“I knew I was going to suffer and he was going to treat me like shit but that’s okay because I’ve been punched in the face many times before, dude,” says Jay Bulger, whose documentary, Beware of Mr. Baker, commences with the notorious madman of the drums socking him in the face. The boxer-turned-model-turned-journalist-turned-director’s debut feature takes you on a wild ride through the harrowing and illustrious life of rock n’ roll’s first great drummer, Ginger Baker. From growing up amidst WWII, to the soaring highs of his success, and the multi-decade long heroin addiction that fueled his turbulent and excessive behavior, Beware of Mr. Baker, sheds light on a musical genius misunderstood, exposing the man behind the myth. But the film is not some sentimental apology or attempt to sway your opinion of the hell-raising redhead, rather, it’s an truly anything goes, personal look at a monster of a person who has lived his life with complete impulsiveness, as if tomorrow was a thing of the past. Bulger’s doc is full of energy, jumping and cutting from interviews with Baker at his home in South Africa, footage from his life spent traveling across the world playing, memories of Baker from the musical greats that knew him back when.
Once dubbed the least likely musician to come out of the 1960s alive, Baker remains headstrong and erratic as ever, with the temper of a man who refuses to put up with an ounce of bullshit from anyone. “He’s a total villain and I was really interested in that and attracted to that,” says Bulger of his subject, and the man he’s been fascinated with for years now. And if there was anyone to take on Baker himself, it was Bulger, who shares a similar no-holds-barred attitude and a taste for the rougher side of life. We caught up with Bulger to talk more about his own interesting road to the documentary, bullying the bully, and the dangers of getting close to baker.
So you have a pretty interesting personal history yourself; tell me a little bit about your days as a boxer.
I started boxing when I was little and then I became really competitive with it; I went to college in the Bronx because I wanted to live in the toughest spot in New York. So I did that and lost in the semi-finals. But this time I was boxing, I had my picture taken and that led to IMG people calling me up and from there I started modeling. It was like this fleeting, endless thing that was crazy but at times really fun because I was traveling through the fashion industry where I was doing Armani campaigns and on the cover of Vogue.I don’t know, I modeled for everybody.
When you were boxing, did you ever think you would to end up as a model?
No. I hated it, it was terrible. But in the moment it was somewhat interesting because I was traveling so much. It was fun to travel and it led to other opportunities. Especially now, I look back and I can’t like pick up and just fly to Paris and hang out of a week—whereas I was doing that professionally back then. So I try to not take those opportunities for granted. But I used all of that money to fund my directing career and music videos and writing and stuff because I was making pretty good money.
So was it directing that you want to pursue all along?
I always wanted to direct music videos since I was a kid. Growing up, on MTV, they would say the name of the band and the song and then the director; I remember growing up and remembering names.
Were there any music video directors you were really into?
Anything Spike Jonze did I was really inspired by because it felt like he was so in tune with my own imagination. So yeah, all of his videos were the shit, like “Feel the Pain” by Dinosaur Jr. I wanted to be Spike Jonze. He directed “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys; I remade that video in 8th grade. I grew up and I wanted to do music videos and I was doing them but the money was terrible so I was putting in my own money but the music video industry was collapsing before my face. But then I got cancer, so that kind of sidelined everything. I spent all my savings and my face was all fucked up and I didn’t really leave my apartment for about several months—not because of vanity but because my eye was swollen shut and I looked like I had been shot in the face. It sucked.
How did getting cancer effect you as a person and direct where you wanted to go with your life after that?
It was totally humbling because growing up I was really weird and skinny and awkward and gangly and then all of sudden I was on the cover of Vogue and shit and people were telling me that I was “marketable”—whatever that means. So it’s hard for that not to go to your head and you know, you get lazy too because you don’t need to do anything but stand there like a lampshade. I don’t even think I was like a lampshade, I was more like the lamp, not even the shade; I think they put the shade on top of me. I had to get out of there anyways, so it was a pretty good and graceful kind of departure from that world that was not exactly benefitting me in the long run. And it was just full of imbeciles. And by that, I mean most of the male models are imbeciles. I was just surrounded by these idiots but I was in my own world. Like I said, I’d go to Paris and it’s not like I’d go to Paris and hang out with a bunch of male models, I’d go to museums and stuff and run around like any normal person. So the cancer thing was amazing in retrospect because I was like, okay I got stuck doing this thing anyway and in the long run I think my face will be fine and if not, who gives a shit? It was good while it lasted. So it sucked but it was also humbling and so forth and made me broke. I also had to figure what I was doing in my life. Then I started directing commercials and then that led to finding Ginger where I just fell into it.
So why Ginger? Where did your interest in him come from?
Well, I saw a video of him driving across the Sahara desert. He was leaving his family, fame, and fortune behind. That wasn’t the stuff that was important, for him it was to continue his progression of musical rhythm and I thought that was admirable and totally insane. I mean, he drove across the desert and it was such an extreme vision of him pursuing his passion. It was like this amalgamation of so many different kinds of factors that were attractive to me about him. It seemed like an important story, it seemed like something people should know about. Not like, “Oh, did you see that new documentary about the guy that like made an album in Seattle?” There are so many documentaries out there I’m sure that I could do with or without but this one just seemed like it belongs in the Smithsonian or something. It’s both musical history and counter-cultural-anthropological history: here you have the greatest drummer of his day meeting the greatest African musician ever who was right at the precipice of creating this music— afro beat, which was the most rhythmic form of R&B that had ever been created. It was the perfect place for him to go and the natural progression, as far as his career was concerned.
So when I found out he was alive, I was like, holy shit. He was ranked like the least likely to survive the 60s; everyone thought he as going to die a long time ago so the fact that he’s still alive was crazy. He’s lived his life like he’s going to die tomorrow with such reckless abandonment that I just thought it was really fascinating. And by fascinating I mean like this was different, he reminded me of Citizen Kane or something, you know? I was really compelled to show a really difficult person who pushes people away and who potentially has been misunderstood and as a result never given a chance to tell his story in a way that people would understand. And he’s obviously been written off as this maniac. I’m really attracted to villains and that’s definitely part of it.
I’d think the attraction to villains, for me at least, always has something to do with the fact that they’re more passionate and do what they want to do and even if it’s not good, that’s more admirable sometimes.
Yeah! I think we live in a culture where people are preconditioned to think that everything great is just fine and has a bow on it and it’s perfect and this guy, he has scars and warts and he’s sort of least perfect creature.
Did you want to show his childhood as a way to expose where this person that is such a villain came from.
His story was like Captain America; there’s a ton of Marvel characters that started out the same way as Ginger and I looked at him like that. There’s the person and then there’s the myth and the legend. As far as the myth goes, he did start out like Captain America. I mean, he goes and sees his dad off to WWII, breaks away from his mom and she’s crying because she doesn’t know if he’s ever coming back; then the Nazis bomb his neighborhood and the kids don’t show up for school and there’s empty desks and he’s living in a bomb shelter, and then his dad dies and it just creates this monster; then when he’s 14 he receives the letter from his dad that’s like, “Dear son, learn to use your fists,” and he’s like, “Oh yeah, here we go!” He starts using his fists and, more importantly, he’s got this natural time and rhythm and so it’s like okay, don’t punch, use that to make this rhythm and then do that with this instrument, and he’s like eureka! It’s like this pre-destined thing and he had time and he was like this super hero, which is exciting to hear him tell me. I didn’t really go into it with ay expectations of what the story was about because I didn’t really know what the story was until he said it so. We were kind of learning as we went along.
He seems like someone who would be impossible to open up; how did you get him to trust you in that way?
Someone said the other day— it was really fucking obnoxious—like out of all the reviews people have written, I was really annoyed that someone had written, “Jay Bulger knows deep down all he had to do was point a camera in one direction," as if I was dealing with Bill Withers here. Like “Hey, Bill! Here, tell me about that!” But that’s why I looked forward to doing the movie because I knew it would be a challenge and I would have to stay on my feet. He was so fucking crazy. If you asked the wrong question there was like a cup of tea headed towards your head. It was totally insane a lot of times. So how did I get him to open up to me? Just like, persistence and being kind of like him—bullying the bully sometimes.
You didn’t seem afraid to rile him up at all.
I think he respected that because if you’re vulnerable he just kind of goes in for the kill, you know?
Did he feel intruded on?
He totally felt intruded on but I was like, “Whatever! Move the fuck over, Ginger.” I just went in there and I knew I was going to suffer and he was going to treat me like shit but it’s okay because I’ve been punched in the face many times before, dude.
You getting punched in the face was a perfect way to start the film because you see right away that it’s only going to escalate from there.
Yeah and I mean it’s an interesting thing and it was the last day of filming—go figure. I mean, to me, that says maybe he had some emotional withdrawal issues and I made him take off his glasses.
And the fact that after he punched you, you said you were happy he did it because it meant that there was still some fire in him.
I liked it when he hit me in the nose! It was like fuck yeah dude, the guy is still there. I’m psyched that he’s still a physical force because a huge part of who he is is a physical thing. It’s an interesting thing to go from that myth to man to who coming to grips with his ability to express himself physically. I think he has Aspergers or like mild autism or something; he expresses himself through music and that’s not cheap. When he works and plays, he has a smile on his face, it’s like he can finally say what he wants.
And so do you still keep in touch with him?
Yeah, I was with him a couple weeks ago in London. You know, he’s not like a small-talking guy so if there’s nothing to talk about, I don’t talk to him. It’s like, “how are you doing?” “I’m fucking great, what the fuck you want?!” He’s such a character but he’s just much better hanging out in person if you’re going to hang out with him and by that I mean like watching TV and doing nothing. You’re not going to go to the zoo together.
He was so mad about other people being film, what does he think about it now? Has he seen it?
He doesn’t want to watch the film; he’s decided that it’s too depressing. He’s living outside of London right now and he has one dog. He used to have 12 dogs and 38 horses so the wounds are still fresh and he’s still kind of like, I don’t want to sit there and watch all my horses. And just like with the cane, it’s easier for him to just lock shit up than it is to look at it. He promised me he’d watch it before he dies but who knows when that will be.
Knowing him and spending time with him, how has that had an effect on you?
Well, it had a terrible effect on me. I’m a bit petulant anyways, I’m 6’4 and I’m a boxer, and I’m a bit of a loud mouth Irish guy so. I made the whole movie because I wanted to see what happens to a guy that never compromises. When I was young, I think I was someone who wanted to live like a vigilante outlaw, by my own rules. But that’s not possible and/or feasible, but hanging out with Ginger, you can’t help but start acting like a bit of a fucking vigilante. Just hanging out with him, it’s a bit infectious. You start thinking, Oh I can do this, I can smoke 5 packs a day.
That must be freeing, but then you have to to back to real life.
Yeah it’s dangerous to hang out with him because it’s not a true sample of life and its mysteries rhythm. He’s a freak and so you can’t help becoming a bit ornery and curmudgeonly when you’re around him because he just acts like that and people let him. No one questions it so.