Jay Bulger, former boxer (“I could have been a contender!” he says laughing), international model, and music video director, has filmed his first documentary, Beware of Mr. Baker. Its subject: the once inglorious, now widely forgotten former drummer of Cream, Mr. Ginger Baker. In an act of adventurous insanity, Bulger bluffed his way into a three-month stay at Baker’s South Africa home in late 2008, promising the crabby musician a Rolling Stone piece (Baker also writes for major magazines) in exchange for his time—a complete lie. Along the way, the 30-year-old director had his face bashed in by Baker with a cane and cursed at, what appears to be, more times than an audience at a Chris Rock comedy special. He was also shown the inner machinations of the reclusive legend–his time collaborating with Fela Kuti, the story of what happened the night Jimi Hendrix died, and the emotional context of a brilliant musician ever-mired in self-destruction and drugs. Then, eight months after leaving Baker, Bulger pulled off a near impossible feat—a Rolling Stone piece was published. The documentary that followed is filled with interviews of Eric Clapton, Johnny Rotten, Santana, Jack Bruce, and dozens more. We spoke to Bulger recently about his leap of faith experience, the one Muppet he wished he could have interviewed, and the time he went clubbing with Rihanna.
Was any part of your time with Ginger Baker easy?
Not a single moment was comfortable. Have you ever been shark diving? It was like that. You’re like, The cage is there. I’m fine. The cage is there. No big deal.
What drew you to Ginger?
I guess the same reasons that he was drawn to Africa. I was just really overwhelmed and overtaken by his sense of adventure and musical profundity and the significance. It’s this majestic kind of moment in musical history that was his drive across the Sahara to live and collaborate and make music with Fela Kuti, the greatest African musician ever, and the fact that nobody knew about that. I mean nobody knows about Fela. Nobody knows about Ginger, and this was the greatest meeting of Western and African musicians ever. To this day, I think, it was the most significant meeting in musical history, because it was authentic. It wasn’t Paul Simon going there to raise awareness and so forth for Apartheid. It wasn’t for anyone but himself and the love of the game.
Was it easy getting him to let you live with him? Tell me about that process.
People have been asking me about this the past couple weeks. I still laugh because it’s just so crazy. I don’t know. I was looking back and I was like. Was I on drugs? Yes. I was, and they were good, because you had to be on drugs to come up with that idea. It was at times disingenuous and so audacious. I sat there living with Ginger Baker in my own bedroom next to his bedroom thinking, “Well, worst case scenario, I’ll have lived with Ginger Baker, and I’ll be that old guy at the bar, ‘And then, I conned Ginger Baker into letting me live with him.’ If that was all that would have come of this that would have been fine.” It was really difficult. It was crazy.
The guy was so hard to talk to on the phone, that eventually I just kept calling and calling until he was like, “I don’t want to talk to you anymore. Just fucking come here.” And I was like, “Uh. Alright.” But you know, up until that point, I was just tinkering. I had no real plans. I was just a kid prank calling someone whose phone number I had and yet, he kept picking up the phone and talking to me. I was like, “Ginger Baker’s talking to me on the phone!” Then it was like, “Now, Ginger Baker’s saying just come here. I wonder if he meant it, but he won’t pick up the phone anymore, so I guess I just gotta go there.” Either way it felt really important thing to do.
He said in the movie, “Horses don’t let you down, nor do dogs. They all know who I am.” I thought that was such an interesting quote, because it seemed to me that he was the one who did most of the letting down. Why do you think he said that?
He’s such a complicated guy. He’s highly contradictory and super complicated. Just like his music is, so is his personality. They’re one and the same. You can’t judge him as being lovable or likable or good or bad. You’ve got to take a bit all of the things, because they kind of combine to form this thing that he’s capable of expressing himself on so beautifully. Music is not one thing. It changes. It speeds up. It slows down. It’s bombastic. It’s loud and soft. It’s gentle. It’s terrifying. He is a fully formed musician and fully formed—maybe not fully formed individual—but maybe he is fully formed if you take his music into account, because that’s how he expresses himself.
Was there anything you couldn’t get him to talk about that you wish you could have?
I got him to talk about the night Jimi Hendrix died, but it was the one story that didn’t work as far as the progression of the film. It just didn’t fit.
What was the story?
Well, the night Jimi Hendrix died, they were together, and [Ginger] went to get coke, and when he got back, he couldn’t find Jimi. So he took all the coke himself and overdosed, and when he woke up, the doctor was like, “Well, you’re not dead but Jimi is.” So he was like, “Screw this I have to get out of here. Otherwise, I’m going to die.”
What did his relationship with his art or self-expression teach you about your own relationship with creative expression?
Well, I set out to make this movie because I was interested in what life was like without compromise, to live a life without compromising at all. Apparently, you end up at the end of the world by yourself. You’ve got to respect a guy who lives a life without compromise and loses all his money, but then he’s still capable of getting off the canvas and living life by his own rules.
At first glance, his story appears to be a cautionary tale, but was it more than that for you?
It’s a bit of a cautionary tale, but it’s also a cautionary tale because it was like–not all of us can do this, as opposed to–don’t live this life. It’s like, “Yeah. Well, if you or I tried to do this, we’ll probably end up dead by 35.”
When you had to go back to finish the documentary, you interviewed Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Chad Smith, Jack Bruce. Who was the toughest to get?
Maybe Eric Clapton because he doesn’t do a lot of interviews. Jack Bruce was equally tentative. Everyone was a bit conflicted about how they felt about him but also knew how important the story was. People weren’t exactly best friends with him.
Was there anyone you wanted to interview, but couldn’t get a hold of?
Animal from the Muppets–that’s who I really wanted. I never got an answer. It was pretty annoying.
Are you serious?
Yeah. That would have been genius. Animal would have been [in Animal’s voice], “Ginger Baker. Rah rah rah.” I had talked to them, but it didn’t go through.
Tell me about your music video career. What music videos made you want to become a director?
I wanted to be a music director because Spike Jonze went to the high school next to mine, and back in the day they used to show the directors name on videos, and videos were so powerful. I was watching TV for hours at a time. I thought, “This is such a great form of expression–combining this one art form with another.”
When you used the name Dr. Mindbender, was that just for the credits, or did you make people call you that on set?
No, no, no. [Laughs] Maybe it was because I didn’t believe in myself so much or thought that my name was pretentious. It just sounded cool. I don’t know. I was young and dumb.
You seem to have a healthy relationship with fear and taking creative risks. How do you choose what you’re going to dedicate yourself to next?
Well, I know what I’m going to dedicate myself to for the rest of my life, which is musical film projects that are inspired by music. I’m obsessed with music. At this point in my life, that’s what I want to do. Who knows? It’ll probably change, but the next project is a movie that’s a fiction feature starring Jonathan Batiste, the pianist. He starred in Spike Lee’s new movie Red Hook Summer. He is the future of jazz music. I think he’s really the Ray Charles of his generation. I’m really interested with my movie in shedding light on mastery, musical mastery. I feel like we live in the current generation, the musical landscape is so bereft of color and ingenuity and musical genius. I feel like we’re so inundated with cliché garbage. The movie’s called The Great Mojo Revivial. Hopefully, we’ll shoot it next fall. I’m in pre-production.
Congrats on your recent GQ piece on Rihanna, by the way. What was that experience like?
Thanks, thanks. I really like her. She’s great. She’s such a force to be reckoned with, and she’s so beautiful and smart and inspiring and so on top of her game in this ever-changing world of celebrity. It was also a further reminder how great Ginger Baker is and why I want to make this movie about Jonathan Batiste, because she’s no Aretha Franklin.
Was it a challenge getting into it with her?
No. It wasn’t a challenge. I think I was under the impression that I would only be with her for an hour, and I was hanging out with her 12 hours later and really hitting it off with her. I really enjoyed her. I think she’s great and I also think she’s a master marketer and rightfully so, because she doesn’t have a bad bone in her body. She’s such a good, genuine, free-spirited person. And she’s an original. She’s got quite a unique sound and I genuinely appreciate and respect her as a life form.
What did you make of the controversy surrounding the 777 tour?
I’m sure as hell glad I didn’t go on that airplane. Especially because, even just hanging out with her for a night, I kind of wanted her all by myself, and it didn’t sound like going on that airplane there was any opportunity to do that. I’d like to think, having met her before, if I’d been on the plane, I’d be up front with her, but I also probably think I would have ended up running naked down the aisles, too.