In the white room with black curtains

In early 1969, following the breakup of the first “supergroup” power trio Cream, 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 couple 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 other 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 Pert 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.”

blind-faith-eric-clapton-1Following 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 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.

Everything’s a mess since you’re gone

It was 1977, and the tide was turning in rock music.

You had your diehard rock fans who preferred the mainstream, power-chord rock of Springsteen, Seger, Heart and Aerosmith.  Emerging from the left end of the dial came the punk sounds of The Clash, Talking Heads, The Ramones and Elvis Costello.

And yet, there was at least one band that found a way to straddle that fence and please both audiences.  That band was The Cars.

Cars-1“We were walking a fine line, and it contributed a great deal to the success of the band,” said guitarist Elliot Easton in the liner notes of The Cars’ excellent 2-CD anthology “Just What I Needed” (1995).  “The Cars would have that one record in a punk rocker’s collection that was a just a little right of center.  And it might be that one record for mainstream fans who thought they were being really punky.  We managed to span those two audiences.  It’s not something you can calculate, just that we had the songs.  And we really had great songs.”

From 1978 to 1988, The Cars graduated from small clubs to arenas, released six LPs (four of which reached the Top Ten) and had a dozen or more Top 40 singles, all the time finding the musical formula that satisfied the palettes of punkers and rockers alike.

The key ingredient in that success was the uncanny songwriting talent of their frontman, Ric Ocasek, who wrote 75% of the group’s repertoire and served as lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist.  Influenced by Beat poets as well as the pioneers of rock ‘n roll, Ocasek cranked out smart, literate, accessible songs, and the band recorded and performed them  with more polish and style than most bands on the circuit at that time.

Ocasek died this past week “suddenly and unexpectedly” of heart failure in his Manhattan apartment while recuperating from surgery.  Supermodel Paulina Porizkova, 180503131658-02-ric-ocasek-paulina-porizkova-file-restricted-super-teaseOcasek’s wife of 28 years until their amicable split last year, said she found him dead upon bringing him his Sunday morning coffee.  The couple’s two sons, Jonathan and Oliver, were also present.  He was either 70 or 75 — there are conflicting reports of his age, although The New York Times and other reputable sources say he was born in 1944, and died at 75.  Not that it much matters.  Ocasek is gone, and his music lives on.

Three-chord rockabilly, New Wave synth-pop, echoes of The Beatles, avant-garde art rock, surf music, punk and glam rock — you can hear all of these genres in a single Cars tune, or certainly on any given Cars album.   In his induction speech on The Cars’ behalf at the 2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies, Brandon Flowers of the Killers described the band this way:  “They were a slick machine with a 340 V8 under the hood that ran on synergy, experimentation and a redefined cool.  They had it all: the looks, the hooks, Beat romance lyrics, and killer choruses.”

Ocasek and his bandmate Benjamin Orr (born Orzechowski) met in high school in Cleveland in the late ’60s and formed a musical bond that took them to Columbus, Ohio, la-et-ms-the-cars-20151007and Ann Arbor, Michigan in various groups before relocating to Boston by 1972.  They tried their hand as an acoustic twosome, then formed a country-folk-rock band called Milkwood and released one album, selections of which you can hear on the Spotify playlist below.  It’s interesting to contemplate:  What if Milkwood’s CSN-inspired harmonies and arrangements had caught on?  Would Ocasek and Orr have stayed in that groove instead?   instead of evolving toward the quirkier Cars tunes we all know?  Knowing Ocasek’s penchant for experimentation, it seems likely he would’ve gravitated toward the quirkier hybrid music of The Cars anyway.

With Gregg Hawkes on keyboards, Easton on lead guitar, David Robinson on drums and Orr now playing bass, The Cars were born in 1977 and signed to Elektra Records.  Ocasek’s songs were usually curt but catchy, laced with Easton’s prominent guitar lines and Hawkes’s intriguing keyboard hooks.  Thanks to Roy Thomas Baker, the accomplished producer behind Queen’s finest albums, the tracks on The Cars’ debut The_Cars_-_The_Carsalbum took on a professional sheen that deftly mixed the group’s elements into an irresistible sound that captured many listeners from the get-go.

Truth be told, I was a traditional rocker who found the chaos of punk a bit too noisy and unmusical, so I was reluctant to accept The Cars’ punk-flavored tunes at first.  But I heard them perform in one of the “World Series of Rock” concerts in Cleveland in 1978 with Fleetwood Mac, Bob Welch, Todd Rundgren and Eddie Money (who, coincidentally, also died this past week), and that was enough to make me pay them at least grudging respect.

TV talk show host Stephen Colbert, a discerning rock music critic as well, was a huge fan of The Cars from the beginning, and he paid tribute to Ocasek on his late-night program the other night.  “That first Cars record is packed with hits like peanuts in a Snickers Bar,” he said.  “I think that album and ‘My Aim is True’ by Elvis Costello were two of the greatest debut pop albums of all time.  In 1978, Ocasek was already 34 years old when their first album came out.  He had put in the hours.  His music — he wrote everything for The Cars — his music was the soundtrack of my high school.”

It’s true, that first album was so chock full of radio hits — “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “Good Times Roll,” “Bye Bye Love,” “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” — that I couldn’t help but warm up to them — eventually.   And The Cars kept motoring along 45152-18355ec95b1b7b573c813a2a5c2f3617nicely with three more Top Ten albums:  1979’s “Candy-O,” 1980’s “Panorama” and 1981’s “Shake It Up.”

The Cars - Shake It Up (1981)-01But it really took me until their fifth and most successful album, 1984’s “Heartbeat City,” to fully appreciate The Cars’ real accomplishment:  connecting the cynical cool of new wave with a timeless AM-radio spirit, putting an ironic spin on well-worn rock ‘n roll catch phrases like “let’s go,” “got a hold on you,” “shake it up,” “let the good times roll,” “all I want is you.”

“Heartbeat City” contained four Top 20 hits, including “You Might Think,” “Hello Again,” “Magic,” and their highest charting single, “Drive.”  The shimmer of that song, written and sung by Orr, is somewhat atypical of The Cars, with lyrics that take a sober look at the-cars-heartbeat-citythe self-destructive behavior of the singer’s girl.  It was during filming for the music video of “Drive” when Ocasek met Porizkova, who played the part of the strung-out girl.

The Cars’ sixth LP, 1987’s “Door to Door,” managed to reach only #27 on the charts, and Ocasek concluded that he had grown tired of touring, and pulled the plug on the band he’d founded.  Many years later, in an NPR interview, he explained he’d never really intended to wind up in the spotlight.  “I’m not much into being the front guy,” he said.  “I was the songwriter, really — the person who put the songs together, and maybe a bit of a director.  But being an entertainer was never my main thing.”

ric-ocasekAs for the songwriting part of it, Ocasek said, ““I’m happy that I’ve been able to write pop songs that have a bit of a twist.  When I’m writing, I never know how it’s going to come out.  I don’t think, ‘Well, I’ve done a catchy one, now I can do a weird one.’  Our albums clearly had some of each, but it wasn’t really intended that way.”

If you’re looking for “weird” songs in The Cars’ repertoire, you might look at “Shoo Bee Doo” from 1979’s “Candy-O,” or “A Dream Away” from 1982’s “Shake It Up.”  Better yet, start with “Moving in Stereo” from the debut album, which was never released as a single but got plenty of FM-rock radio attention.  Interestingly, its instrumental section, carried by Hawkes’ keyboards, was used in scenes from the 1982 film “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and the current Netflix hit show “Stranger Things.”

Following The Cars’ breakup, Ocasek stayed active with several solo LPs (actually, his first two solo projects came during The Cars’ active period — 1982’s “Beatitude” and 1986’s “This Side of Paradise,” which both reached the Top 40 on the album charts), but his later efforts failed to chart.  Orr similarly tried a few solo albums, but then protracted pancreatic cancer and died in 2000.

Easton and Hawkes, with Ocasek’s blessing but not his participation, recruited Todd Rundgren and Utopia cohort Kasim Sulton to tour under the banner The New Cars in 2005, performing classic Cars tunes as well as a handful of Rundgren’s material.

In 2011, Ocasek capitulated and reunited with Easton and Hawkes to release “Move Like carsThis,” which captured some of the vibe of earlier Cars music and even reached #7 on the album charts, even sparking a brief US tour.  But the magic didn’t last.  “On about half the new songs, I felt Ben (Orr) would’ve sung them better than I did.  In the liner notes, we said so:  ‘Ben, your spirit was with us one this one.'”

When The Cars were inducted in the R&R Hall of Fame in 2018, Ocasek cooperated, performing with Easton and Hawkes, and they brought in Scott Shriner of Weezer to play bass.  Said Ocasek at the podium that night, “I was never big on trophies and all that, but all things considered, I’d rather be in the Hall of Fame than not.”

Whether or not the adulation was important to Ocasek, there are many bands eagerly willing to reference The Cars as key influencers.  Here are just a few:

“The Cars are a big part of my musical love affair,” said Carnie Wilson of Wilson Phillips.  “Ric was amazing and will be missed. The music of The Cars will inspire people and move people forever.”

The-Cars-resize-1b“Aw man, can’t believe you’re gone, Ric,” said Richard Marx.  “Thank you for the songs on ‘Heartbeat City’ alone.  You were a true original.”

Michael Peter “Flea” Balzary of the Red Hot Chili Peppers wrote, “Ahh man, say it ain’t so. I loved Ric Ocasek. What an interesting, smart, kind, funny man who made incredible records. I loved those Cars albums when I was a teenager. Perfect pop songs with those wicked Elliot Easton guitar solos. Absolute candy.  As an adult, I met him several times and he was gracious, funny and engaging.  Ahh man.  Ahh damn…”

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The first three tracks, from Ocasek’s and Orr’s earlier band Milkwood, are a revelation for any fan of The Cars.  What follows is my list of the band’s best tracks.