Last week, millions of viewers watched in stunned amazement as Chad Smith was robbed of the Golden Cowbell after his drum-off with Will Ferrell on The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon. Prior to that, he faced an even more formidable opponent in the drumming world: Ginger Baker.
Landing a face-to-face sit-down with the notoriously reclusive and press-averse Baker was a passion project for Smith, who counts the Cream legend among his biggest heroes. Fully aware of Baker's combative approach to interviews (or most every kind of personal encounter, for that matter), when word came back that the drumming great was amenable to a meeting, Smith nonetheless jumped at the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to chat with the misanthropic drumming icon.
Baker was in New York City for a handful of shows at the Iridium Club with his group, Ginger Baker's Jazz Confusion (which also includes bassist Alec Dankworth, saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis and percussionist Abbas Dodoo). Smith and filmmaker Jay Bulger (who helmed the 2012 doc Beware Of Mr. Baker) caught the opening night's set, and the next day they met Baker in the penthouse of the Dream Hotel for a conversation that ranged from the unintentionally hilarious to the surreal. While arthritis hasn't diminished the 74-year-old musician's skills behind the kit, it does make sitting for extended periods something of an ordeal. A Barcalounger was brought in to ease Baker's aching joints, but it did little to cool his rascally demeanor.
Smith managed to escape the veteran player's wrath – with his eyes lost behind sunglasses, the chain-smoking Baker regarded his host with muted deference; Bulger, however, wasn't always so lucky: Most of his questions were met with an array of quizzical looks, snorts and sighs. As the interview progressed, Baker's patience with his documentarian evaporated: "The more silly the questions you ask, the more silent I'm going to remain," he growled.
"You guys have a nice relationship," Smith observed, perhaps sensing that at least some of Baker's antics might have been for show. "I like this – it's like an old married couple or something."
At the conclusion of the interview, Smith reflected on his encounter with one of rock's most celebrated eccentrics. "Ginger is a complete, one-of-a-kind original, love him or not," he said. "Personally, I wouldn't put him in the lovable category, but what he did for drumming is undeniable. With Cream and the way he helmed that band, it was incredible.
"There was Blind Faith and more supergroup music, and then he drops out to go to Africa and plays with Fela Kuti. And had his own bands – all the time burning through musicians, women and drugs. I think Ginger was the original 'most interesting man in the world.' The fact that he's still alive is a tremendous feat considering his lifestyle." Tipping his trademark baseball cap to his co-host, Smith remarked, "With the help of director and punching bag Jay Bulger, we got Ginger to answer questions... barely."
Below are a few selected highlights from the interview:
Chad Smith: [Recounting an all-star jam in England 20 years ago] "Later, when we went to do the gig, I think David [Garibaldi] went on first, then Bernard [Purdie], then myself, and you came on last, and you hadn't played in London in, like, 15 years, according to the guy that said something. He said, 'For the first time in 15 years, Ginger Baker, ladies and gentlemen.' And you had two Bacardi and Cokes, and you came walking across the stage. People are… [he claps], and you got right up to the drums, and I think you might have tripped over some cords or something, and you proceeded to spill the drinks all over your drum set. And I was like…"
Ginger Baker: "I don't remember that."
Smith: [Laughs] "I was like, 'This is gonna be fuckin' good! This is good.' You got out there, you did your thing, but the best thing I liked, at the very end we all had a jam. Right? They brought out all the drummers after you finished, and you said, 'Bernard Purdie, the great Bernard Purdie – Aretha Franklin, and many, many, many other great things. David Garibaldi, great drummer. And then you came to me, and you went, 'And… aahh, that guy. Him.' You forgotten my name or didn't remember anything, and I thought it was the greatest thing. I loved it. [Chad and Jay laugh] And we had a jam and that was it. But that was 20 years ago."
Baker: "I don't remember anything about that at all."
Jay Bulger: "Have you ever heard his band, the Red Hot Chili Peppers?"
Smith: "Do you know the group that I'm in?"
Smith: "Red Hot Chili Peppers, you ever heard of us?"
Smith: "Have you ever heard any of our music?"
Baker: "No." [Laughs]
Smith: "It's mainly your back that's bothering you right now?"
Baker: "I'm crippled with arthritis."
Smith: "You used to tell me that riding horses, contrary to what – "
Baker: "No, I got too old for that. Right?"
Smith [to Jay]: "It made him feel better?"
Bulger: "There were times that – "
Baker: "Yeah, it was, but riding and playing polo are two different things. Playing polo you're using… you're not just riding. Performing… "
Smith: "Traveling is tough?"
Baker: "It just reached a point where I couldn't play to the level I wanted anymore, so what's the point?"
Smith: "Well, your playing sounded good last night, man. Sounded good last night."
Baker: "I can still play, which is a miracle. It's probably a good thing."
Bulger: "Are you in pain when you're out there, or does the drumming open you up the same way that riding horses did?' [Ginger points to Jay and looks at Chad, like, 'Get a load of this.' Chad laughs.] 'Cause you used to tell me that riding horses was therapeutic, and you would tell me that playing the drums was too painful. And yet, when I saw you out there last night, you looked like you did when I saw you riding horses. After a while, it seemed to relax you. [No response from Ginger.] You looked comfortable and happy."
Baker: "I don't have to answer your silly questions, Jay, anymore."
Smith: [Laughs] "He's done. He had to answer your questions."
Baker: "I'm not getting paid for this. The more silly the questions you ask, the more silent I'm going to remain."
Bulger: "I'm just saying that, for me, I almost shed a tear watching you from the side. Whenever we were hanging out, I'd ask you when you were going to play again, and you said, 'I'm not playing anymore. I'm done.' And so, for me, watching you last night, I couldn't have been, I don't know, it was emotional, maybe from a selfish means of sorts. I was really proud of you to see you out there, playing as well as you did. But most importantly 'cause you looked happy. You told me several times, you know, you're just doing it for the money and you don't want to be playing anymore. But I saw you smiling, and it seemed genuine. You know, as someone who cares for you, I – "
Baker: "Shut up!"
Bulger: "OK." [Chad laughs]
Baker: "You're a fucking idiot." [Chad and Jay laugh]
Bulger: "I don't wanna see you in pain, and it looked like you were having a good time."
Smith: "You guys have a nice relationship. I like this – it's like an old married couple or something."
Smith: "I work with a producer that does a lot of our records, does most of our records, a guy named Rick Rubin. You know who Rick Rubin is?"
Baker: "Rick Rubin? I've heard of him."
Smith: "He did Black Sabbath's last record that came out – "
Baker: "Black Sabbath." [He makes a disgusted face.]
Smith: [Laughs] "But wait, you're gonna love this. And Bill Ward, the drummer, couldn't do the record, and Rick suggested to the other guys in Black Sabbath, 'What do you think about Ginger Baker?'"
Baker: [Groans] "I wouldn't have done it."
Smith: "I know how you feel about heavy metal."
Baker: "Oh, God, these guys dressed in fucking spandex… and fuckin' got bits of metal all over."
Smith: "I think you'd look good in spandex, Ginger."
Baker: "I saw that article. My wife gets on the internet and investigates all these things, so I saw it."
Smith: "But you were never contacted or anything about that?"
Baker: "I would have laughed – unless they offered me seven million dollars."
Ginger Baker's new album, Why? (his first in 16 years), will be released on June 24. Baker will be on tour in the US starting June 14 (including dates at BB Kings in NYC on June 25-26). Visit Ginger Baker's official website for more information.
Special thanks to Laura Glass, Jay Bulger and Ina Dittke.