I’ve read an array of articles about Ginger Baker since he passed away earlier this October, but for me most of the pieces miss the point why Baker was a star. Sure, he was one of the greatest drummers, and in Cream he was a member of one of the all-time legendary bands. We will always have his music.
But that’s not all I’ll miss. I will miss that he was a raging lunatic — the same reason I miss Chuck Berry, Keith Moon, John Lennon, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Norman Mailer, and Muhammad Ali. They possessed no filter. They often said and did stupid, destructive things to themselves and their friends and family without a plan or giving a damn about how it would blow up their career. They acted on instinct and spontaneity — with dead-on honesty. That was part of their genius, part of what made being a pop culture fanatic so much fun. Life was damn serious but it was also a hoot. I look around at today’s pop culture and mostly I see boring, calculated histrionics. It’s why I love Miley Cyrus — she, at least, acts on impulse. If you don’t like it, suck it. Plus, she can really sing.
I don’t care if my pop heroes are “nice.” Sure, it’s better for their intimates if they are, but I loved this quote from the documentary Beware of Mr. Baker: “If they’ve got a problem with me, come and see me and punch me on the nose,” Mr. Baker says in that film. “I ain’t going to sue you; I’m going to hit you back.” I was once backstage at a Who concert in Manchester, England with my friend David Schulps, co-founder of the groundbreaking Trouser Press magazine. Keith Moon, their drummer, found out we were American and instantly he picked up a drum stick, grabbed some sandwiches off the food table, gave them to Pete Townsend and they started playing “baseball,” which turned into a food fight — with some of the food aimed at us. It was total chaos and everything a 21-year-old could’ve hoped for from his idols. We used to expect our artists, performers, geniuses to be outrageous and nonconformists.
Now, so many of our pop stars seem to act like scripted and edited reality TV stars that are about as spontaneous as a Lindsay Graham anger explosion during the Kavanagh Hearings. Or an Ed Sheeran, Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, or Taylor Swift concert — four of the biggest grossing artists in 2018. Nice liberals who are about as controversial as a box of cornflakes. I’d rather see Baker and Bruce going at in on stage. Everything now feels choreographed and without risk. I’m a Stephen Colbert fan but his jokes are so predictable I’m saying the punchline before he does. The one comedian with a variety show who flew over the edge — you never knew what she’d say next — was Michelle Wolf. Netflix tossed her away after one season.
One aspect that has changed for the better is that of the few people with no fear or filter, most are women. Even in sports, where unless your name is Colin Kaepernick, and although more NBA players speak out politically, you can still hear Michael Jordan’s “Even Republicans buy sneakers” in their careful protests. Just look at the NBA’s present conflagration over China and Hong Kong and Lebron James’ most recent comment, which can be interpreted as “Even the Chinese buy sneakers.”
And most pop stars and athletes don’t seem to be having enough fun. Don’t seem larger than life. I long for the days of Darryl “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins. Again, a woman is an exception: Megan Rapinoe. She seems not to give a shit about the careerist pitfalls of her bluntness and she exudes pure joy on and off the field. Still, I could name 100 of what I call “lipsynchers” for every unfiltered loon.
This brings me to Donald “the uncensorable sociopath” Trump. He’s not a drummer, comedian, athlete, or actor. No doubt Baker was as mean and crazy as Trump, but he was just a rock star. I despise Trump with every ounce of my body and soul, but like it or not, for a guy who has probably never read a novel, Trump has had a genius for grabbing a headline for 30 years and controls our culture as President of the US Republic of Political Celebrity.
There are a dozen other reasons I could give you for Trump’s rise to power. But I’d say one of the overlooked reasons is that our pop culture needs more people willing to give the finger to Ed Sullivan as Jackie Mason did live on TV (please somebody do that to Hannity or Jimmy Fallon), say his band was more popular than Jesus, or call out the phonies and corporate creations in the art and literature worlds. (I don’t mean our stars need to get in feuds that end in murder like Biggie or Tupac.) Most sadly, and this is my main point, Donald Trump has filled that vacuum in our popular culture. He is the biggest star in the world. He is not, like many past presidents or political leaders, the most admired person. He may be the most reviled. Trump is a product of the Kardashian age, where having serious creative talent or intelligence is unnecessary. Trump’s notoriety, as opposed to his popularity, is indicative of a culture where brilliant and unique talents, and they certainly exist, are drowned out by noisy social media silliness.
Ginger, I loved you for “Crossroads” and “Badge,” but what I’ll miss most is reading what wild stunt or insidious maneuver you pulled on one of your bandmates. What I wouldn’t give to see U2’s Bono and the wanna-be Malibu real estate mogul The Edge lambast each other on or off stage, instead of Donald Trump grandstanding and calling Nancy Pelosi a “vindictive, nasty person” or wishing we could “handle” — read “hang” — “spies like in the old days.” When Trump announced he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone” without losing any fans, we should have realized that wasn’t a rap or rock star blurting out some crazy bullshit, but filter-free publicity stunt by a Reality TV star and now candidate for president of the United States. Years in the making, our politics had been subsumed by a corporate, simplistic and often cowardly popular culture that has taken us to a nihilistic nadir.
Bruce Bauman is the author of the novels And the Word Was and Broken Sleep. He is at work on his new novel The True Story of My Fictional Life.
Illustration by Miles Erickson.