He was brutally honest and said exactly what was on his mind. He would constantly tell me that I’m retarded and what a piece of shit I am.
Jay Bulger attended Fordham University where he boxed in several New York Golden Glove boxing tournaments. Photographs of his fighting launched him onto the cover of Vogue and a full-fledged modeling career soon followed. After a two-year bout with cancer, Bugler dedicated himself to writing and has since published articles in Rolling Stone, New York Magazine and Harpers Bazaar. Also a successful music video and commercial director, he has worked with bands like The Hold Steady and brands such as Pepsi and Disney. For his Rolling Stone article, Bugler spent three months living with Ginger Baker in South Africa where the rock legend has spent the previous decade living in seclusion. The article, “In Search of Ginger Baker”, and the numerous hours of interviews captured on film serves as the premise of his documentary, Beware of Mr. Baker.
Ginger Baker is known for playing in Cream and Blind Faith, but the world’s greatest drummer didn’t hit his stride until 1972 when he arrived in Nigeria and discovered Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat. After leaving Nigeria, Ginger returned to his pattern of drug-induced self-destruction, eventually settling in South Africa where the 73-year-old lives with his young bride and 39 polo ponies. Beware of Mr. Baker includes interviews with Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Carlos Santana and many more.
Beware of Mr. Baker will have its two week engagement from November 28 to December 12 at the Film Forum in New York City.
Jay Bulger: That Waynes World hat is dope. It’s one of my favorite movies.
Benh Zeitlin, the director of Beasts of the Southern Wild, told me that everything you need to know about life you can learn from Wayne’s World.
JB: Totally. Which one, though? Maybe not so much the second one, but the first one is so good. I love that scene where Rob Lowe is ordering food in Cantonese. [Laughs]
Do you remember when you first saw the movie?
JB: In the theaters, man. Hell yeah. “The Shitty Beatles? Are they any good? No? So it’s not just a clever name.” I’ve seen it like a thousand times.
What were you aspiring to become back then?
JB: I wanted to become a professional boxer. I wanted to become a middleweight champion.
You did become a boxer. You also modeled and you’re a filmmaker now. How did you navigate through these disparate fields?
JB: I was competing in boxing in college and that led to modeling gigs. I went from boxing to getting on the cover of Vogue. Terry Richardson took my photos where I had tarantulas on my face. I then went onto do an Armani campaign because of that. I modeled for a year and a half with Calvin Klein and all that. Modeling was super lame, but the traveling was fucking great. I used the money from modeling to fund my music video career. I did fifteen to twenty music videos. My idol growing up was Spike Jonze, man. I’m 30 years old. How old are you?
JB: And did you grow up in the States?
I actually moved here when I was 8 from South Korea.
JB: Korean girls are so hot, man. Did you grow up on music videos too?
I was obsessed with music videos. I loved directors like Michel Gondry, Chris Cunningham, Francis Lawrence, Shynola, Mike Mills, Kris Moyes…
JB: They used to list the name of the song, the band and the director in those days. I remember thinking, “This Spike Jonez dude is cool.” The Breeders’ video for “Cannonball” and so many of those low-budget, super 16 mm stuff. Gondry is amazing and you’re always wondering how he does the things he does. I had a skateboarding magazine in high school called “The Real Deal” and Spike was super into skateboarding too. He made these Girl & Chocolate skateboarding videos that redefined everything. I was in a photo class at the time and this woman was like, “My son would love your skateboarding photographs.” I asked her who he was and she said, “Spike Jonze.”
What a crazy coincidence…
JB: Talking to her reminded me that he came from my area and I wanted to hook up with him, but it never happened. I sort of followed his career because it seemed like he was just having fun, while expressing himself creatively. But I went on this boxing tangent. Then at the tail end of my modeling career around 2005, right when they stopped putting budgets into bands and that emo bullshit came out, I started making videos for bands in that weird two to three year chapter of fucking terrible music. I did a lot of music videos for bands that I wasn’t into, but in order to tell the stories that I wanted to tell, I wound up using my modeling money to fund them. It was a double-edged sword because I had to continue doing that. Then I got cancer and almost lost my eye; it was this huge thing the size of a silver dollar taking over my face. That turned out to be my great exit from modeling because I couldn’t do it anymore. After that, I needed to make more videos to make some more money and started doing commercials as well.
At what point did Beware of Mr. Baker begin to take shape?
JB: It was right around that time that I saw Ginger Baker riding across the African desert. That’s when I realized, “This is my life. This is awesome.” Here’s this savage outlaw beast, you know? At the height of his fame and fortune, he was at a gas station one day and thought, “I guess I’ll go to Africa since Jimmy [Hendrix] died.” Ginger OD’d the same night that Jimmy died. He woke up and the doctor was like, “Jimmy is dead, but you’re alive.” He was voted the least likely to survive the ’60s and here we are in 2012. This story should be in the Smithsonian. It’s the great meeting of Western and African civilization, the motherland of rhythm and drum. It was a natural progression for him to go to Africa for the love of his instrument and if you want to perfect your craft. What a better time to do it then when Fela Kuti was creating Afrobeat too. Ginger introduced the trap set to Nigeria. At the time I was just like, “Fuck. Too bad this guy is dead, but maybe I should tell the story anyway.” I soon found out that he was still alive, and not only is he alive, but he’s threatening to drop his pants in court and has these lawsuits against him from the biggest bank in Africa… “Me versus the world! I’m still fucking here, mother fucker!” [Laughs]
How did you go about reaching out to Ginger?
JB: It was a long journey. I called him and told him I wrote for Rolling Stone magazine. At one point he said, “I don’t like talking on the phone anymore, just fucking come here!” I borrowed money and just went there with a camera. There was no turning back at that point. Living with him was fucking crazy because all these people are trying to assassinate him. They were killing off his horses. Eventually he was like, “When’s this Rolling Stone article coming out?” and I was like, “Uh… I need to do that.” I thought Ginger Baker would cut off my head with a sword if I didn’t follow through. “Yankee! If you call long distance, I’ll fucking kill you!” [Laughs] I wrote the article and a year after that, we shot a lot of footage with him. It took a long time to raise the money because he doesn’t own the rights to his music. I went back there and said, “Here’s some money, dude” because he really took a gamble on me. He was just acting fucking crazy every day.
How did you get the article published in Rolling Stone? It wasn’t a commissioned story as I understand it.
JB: It was on spec and they were like, “Let’s see what it looks like.” They read it and thought it was fucking crazy. It was a huge risk, but the rewards were plentiful and the ends justified the means. I promised Ginger two things on that first phone call: I told him I would write this Rolling Stone article and make a movie about him. In the back of my mind, I was like, “Fuck. I don’t know how to do either of those things. I guess I’ll figure it out later…” It was optimistic manipulation.
How did Ginger take it when you eventually told him you had initially lied about there being a Rolling Stone article?
JB: I honestly don’t think he cared much. He’s a man of his word. He was like, “Well, we’ll just fucking figure it out.” It was like he was daring me to do it. He entrusted me with this huge undertaking, which was trying every day. He was so awful at times to deal with. He was constantly testing me and shit. It was fucking overwhelming, but things couldn’t have turned out better than it has. There were no instances during the process where I felt like I wanted to change anything. I’m really happy with how everything turned out.
Ginger takes a cane to your nose, an event that bookends the film. What triggered that? That happened at the end of the shoot?
JB: Yeah, man. We were three years deep and I was leaving. He decided to pick a fight with me. It says a lot about him. He has emotional departure issues. It’s easier for him to burn things down now instead of making himself feel vulnerable. When he broke my nose, I first wanted to get an apology and then celebrate that moment. And he did apologize. I have a lot of respect for him. To this day, he continues to go back to the drums. We thought we were documenting his last days and here he is drumming again when things go to shit. He’s broke and probably has to sell everything he has. It’s a testament to the constitution of World War II. He’s like a superhero, a Marvel character. The Nazis bombed his fucking neighborhood and killed his dad and his friends. The drum is his cape.
I can’t imagine that a lot of filmmakers would want to take on a subject as intimidating as Ginger.
JB: Maybe it’s the greatest challenge too. The payoff was amazing. He’s a complicated guy, so to breakthrough that and figure out what he’s all about was fascinating. I don’t think he really had a childhood. He became a professional musician at 15. I think he’s still affected by his dad. You look at someone like [Eric] Clapton who had years of therapy and worked out his issues. Here, you have Ginger who just dealt with his own issues. His dad left him on the train tracks when he was leaving for the war. It’s like, “I’ll never be left on the tracks again!” He told me that.
That’s very powerful. Was it difficult to round up all the musical icons to give on-camera interviews about Ginger?
JB: They had relationships to each other. They were like, “God… Ginger”, but they also knew how important he was to the music they created. Ginger made people sound better than they’ve ever sounded. From a musical point of view, people like Eric Clapton would say, “He was my best friend onstage, but then you get on the tour bus…” Everyone is in conflict that way, but that’s just how Ginger is as a person. His music wouldn’t sound the way it does if he wasn’t that kind of a person.
I saw a clip of a post-screening Q&A with you and Ginger in front of a live audience. He said making the film was the most horrible experience of his life. I guess he wouldn’t say anything nice, right?
JB: He wouldn’t, would he? That was crazy, man. We were at dinner before the screening and he said he didn’t want to watch the movie. It was so weird being on stage with someone who hadn’t watched the movie answering questions about the movie. I got so drunk before that Q&A. [Laughs]
Are you serious?
JB: I had to! Ginger was threatening to smash a bottle over the BFI London Film Festival programmer’s head. He was like, “I can smoke wherever I want!” They were like, “You’re in the green room and there are smoke detectors. Your movie is playing right now. Do you really want to set off the smoke detectors?” Ginger yells back, “Do you want to get a bottle smashed over your head?” [Laughs] I was just fanning the smoke detectors at that point. By the time we got up on the stage I was just like, “Fuck. Here we go…”
Are you planning on going down the documentary route?
JB: I’m working on a project with pianist Jonathan Batiste next. I’m making a movie about being a pianist in a day and age where people don’t respect musicians like that and they never get much notoriety. They’re the masters! In a world where masters are brushed aside, how is the world affected? What are we missing in society? The music landscape is fucking grim these days. There are some artists out there that I’m into, but on a bigger scale of things, we have guys in booths that tinker around and put out nonsense. I’m into Gary Clark Jr. a bit. That Robert Glasper guy is pretty good. I’m just getting back into jazz now. It’s just that machine, man. They don’t have the money or the time to experiment with bands like if there was another Cream coming our way. They don’t have the Phil Spectors to produce or the Felix Pappalardis or the Tom Dowds. It feels like it has been a long time since I’ve been really wowed by a movement in music. There used to be masters pushing boundaries. Who is our Jimi Hendrix? Who is our Aretha Franklin? Who is our Miles Davis? Where is our Al Green? I don’t feel like we have those people out there anymore. Who is John Legend and who cares? Where are the masters? I feel like music right now is not at its greatest point in history.
When you look at someone like Ginger, you can’t call music a hobby. It’s a lifeline and they would probably perish without it.
JB: Yeah, dude. Have you seen Waiting for Sugarman?
I haven’t seen that one yet.
JB: It’s about a guy who made one album and then went off to do construction. I wasn’t impressed by it. I thought it was a good movie, but he was nothing like someone like Ginger. Someone wanted to put him onstage with Ginger, but I thought it would give that guy too much credit. I can’t put someone who made one album on the same stage as Ginger. Fuck that guy. They have nothing to do with each other. Doing that would either depreciate Ginger or give that Sugarman guy more credit than he deserves. I don’t even deserve to be on the same stage. Ginger doesn’t even like Mick Jagger, so what do you think he’ll think of some guy who made one album? He has high standards.
Was anything off limits with Ginger when you were writing the Rolling Stone article or making the film?
JB: He just doesn’t give a shit. Like you said, that’s the greatest thing about him. If you consider the Bob Marley documentary or that documentary about George Harrison, they deal with estates, ex-wives and people who don’t have invested interests in the movie or the catalogue. This film comes off, for better or worse, unfiltered. There are things that I took out like Ginger getting a girl pregnant and a subsequent abortion, but there was enough of that in the movie already. Given that I didn’t have any limitations, it was a great pleasure to take on. I feel honored and really lucky to have had the opportunity. He was brutally honest and said exactly what was on his mind. He would constantly tell me that I’m retarded and what a piece of shit I am. [Laughs] That honesty was a double-edged sword in that sense, but it comes through in the music as well and that’s the most important thing.