As a member of the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan, and as a session guitarist
for Carly Simon, Bryan Adams, Ringo Starr and many others, Jeff "Skunk"
Baxter has been a clandestine rock and roll hero since the '70s. Now, as
a specialist in terrorism, missile defense and chemical and biological
warfare, he's also a covert hero for the U.S. military.
He's currently working for the Department of Defense as an adviser to the
Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and has also served as a top military
adviser for numerous congressmen and senators.
"To most of the world, Skunk Baxter is one of the great rock and roll guitar
players. Inside the Beltway, he's one of the leading experts on military
defense, and we listen to his advice all the time," said Republican California
congressman Dana Rohrabacher. "He knows all about weapons technology and has
a better understanding of the strategic game going on than I do, and I'm on
the International Relations Committee."
Along with a roster of high-power politicians and military men, Baxter who learned everything he knows about military defense from reading war history books, technical weapons texts and defense manuals is now playing a key role in determining how the U.S. can best protect itself against a major nuclear, chemical or biological attack. And while he may be a big fan of the music of John Lennon, he doesn't believe in giving peace a chance, insisting that the mere threat of American military might isn't
enough to sway the behavior of radical fundamentalists.
"I don't buy this idea of deterrence being the ultimate be all and end all,
so missile defense is a very necessary concept," he said last week, adding that the
U.S. needs to act defensively as well as offensively. "We need to protect
our ports and our borders. We need to protect our water and food supplies.
Agricultural terrorism is something we've been talking about for the past
few years. The Russians at one time had placed warheads on their missiles
that were designed to kill crops and livestock. In fact, they had smallpox
on some of their offensive nuclear warheads at one point. So this is not a pretty game."
When Skunk Baxter speaks, people listen. At 52, he may look like an aging,
non-conformist rocker his scraggly moustache and beard look like clumps of
sugary frosted shredded wheat and his beret and large wire-frame glasses
give him an erudite appearance but his creative, no-nonsense ideas and
technical expertise endear him to his conservative military peers.
"Some of these people who are generals now were listening to my music when
they were lieutenant colonels or lieutenant commanders, so there was a bond
there," Baxter said. "But what they realized
is that they're looking for people who think out of the box, who approach a
problem with a very different point of view because we're talking about
asymmetrical warfare here."
The idea that Baxter is being taken with sobering seriousness by a
contingent that generally associates rockers with degenerates is amazing
enough, but his transformation from guitar guru to high-tech defense wizard
is even more incredible.
Like many musicians, Baxter has always been interested in how technology can
be applied to music, and has become adept at working with the science of
sound. He's served as a technical adviser for major musical manufacturers
such as Akai Digital, Roland and Audio-Technica. And his fascination with
circuitry and electronics stretches beyond the musical domain into the
military realm. In the '80s, while his peers would drink beer and play
video games on tour, Baxter would immerse himself in technical defense
"Technology is really neutral, it's just a question of application," he
said. "For instance, if TRW came up with a new data compression algorithms
for their spy satellites, I could use that same information and apply it for
a musical instrument or a hard disc recording unit. So it was just a natural
Baxter's evolution from defense technology hobbyist to professional happened
more by circumstance than intent. A decade ago, one of his friends was
writing an op-ed piece on NATO and weapons systems, and knowing Baxter's
fascination with military gizmos, she asked if he would help out. He was so
inspired by the project, he wrote his own paper on missile defense and
handed it to Rohrbacher, who showed it to his associates.
"His friends said, 'Is this guy from Raytheon or Lockheed?'
And he said, 'No, he's the guitar player for the Doobie Brothers.' So
naturally that raised a few eyebrows," Baxter said.
Based on the paper, Republican Pennsylvania congressman Curt Weldon, the
chair of the Procurement Subcommittee of the House Armed Services
Committee, invited Baxter to help form a civilian advisory board on missile defense.
"The next thing I knew, I was up to my teeth in national security, mostly in
missile defense, but because the pointy end of the missile sometimes is not
just nuclear, but chemical, biological or volumetric, I got involved in the
terrorism side of things."
While Baxter is currently in demand as a defense expert, he's not ready to permanently trade in his signature Gibson Epiphone guitar for a cache of Stinger missiles. And his resume is mighty impressive. With the Doobie Brothers, he played on such hits as "Black Water" from the 1974 record What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits and "Takin' It to the Streets" from the 1976 album of the same name. As a member of Steely Dan, he played on "Do It Again" from the 1972 disc Can't Buy a Thrill, "My Old School" from 1973's Countdown to Ecstasy and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" from the 1974 LP Pretzel Logic. Over the past two years, he's played on records by MC Lyte, Michael McDonald, Tom Rush and Evan and Jaron, and in his spare time he continues to produce other acts and give guitar clinics.
"I am honored to be able to work on both sides of the fence," he said. "I will show up anywhere, anytime with a guitar and play to make money, to raise funds, to raise awareness for anything that I can do. And I've also spent many hours burning the midnight oil working on the national security problem with the people I work with. So I am absolutely blessed."
For more information on and audience reaction to the attacks, including tips on how you can help, see "9.11.01: Moving Forward."