as a hard nut to crack because his honesty was second to none, and his heart was an open book for all to see.”

Baker dabbled in heroin and other drugs during that period, and it took watching his good friend Jimi Hendrix die after a debauched night on the town together for Baker to finally begin the difficult journey of recovering from substance abuse.  Feeling he couldn’t pull that off in Europe, he packed up and traveled to Africa, where he spent most of the rest of his life.  He opened a studio in Lagos, Nigeria, where Paul McCartney was one of the first to visit.  “We worked together on the ‘Band On the Run’ album in his ARC Studio there,’ said McCartney last week.  “Ginger was a wild and lovely guy.”

While living in South Africa, Baker withdrew from the public for years at a time, pursuing a passion for and investing much of his wealth in polo ponies, which left him in financial straits.  Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Baker traveled the world, working with nearly anyone who would hire him, constantly struggling to pay the bills and stay sober.  He played with such bands as Hawkwind, Public Image Ltd, and the hard-rock group Masters of Reality before teaming up with Bruce once again in BBM, a short-lived power trio that included guitarist Gary Moore.

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Cream’s reunion gig in 2005

In 1993, Baker was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as part of Cream, and in 2005, Cream finally reunited for a concert at Royal Albert Hall, which was then made into a successful CD and concert DVD.  Both are well worth your time.

I was pleased to see that, despite the years of acrimony, the family of the late Jack Bruce offered this statement upon Baker’s death: “We would like to extend our sincere condolences to Ginger Baker’s family, friends and fans.  Ginger was like an older brother to Jack, and they fought like brothers often do, but they survived their love-hate relationship long enough to work together in The Graham Bond Organisation, make history with Cream and, much later, collaborate in BBM.  Each time, their musical chemistry was truly spectacular.  Rest in peace, Ginger, one of the greatest drummers of all time.”

Mark Holan, my former editor at Scene Magazine in Cleveland, is a huge fan of Baker’s work, and has posted several items this past week on Facebook about him.  Yesterday he displayed the cover of Cream’s debut LP “Fresh Cream” and reminisced, “I remember 72799625_10157922448373313_8637118432698957824_olistening to this album over and over, trying to figure out how Ginger could make that drum kit sound like a bulldozer gone berserk.”

I spent the other day listening to the 16-minute live drum solo “Toad” from Cream’s “Wheels of Fire” for the first time in decades.  When I was 14, I found that track compelling, listening to it dozens of times because of its mesmerizing rhythms and seemingly impossible techniques.  Even though it gave birth to the unfortunate practice of including momentum-killing drum solos at so many rock concerts in that 1970s era, I still have a soft spot for Baker’s virtuosity on display on “Toad” as well as on his solo in Blind Faith’s “Do What You Like.”

R.I.P., Mr. Baker.  Your work here is done and has not gone unappreciated.

The critics falling over to tell themselves he’s boring

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”  — Elvis Costello

Some rock music artists (like Costello and others) have little use for rock critics.  Others try to maintain some sort of a love/hate relationship.  Either way, they must face the reality that art critics have probably been around for as long as there has been art to critique.

Until the 1960s or so, critics in newspapers and magazines tended to limit their subject matter to the fine arts, film and theater.  Pop and rock music was dismissed as fleeting and unworthy of such scrutiny.

rs-24166-22501_lgBeginning around the time The Beatles and Bob Dylan took the long-playing record album and turned it into an artistic statement, “rock journalism” became a thing, led by pioneering wordsmiths like Robert Christgau, Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs writing for Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, Crawdaddy and Creem.

When I was in high school in the early ‘70s, I started subscribing to Rolling Stone and always looked forward to reading the album reviews.  They gave us the lowdown on the latest releases of favorite artists and new and unfamiliar groups as well.  These reviews proved helpful to us (if not always accurately) in determining which records to add to our growing album collections.

As a journalism major at Syracuse University, I came to realize that the type of writing I enjoyed most was reviewing, or “critical writing,” as the course was titled in the curriculum.  On the first day of class, we learned Rule Number One:  Reviewers couldn’t merely say that we liked or disliked something.  We had to explain why.  We were assigned to analyze and evaluate movies, plays, TV shows and concerts, always giving reasons for our opinions.

images-69Of all the art forms we surveyed, I most enjoyed critiquing rock albums and concerts because I was passionate about the music and had a fair amount of knowledge about specific genres and recording artists.

I became a regular contributor to, and eventually an editor of, The Daily Orange, SU’s daily independent student newspaper.  I felt privileged to have access to this forum.  Just about everyone has an opinion, but in the pre-Internet age, very few had the chance to share those opinions with the public on a regular basis through the media.

Upon getting a position as a reporter/reviewer at a chain of community newspapers in Cleveland, I felt I had the dream job:  I was being paid to attend the concerts of dozens and dozens of major and minor artists and then to publish my observations about the performances.  Friends envied me for this, and I don’t blame them.

I quickly learned I had to develop a thick skin, because not everyone agreed with my opinions.  (Imagine that.)  Some readers were sufficiently annoyed with what I had written that they wrote angry letters to the editor or called me at the office to rant about how I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about.  Usually these were rabid fans of some band that I had had the audacity to criticize.  Even if I had given what I felt was a positive review, the reader could not abide even one negative remark.  And on those occasions where I disliked the concert and wrote disparagingly about it or the artist in general, the gloves really came off.  “You’re a complete idiot, Hackett.  How can you call yourself an objective reviewer?” one letter said.

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A reader response, The Daily Orange, 1976

That always made me laugh.  A review is, by its very nature, not remotely objective.  It is a subjective commentary, merely one person’s opinion.  But because I had the forum to print my opinion and he didn’t, the reader found it unfair.  “Who does this guy think he is?” was the gist of his response.

I certainly understood his frustration.  I, too, still get a little irritated when a favorite artist of mine receives a scathing critique for a new release or appearance.  But having been on both sides of this equation over the years, I have learned some important truths about this intriguing “critical writing” profession.

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From Scene Magazine, 1990

Some say music critics are merely frustrated artists who don’t have the juice to write songs themselves, and their envy motivates them to take shots at those who do.  No doubt there’s some truth to that; some critics seem to either have a hidden agenda or develop a bias against (or for) certain bands or musical styles, doing the artists and the readers a disservice.  But if the critic’s motives are pure and honest, and he writes with expertise and a desire to search for the how and why, the reviews can be illuminating, well-reasoned and fair.

The primary definition of “criticism” in Webster’s is “the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes.”  And there you have it, the main reason why many people don’t like critics: They tear down, they find fault, they harp on the negative.  And it’s a fact that some critics seem to delight in writing what are known as “hatchet jobs,” which, depending on the clout and reach of the critic, can unjustifiably ruin artists’ careers, or at least their self-confidence.

However, the converse is also true.  If a review unendingly gushes compliments to the point where it sounds like it was written by the artist’s publicist, it lacks credibility, especially if the critic routinely writes this type of “puff piece.”  That’s why it’s interesting to note that some artists often claim to dislike overwhelmingly positive reviews nearly as much as the brutally negative ones.

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Sun Press clipping, and reader response. 1983.

The secondary definition of “criticism” is “the analysis and judgment of the merits and faults of an artistic work,” and that’s a more apt description of what a really great critic does.  He/she uses knowledge and expertise about the subject, seasons them with his/her own particular tastes and sensibilities, and renders a meaningful judgment about the work in question.  Typically, the most worthwhile reviews include a mix of pro and con, because in almost every case, even the very best stuff has weaknesses and even the worst dreck has some redeeming value.

It’s frowned upon these days to pass judgment on anyone or anything.  “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” and so forth.  But the key word here, I think, is meaningful.  If the judgment has depth and authority based on knowledge, it has more weight and credibility than a mere thumbs-up or thumbs-down rating.  The critic who offers perspective – weighing new songs against previous work, for instance, or why and how yesterday’s concert compares to shows from years past – is adding substantive discussion to the understanding of the artist’s message and milieu.

Artists know going in that their work is going to be put under the microscope and evaluated, sometimes in a manner they find decidedly unfair.  They can ignore it, they

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Scene magazine review and reader response, 1984

can complain bitterly, or they can have a sense of humor about it.  The title of this essay comes from a 1974 song called “Only Solitaire” written by Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, who cleverly used actual phrases from critical reviews to poke fun at himself in the lyrics.  Critics who found Anderson’s animated stage persona tiresome saw their disdainful words thrown back at them in lyrics like: “Court-jesting, never-resting, he must be very cunning to assume an air of dignity, and bless us all with his oratory prowess, his lame-brained antics and his jumping in the air, and every night his act’s the same and so it must be all a game of chess he’s playing…”

There are those who have proposed doing away with music criticism altogether.  The late iconoclast Frank Zappa once said, “Most rock journalism is written by people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read.”

I doubt that critical writing of the arts will ever go away.  Indeed, the explosion of social media outlets in recent years has made that once closely-held public forum available to anyone with a laptop or smartphone, so now “everyone’s a critic.”  Hell, pretty much anyone can start a blog…

I regret the trend in recent years away from the longer, thoughtful essays on artistic work and toward the quickie “capsule reviews” found in most publications.  These tend to be woefully superficial and almost pointless for those of us searching for reasons why we should consider investing in the album/song/concert/artist.

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Daily Orange critique, 1976

My advice would be to take any review only for what it is: one person’s opinion.  It would be wise to read multiple reviews, particularly those that go into greater depth, to get some sense of balance.  If you find you invariably agree with a particular critic’s reviews, you’ll probably end up giving more weight to his/her opinion (much like viewers who get their political news from sources that reinforce the views they already hold).

Or you might do with music reviews what my daughter does regarding movie reviews: She resists reading them at all, or at least not until after she’s seen the film.  Understandably, she grew weary of staying away from a movie because it was panned, only to see it later and totally enjoy it.

Perhaps that’s the best approach:  Judge for yourself.