New Orleans Ginger Baker, the great rock and whatever drummer, passed away at eighty as I flew back across time from Katmandu to New Orleans. There was a full-page obituary for Baker in the New York Times, which measures the sound and fury of his playing in a small way, along with the amazement that Baker even made it to eighty. Forgive me a moment for traveling back in time with Baker as well.
It was 1967, I hadn’t dropped out of Williams yet, that would come in the spring of 1968. My buddy from New Orleans, Danny Russell, hadn’t left Hamilton in upstate New York yet either. He suggested we meet in New York City so we could see the supergroup that was the rage at the time, Cream, playing in what we called the East Village Theater, and so we did. I say that “we called” the venue the East Village Theater, because now, more than fifty years later, Wikipedia says it was called the Village Theater at the time, and later Fillmore East, as the showcase for master impresario Bill Graham on the east coast to extend the fame of his 60’s iconic San Francisco hub, The Fillmore. Who knows, but all praise Wikipedia, and I even send them a small monthly contribution, because of their immense and unique value, the site was able to assure me that we were there on Saturday, September 23, 1967. Danny, whose memory in these things is impeccable, will undoubtedly correct any errors of mine at a future time!
We were coming to see Cream play, but we were hanging in the Village. No Google maps then, so Boy Scouts at heart, we wanted to make sure we could find the theater, could get tickets, and be good to go. Walking by the back door to the stage, equipment was being offloaded on a truck in the usual tight traffic and chaos of New York City. A roadie for one of the acts on the bill stopped us and asked if we would like to help them unload and set up the equipment in exchange for passes to the show. We jumped to the job!
The Village Theater featured three-bill acts. We were handling equipment for the first act, a group called Moby Grape, which is little known now, but was something in its short day and a Rock-and-Roll Hall of Famer. They got some hype then because one of the players was the son of actress, Loretta Young. Ricky Havens, the folk singer, was also on the bill, and was equally amazing, but the show was all about the Cream.
If you know rock-and-roll, you know the Cream. It was a showcase for Eric Clapton, always on the short list as one of the greatest guitar players ever, and in his prime then. He arrogantly played most of the set that night with his back to the audience. We came to hear Clapton, but Ginger Baker and his sometimes-endless drum solos, were what I remember the best from Cream’s set. He was a red-headed dervish dominating the stage with arms flailing primally at the drum kit. His solos would rise with a roar, fall with the crowd’s applause and screams, and come back even harder and faster.
Amazing, though I have no doubt forgotten many details of that night, in my memory it is still vibrant and unforgettable; a gift I can still open anytime I think of those lost days searching for what would become my life’s path.