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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
George Varga

Jeff 'Skunk' Baxter is a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee and a ballistic missile and anti-terrorism expert

SAN DIEGO — Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, a man of international intrigue and a secret agent?

Yes, yes, and, um, no.

The versatile guitarist — who rose to prominence as a nimble-fingered member of Steely Dan in the early 1970s — was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2020 as a member of the Doobie Brothers, the band he joined after Steely Dan.

"You have to be proud of your accomplishments, but you have to keep moving," said Baxter, whose tour to promote his long-overdue debut solo album, "Speed of Heat," includes a Wednesday concert at the Belly Up.

His many credits include playing on such chart-topping hits as Dolly Parton's "9 to 5," Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff" and the Doobie Brothers' "What a Fool Believes." Baxter was featured on Steely Dan's first three albums and on such classic songs as "Do It Again," "Rikki, Don't Lose That Number" and "My Old School."

He is not, so far as is known, a secret agent. But the walrus mustachioed guitarist checks multiple boxes as a man of international intrigue.

Baxter is certifiably the only Rock & Roll Hall of Famer who spent 15 years as a specialist reserve officer with the Los Angeles Police Department's Anti-Terrorist Division. He is also a founding member of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department Terrorism Early Warning Group.

Born in Washington, D.C., and raised mostly in Mexico City, he has high-level security clearances as a U.S. government defense consultant specializing in ballistic missile systems and counterterrorism. For good measure, he has performed with the band Coalition of the Willing, whose lineup has included U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on guitar and vocals.

"Antony is pretty good; he's got a lot of energy. And Andras Simonyi, the former Hungarian ambassador in Washington, D.C., is also in Coalition of the Willing," said Baxter, who had a pressing reason for changing this recent interview with the Union-Tribune from a Monday to a Sunday.

"I have a commitment with the Air Force and have to leave town tomorrow," he explained, speaking from his Los Angeles area home. "It's part of my day job."

Multiple day jobs

Baxter's "day job" is, in fact, multiple days jobs.

He is a consultant for the Global Security Sector of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a member of the Director's Strategic Red Team at MIT/Lincoln Laboratories and a Senior Thinker for the Institute for Human & Machine Cognition. He is also the chairman of the Civilian Advisory Board for Ballistic Missile Defense for the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.

A two-time Grammy Award winner, Baxter has worked as a consultant for Northrop-Grumman, Science Applications International Corporation, Ball Aerospace, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Photon Research, General Dynamics Information Technologies, and other companies.

"I'm under contract with a number of different government agencies and also with a couple of national laboratories. I'm a consulting contractor for the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, and a couple of others," Baxter said, speaking from his Los Angeles home.

"The idea of being able to think on a multilevel template is common to both music and problem-solving. Musicians are always thinking on multiple levels, whether it's just playing a piece where you're looking at time, tempo, chords, lyrics and different melodies.

"There's so much going on — and it's the same with problem-solving. To solve a problem correctly, you need to break it down to its smallest components and then reassemble it, in a way that gets you an answer that's different from what you would normally get."

That Baxter has thrived in such disparate worlds is a singular achievement. Ditto the fact that this pony-tailed guitarist has been embraced by politicians and defense-industry wonks for his ability to think outside of the box about counterterrorism, cybersecurity and ballistic missile strategies.

He has brought a similar degree of creativity to his design and development work for such leading music instrument and equipment companies as the Roland Corporation, Akai and Fender.


"Jeff stands alone," said Joe Lamond, the president and CEO of the Carlsbad-based National Association of Music Merchants. "But when you think about it, if an organization wanted to get a glimpse into 'asymmetrical thinking,' why wouldn't you consult someone as brilliant as Skunk?"

San Diego-bred bass guitar great Nathan East, who has performed with Baxter, voiced similar sentiments.

"Skunk is not only one of my favorite musicians," East said, "he's the most interesting guy to hang out with as you learn about his amazing life outside of the music business."

Baxter's "Skunk" nickname dates to his late teens. He has long declined to disclose what inspired it — a detail he may include in the autobiography he hopes to complete by next year.

The book will have multiple focuses, as befits a musician who was once the co-owner of the Beverly Hills Gun Club and — in 1999 — came close to running as the GOP candidate for the 24th Congressional District.

"It was an interesting exploration," said Baxter, whose collaborators over the years have ranged from Joni Mitchell and Rod Stewart to jazz trumpet great Freddie Hubbard and the Argentinian rock band Enanitos Verdes.

"I decided not to (pursue running for office) because of the level of vitriol and vituperation I encountered. I didn't really understand that politics was a blood sport. I guess I was a little naïve."

Baxter's life can be summarized as a series of interesting explorations, starting with the classical piano lessons he began taking when he was 5.

His family moved to Mexico City from Washington, D.C., when he was 9. He quickly learned Spanish and began playing guitar. When he was 10, his father took him to a concert in the Mexican capital by jazz giants Charlie Parker and Ella Fitzgerald.

"I was enthralled and fascinated," Baxter, 73, recalled. "Jazz is an expression of freedom. Improvisation needs freedom to even exist. Music, to me, represents a pathway — and a philosophy — that requires freedom."

By the age of 11, he was playing in a Mexican rock 'n' roll combo. A young fan of the surf-rock band The Ventures and electric guitar and of recording technology innovator Les Paul, he went on to befriend both and produced The Ventures' 1997 album, "Wild Again II." He also became friends with jazz guitar master Howard Roberts, one of his key six-string influences.

In the second half of his teens, Baxter began working part time in Manhattan for pioneering guitar maker Dan Armstrong.

"Every guitar player I know is a diode-head and a gear slut," Baxter said. "I've always been fascinated by technology."

After a move to New England, where he spent a year as a journalism major at Boston University's School of Communications, Baxter turned to music full-time. He accepted an offer in 1968 to become a member of the psychedelic-rock band Ultimate Spinach, which broke up the following year.

He also played with singer-songwriters Tim Buckley and Linda Hoover. And he was a member of the proudly anarchistic folk-rock group The Holy Modal Rounders, whose repertoire included "My Mind Capsized," "Rotten Lettuce," "The STP Song," "Boobs a Lot" and the prophetically titled (for Baxter, at least) "Radar Blues."

Hoover's long-buried, just-released 1970 debut album, "I Mean to Shine," features Baxter. It was the first recording of note to team him with future Steely Dan mainstays Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.

A move to Los Angeles saw Baxter become a founding member of Steely Dan, whose 1972 debut album, "Can't Buy a Thrill," soon put the band on the map. His musical skill and stylistic versatility led to him doing studio work on albums by Carly Simon, Hoyt Axton, Little Feat, Stanley Clarke, Elton John and others.

In 1974, he left Steely Dan and joined the Doobie Brothers, remaining in the band until 1979. He went on to produce recordings for everyone from The Stray Cats and Nazareth to Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys. Baxter also worked as a studio session guitarist on soundtrack work for such films and TV shows as "Bull Durham," "Pee-wee's Playhouse," "Beverly Hills Cop" and "King of the Hill."

"The purpose of being a studio musician, which I think is an excellent one, is that it's not about you," Baxter said. "It's about performing — to the best of your ability — to support, satisfy and ultimately contribute to another artist's vision."

From music to missiles

Baxter completed "Insecurity," the first song for his recently released debut album, "Speed of Heat," in 1989. The predominantly instrumental album, which confirms Baxter has kept his six-string chops well honed, features such high-profile guest singers as Clint Black, Jonny Lang and former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald.

"Speed of Heat" leaves no doubt about Baxter's instrumental prowess. But he shines brightest on such atmospheric instrumental pieces as "Giselle," "Juliet" and a poignant reinvention of the 1980 Bette Midler hit "The Rose," on which he plays pedal steel guitar with great taste and understatement.

That Baxter only recently completed the solo album he started making 33 years ago reflects how busy he continues to be in his entirely unplanned day job working for the U.S. government and various defense contractors. The real-life story of how he started a second career as a military consultant is so improbable a Hollywood screenwriter couldn't have dreamed it up.

While helping a Los Angeles neighbor dig out from a mudslide in the late 1970s, Baxter learned the neighbor, George Webb, was a retired engineer who had helped design the Sidewinder missile for the U.S. Navy. To thank Baxter for his assistance, the neighbor gifted him with subscriptions to Aviation Week and to Jane's Defense.

A self-described autodidact, Baxter read both publications avidly and took a deep, years-long dive into almost all things defense-related. As the music industry began to transition from analog to digital recording technologies, he realized the data-compression algorithms and large-capacity storage devices the military was using in its hardware and software had practical applications for recording music.

This led him, intriguingly, to write a paper in which he posited that the U.S. military's Aegis ship-based anti-aircraft missile system could be expanded and converted into an overall missile-defense system.

"That's an accurate précis of what happened," Baxter said.

He passed his missile-defense paper on to a friend, now-retired Republican California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who in turn gave the paper to fellow Republican Rep. Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania.

Weldon was the chair of the House Military Research and Development Subcommittee. In 1995, he nominated Baxter to chair the Civilian Advisory Board for Ballistic Missile Defense, a congressional panel. Various military consulting contracts followed.

The Pentagon then asked Baxter to lead enemy forces in war games. A 2005 Wall Street Journal article described one of the faux enemy forces Baxter led as a "fictional future alliance of Iran and Iraq that was trying to drive the U.S. Navy from the key oil-shipping routes through the Persian Gulf."

Baxter chuckled about his ability to be a very good "bad guy" in war games as the leader of a composite terrorist organization hellbent on battling the U.S. But he parsed his words carefully when asked if he had been a hippie or part of the counterculture in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

"Oh, gee, I guess," he said. "I think my whole generation was (countercultural), in a way. Certainly, Boston was a college town full of youthful exuberance and hopeful, open-minded folks who — for whatever reason — felt that the culture they had grow up in was perhaps flawed in certain ways.

"But part of me was, let's just say that my dad was in the military for five years of active duty and spent 20 years in the reserves. He brought me up with a sense of patriotism, so I was not anti-military, which probably separated me a bit from some of my contemporaries. But I grew my hair long, grew a mustache and played with The Holy Modal Rounders, which was some of the most fun I've had in my life."

Baxter still has fun playing music. But he readily acknowledges his worldview is informed by his day job, which he stressed is decidedly apolitical.

"The Bill of Rights and the Constitution are designed for all Americans," Baxter said. "And political parties and politics should be subsumed to the greater good of what those documents stand for. I'm not political in my work. I do it because I took an oath and believe in my country, the principles of democracy and the system we have, flawed as it is."


Jeff Baxter on ...

Jimi Hendrix: "He was 'Jimi James' back then, when I knew him in New York. I found him to be very quiet and polite. He cared about his country and he was a wonderful guitar player. I mean, 'wonderful' doesn't begin to describe the talent and insight that man had into the guitar. He changed all of us."

Steely Dan's Donald Fagen and Walter Becker: "They were genius songwriters and Steely Dan was a pretty amazing band. So, I think — at least for a period of time — it's somewhat difficult for me to separate the two. Musicians that really work together, travel together and basically exist together have a certain magical something that supersedes just two musicians, or a group of musicians, playing together. There's a bond there, a kind of common musical vision, the ability to communicate nonverbally and interact with each other."

The Doobie Brothers: "One of the driving tenets of the Doobie Brothers that I became aware of early on was the desire to hone their craft. Rehearsals were weeks-long, intense and focused on achieving at the highest level. It was like the U.S. Army, being the best that you could be. There was no casualness about it; there was a real dedication."


Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, featuring CJ Vanson

Baxter performs at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Belly Up, 143 South Cedros Ave., Solana Beach. For tickets call (858) 481-8140 or go to


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