The Skunk

Jeff Sometimes you run across a situation which makes you laugh–not because it is inherently funny, but because of the element of surprise, irony, or unpredictability. This week I stumbled across just such wonderful revelation.

Ever since my college years — when I was an aspiring guitarist and composer with far more dreams than talent — I have had a passion for excellent rock guitarists. Of course, there were the big players, many spawned by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers–Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Mick Taylor, to name but a few. Then there was Jeff Beck, a Yardbirds graduate whose innovative and unpredictable style made him by far the most interesting of the 70’s guitar wizards, although far from the best known or most successful. Style always trumped speed in my book: Alvin Lee, of Ten Years After, played guitar riffs which broke speed limits in every state but Montana, but lacked the power, subtlety, and emotional impact of Duane Allman, whose dual guitar leads with Dick Betz in the Allman Brothers Band created unbelievable energy and emotive power (listen also to his amazing slide work with Eric Clapton on Layla), and created a playing style still emulated today in such bands as Boston and Aerosmith.

But beyond the big names, I had a special interest in the extraordinary unsung talent that played sessions behind name bands. One group which utilized such session musicians to great effect was Steely Dan. Founded by Donald Fagan and Walter Becker– talented songwriters but themselves, initially at least, only average musicians– Steely Dan utilized extraordinary studio talent in crafting their eclectic, dark, jazz-influenced sound. These artists were often uncredited on liner notes, and it became something of an art form to discern who was playing behind them on any given cut.

One of their original session guitarists–perhaps one of the most talented, yet largely unknown, rock guitarists– was Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. Baxter joined Steely Dan on their debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill, and played behind Fagan and Becker through their third album, Pretzel Logic. He subsequently moved on to become a member of the Doobie Brothers. A master at electric, acoustic, and pedal steel guitars, his understated presence is easily overlooked, as he rarely forced himself into the spotlight. But his playing was nothing short of spectacular. Blow the dust off that old Steely Dan CD Countdown to Ectasy, and listen to several cuts. The guitar lead on the best-known song, “My Old School”, is bleeding edge: chicken-scratch harmonics, octaves, syncopated rhythms perfectly woven into the horn section riffs, spot-on bends, all played at breakneck speed without being ostentatious. (Keep in mind this is 1973, when the “innovative” releases were McCartney’s Band on the Run and Billy Joel’s Piano Man). Then listen to the amazing rhythm riff behind King of the World, perfectly fx’d with echo (analog, no digital back then), thereby creating a remarkable high-energy driving sound to contrast to Becker’s simple bass line and Fagan’s darkly cynical lyrics about a post-nuclear-war rendevous. His pedal steel work–long considered an appropriate instrument only in Country and Texas Swing–can be heard in its beauty and power with the Doobie Brothers on South City on The Captain and Me album, or in Brooklyn on Can’t Buy a Thrill with Steely Dan.

Jeff Baxter Baxter–seen in the above photo with the Doobies (on the lower left), in his trademark aviator glasses, bushy mustache, and chest-length hair–never sought the limelight and never released a solo album, although his discography is impressive. He wrote regularly for various trade magazines, including Guitar Player magazine and Electronic Musician, with well-written and informative articles on the rapidly-evolving technology of electronic and digital music. After the breakup of the Doobie Brothers, he continued to do studio work, but otherwise dropped out of sight.

Last week, out of curiosity, I decided to check if he had done any session work or released an album in recent years. And, to my amazement, I discovered that, while still involved in music, he had a new career: as a defense consultant on Homeland Security, strategic missle defense, and WMDs.

Color me astounded:

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.
Now, this shouldn’t surprise me, but it does. In part, my surprise arises from the vastly more common sight of rock stars and other celebrities pontificating about foreign policy–virtually always in opposition to Afganistan, Iraq, or some other aspect of the war on terror–while having no expertise in the area, nor offering any substantive arguments or alternative solutions. The spotlight of fame and media exposure appears to convince its recipients that their influence in the arts transfers seemlessly to politics and foreign policy, when in fact they end up looking foolish, half-witted and inept. Baxter superficially seemed to fit this bill, with a decidedly counter-cultural appearance, and association with bands not likely to be seen warming up for an Ann Coulter rally.

Of course I have no problem with celebrities speaking their mind on political or miltary issues–this is what makes America great. Recently, while in D.C. by the White House, I saw a protestor dressed up in a George Bush costume and mask, with blood running from his fangs while holding a sign saying “Bush is the real terrorist.” Yeah, whatever. But it made me realize what a special place we live in, where such protest is tolerated, even encouraged. Imagine the fate of such a protester in Saudi Arabia, or Syria, or North Korea, or China, or a host of other countries around the world.

No, it’s not the voices of opposition that trouble me: it’s the cheap grace of freedom. You oppose the war? Fine, many people did–what’s your solution? What are you doing to solve the problem of terrorism, national self-defense, Islamic fundamentalism? If you believe its root cause is social injustice, or poverty, or oppression, what are you doing to change the world into a better place? Talk is cheap–spare us the lecture about how your music empowers people to change, or your street protests speak truth to power, or other such cost-free drivel. Show me the money, give us a plan, then get to work putting it into action.

I guess that’s why the story of Jeff Baxter strikes such a chord with me: rather than get on a soap box, he got to work–using skills he’d acquired both from his creative side in music and from a strong personal interest in technology, he became part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

Military technology and music may seem to be unusual – if not incompatible – avocations, but to Baxter his two fields of interest and expertise go hand in hand. “The musicians are the front line freedom fighters,” he explained. “The bad guys are more afraid of music than they are of guns and bombs. Everybody who plays music is a freedom fighter. When the Taliban started cutting off the hands of musicians, that’s when I got involved.

“America is very powerful militarily, but culture is the strongest spoke of the wheel,” he added. “I’m blessed to have a hand in both camps.”
Amen. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to listen to some Steely Dan on my iPhone…
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