The Enigmatic Guitar Hero
By Paul Rigg
Physically, one of the first things you notice about this
guy is his long and luxurious moustache,
which he seems to have worn for an eternity.
His distinctive walrus whiskers, long hippy hair style and the fact that he was a key part of a band called the Doobie Brothers (a ‘doobie’ being slang for a joint), says, among other things, that he is his own man.
Sonically, his skill on the six-string has led to him play alongside many of the greats across the history of rock n roll, including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Bryan Adams, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Ringo Starr, and Gene Simmons.
And finally, you have a man who is an international expert on incoming missiles and has chaired a Congressional Advisory Board on missile defence.
All this presents a very unusual enigma. Who is he?
American Jeffrey Allen "Skunk" Baxter (13 December, 1948) – he has never revealed the reason for his nickname – is a classically-trained pianist and a drummer, but is best known as a guitarist.
At 10, his father was offered a job in an advertising firm in Latin America, so Baxter lived in Mexico for six years, where he became fluent in Spanish. It was around this time that he bought his first electric guitar for 16 dollars, began teaching himself to play and joined his first band at age 11.
Baxter was 16 when his family returned to the US, and he soon headed to Jimmy's Music Shop on the Big Apple’s 48th Street to buy himself a Fender Jazzmaster. He obviously impressed the boss because he was offered work on the spot: "For a buck and a quarter an hour, I was unloading Fender Twin Reverbs in the middle of the night, taking them up two flights of stairs, and loving every minute of it! Then I started to work on guitars.” Soon after he moved to a nearby luthiers. “That's when my guitar education started happening,” he says. “I learned a lot about electronics and how to build and customize; I even made a few guitars."
Baxter was already clearly brimming over with talent at that time because opportunities kept opening up for him. He recalls for example that the first time he was invited to act as a session guitarist was because he was dropping off an amplifier at a recording studio, and as another guitarist hadn’t tuned up he was asked to play. “The guy didn't pay me, but he bought me a beer," he says, "It was cool; l was into the studios."
Later, while working at another music shop, Baxter met Jimi Hendrix, who did not have a public profile at the time. As a result, for a few months in 1966, Baxter played bass guitar, alongside Randy California, in Hendrix’s Jimmy James and the Blue Flames.
However, the moustachioed musician first tasted success when he joined Ultimate Spinach in 1968, in time to play on their last album, III. Again, he had been in the right place at the right time to take advantage of the opportunity: "A guy in a long robe came in and asked me if I knew any guitarists. I said sure, hopped over the counter, and became a member of Ultimate Spinach […] Man, were we psychedelic!"
When Ultimate Spinach split up, he turned over a new leaf and headed for Los Angeles, playing as a session guitarist and learning pedal steel on a bashed up Fender 400.
Over the next few years Baxter built up his reputation and, in 1972, he helped found Steely Dan alongside Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. Their first album Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972) – containing the hit Do It Again - was very well-received and Baxter’s outstanding solos on songs like Only A Fool Would Say That, and Midnight Cruiser brought him further acclaim. The following year the band released Countdown To Ecstasy, at which time Baxter was playing a homemade Strat and clearly growing in confidence in his role. On My Old School for example, he approached his co-founders and said "Hey, I got a line on this. I don't care what you say, I'm going to play this. And I think you're going to like it."
The classic Pretzel Logic – featuring the band’s most successful single Rikki Don’t Lose That Number - was released in 1974, but Baxter had become aware during its making that things were changing. “I felt that the direction that Steely Dan was headed was much more studio and not live-oriented in concept,” he says.
So Baxter joined the Doobie Bros ‘because of their incredible raw talent’ and because he had contributed pedal steel guitar on their album The Captain And Me and had also played on their 1974 tour. However, his first album as a full member was Stampede (1975), on which, among many other acoustic and steel contributions, he laid down a memorable solo for the hit single Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me).
Baxter charted a new direction for the Doobie Brothers when he suggested bringing in his old bandmate Michael McDonald as keyboardist and singer. The more jazz influenced sound that came about as a result led to further critical acclaim for Takin' It to the Streets (1976), Livin' on the Fault Line (1977) and the following year’s Minute by Minute, which went to number 1 on the US Billboard charts.
Despite the success the time had come for the band and Baxter to move on. “We’d been together for so many years, many of the members diverged to their own musical directions. For me, I wanted to start producing records and I couldn’t do both,” he said.
In a separate interview over the Doobie’s split, it is suggested that Baxter’s solos were like ‘miniature compositions inserted into songs, changing the whole mood’, to which he replies: “Yeah, it is, and a lot of time it gets me in trouble. I think that's ultimately why I had to leave the Doobie Brothers. […] Sometimes solos like the ones you described can get you in trouble, but other times, oh boy!”
Baxter left the Doobie Brothers in early 1979. When asked to compare the effect that his last two bands had on people he said: “I think Steely Dan went straight to the brain and the Doobie Bros went straight to the heart.”
In the same year he recorded his well known solo on Donna Summer’s Hot Stuff, which he says "[I did] on a $20 Burns Bison guitar!” He adds: "When I did that I was burning, just came off the road. I did four guitar solos, eight rhythm parts, and two synthesizer parts in four hours. I had never heard the stuff before we did it. I loved every minute of it."
Since then Baxter has been in continuous demand as a session guitarist for a huge range of top acts. In 1982, for example, he played on Spirit's album Spirit of '84; in 1986 he went on a tour of North America with James Brown and in 1990 he recorded and toured with John Entwistle of The Who.
Baxter has owned hundreds of guitars but apart from his Fender Jazzmaster electric he has talked about his love for his “Roland GR 505, made out of plexiglass; with Skunk-o-sonic pickups!” He has also said he loves Midi guitars. “I started working with Roland on guitar synthesizers in 1974 and I haven’t stopped yet. For a real thrill you should try a MIDI Pedal-Steel Guitar system.” He adds in a separate interview: “I own a couple of D’Angelico guitars [a New Yorker and a Mel Bay] - they are the stradivarius of guitars – John D’Angelico was an incredible craftsmen back in the ‘40s and ‘50s and I’ve been with the company now for 43 years; they are like family to me.”
Regarding speakers Baxter says: “I’m a JBL baby. I’ve been using JBL speakers for about 55 years; everything they make is incredible and their new 708s are unbelievable speakers – they work for me, it’s how I wanted to sound.”
For most people this CV would be incredible in itself. But Baxter has also become a leading international expert on missile systems - which makes his story both unique and enigmatic.
In the 1970s Baxter became interested in companies that designed musical instruments and digital technologies for music recording. As a self-confessed ‘computer geek’ he saw opportunities to translate some of that technology into the commercial world. He was reading Aviation Week and Jane’s Defense as a result and, remarkably, he says that “much of the information I gained from that I was applying in the musical instrument business.”
This singular soloist has made some ingenious leaps of imagination. One day in 1994, he started reflecting on the recently developed capability to track the space shuttle with a certain kind of radar, which happened to be the same kind of radar on which the U.S. Navy’s AEGIS system is based. “I asked a friend to do some math for me to test my hunch that the same radar could track a missile warhead and then wrote a paper on it.This paper then ended up in the hands of the vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who asked, “Is this guy from Raytheon or Boeing?” - to which the response was: “No, he’s a guitar player for the Doobie Brothers.”
“I realized I had an inherent understanding of radar, because radar is really just music on steroids […], he says. “I used the concept of jazz improvisation and applied it to intelligence analysis.”
Erhum, dear readers,… are you ready for a doobie yet?
But now it can be explained how, for Baxter, this all fits together. “I love my country. I’ve travelled around the world and seen what the alternatives are, most of which are not very pretty. [I] want to preserve this country and what it stands for […] Having been a musician in the U.S. means I have the freedom to make and play the music I want to. [I] thought, ‘It’s time to step up.’ People like the Taliban aren’t afraid of bullets. They are scared to death by something that represents freedom of thought and expression.”
Today, Baxter is in high demand to give speeches all over the world on innovation. He says you need to have an open mind, seek out the non-traditional and ‘improvise, adapt and persevere’.
“My life has been beyond my wildest dreams,” he says. “Being a ‘rock star’ in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s—life doesn’t get any better. I’ve had [the success I’ve had] because of being born in the U.S. And when I finally leave this mortal coil […] I hope I leave it a little bit better than when I came.” Who could doubt it?