"Radar is just an electric guitar on steroids. The physics are pretty much the same." -- Jeff “Skunk” Baxter
To say legendary guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter is a busy guy is an understatement.
His musical career spans 55 years with one of the largest lists of collaborators in rock history. Jamming with Jimi Hendrix while still a teen, serving as one of the founding members of Steely Dan, playing a stint with the Doobie Brothers, and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame doesn’t even begin the cover his accomplishments. At age 16, Baxter was delivering amps to a studio session that was short a guitar player. He grabbed a guitar and sat in on the session.
"I honestly don’t remember too much about that one," Baxter said in a recent interview, chuckling while admitting he “might have partied hearty that day.”
He joined the Doobie Brothers in 1974, bringing Michael McDonald to the band and helping craft some of the group’s most enduring songs including "Takin' It to The Streets," "It Keeps You Runnin" and "What A Fool Believes." His body of studio work includes sessions with Roy Orbison, Joni Mitchell, Dolly Parton, John Mellencamp and Ringo Starr, to name a few.
What many people don’t know is that Baxter has been a high-level consultant to the Department of Defense since the early 1980s. He talked about that and other aspects of his long career in this chat with OnMilwaukee, previewing his upcoming appearance at Shank Hall on Wednesday, Dec. 14.
OnMilwaukee: I’d like to start with your first band.
Jeff Baxter: I was 11 years old, and the group was called The Tarantulas. (Laughs) We played a few school events and a lot of private parties. Our repertoire consisted of stuff like “Red River Rock” by Johnny and the Hurricanes and the Ventures’ "Walk, Don’t Run." Lots of surf songs as well.
And playing with Jimi Hendrix?
I was working at a music store in Manhattan, and he wanted to trade in a guitar. He was Jimmy James back then, and his band was the Blue Flames. We got to talking, and he invited me to the studio where the band was rehearsing. The bass player didn’t show up, so I got to sit in for a few numbers. By the way, I shouldn’t have made the trade with him, and I got docked a week’s pay. (Laughs)
Talk a little about the founding of Steely Dan.
I was in Boston and Walter Becker invited me to play with him and Donald Fagan in New York City. Afterwards Donald said he’d never heard anyone play the guitar like I did. We made a loose agreement to get together again if any of us came up with a record deal. Turns out Walter got a publishing contract with ABC Dunhill in Los Angeles, so we all met up out there. The CEO of the label heard us playing in the studio and pretty much signed us on the spot.
Tell me about working with bluesman Albert King.
What a great guitar player! We worked on "Red House." I loved his style, you know, the whole idea of playing right-handed on a left-handed guitar. It gave him that unique sound, and I was delighted to play with him. Some of his technique rubbed off on me. I think Albert and I complimented each other very well.
And how about Barbra Streisand?
I’ve always been a studio rat at heart. You get the call, and you show up ready to play whatever they want. With Streisand, we worked on the theme song from the movie “The Eyes of Laura Mars."
How did you become such a versatile player?
I learn from everyone. A lot of rhythm guitarists in the big bands became lead guitarists once the amplifier came along and lifted them above the band. The guitar became a melody instrument, and those guys learned to play lead by listening to jazz saxophone and trumpet lines. I picked up some of that early on.
Is it correct to say there’s a strong correlation between music and mathematics?
Absolutely! I don’t want to get too deep into it here, but every single interaction in the universe can be broken down to weak force, strong force, electromagnetics and gravity. Frequency and vibration are the glue that holds matter together. Magnetism is certainly a function of frequency. The neck of a guitar is a set of X and Y coordinates, and every chord played is a quadratic equation.
You have decades of being a consultant to the DOD. What is it you bring to the table?
I think in a non-linear fashion, an ability to see things in layers. Music is layers. You have the drums, bass, guitars and vocals all stacked on top of one another.
Without giving anything classified away, how do they utilize your talents?
I work in specific missile defense, space-related concepts like satellites, and war gaming.
What you do in war gaming?
I’m part of the Red Team, which is the opponent or adversary. My job is to predict their moves so we can anticipate what they might do. To accomplish that, I steep myself in their culture and learn everything about them.
What will you be performing at Shank Hall?
We’ll be doing some things from “Speed of Heat," my album which came out earlier this summer. And there’s a few surprises in the set that I don’t want to give away. (Laughs)
Over the years, you’ve been pretty secretive about the origin of your nickname, Skunk. Want to tell me now?
(Laughs) I’m in the process of writing a book and I’ll reveal it in there.