May 24th 2017

From Music to Missile Defense: The Very Interesting Life of Jeff Baxter

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Guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter
Guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter testifying US Department of Agriculture (USDA)

If you’re a classic rock ‘n’ roll fan, you’ve probably heard of Jeff Baxter. Known as “Skunk” to friends and bandmates, Baxter was a founding member of Steely Dan and later joined the Doobie Brothers for some of their most popular albums. If you’ve got an interest in government counterterrorism and technology, meanwhile, Mr. Baxter’s name may also be familiar. It turns out the long-haired, hippie-type fella from Washington D.C. is actually a noted national security expert with a flair for thinking outside the box. Here’s a look at the very interesting life of this guitarist turned government resource.

The Man and the Music

Baxter started out aiming for a career in journalism but always had an interest in music — while working at a music shop in Manhattan, he met up-and-coming guitar legend Jimi Hendrix and during part of 1966 was the bassist for Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. Next up was a short stint with psychedelic rock band Ultimate Spinach, then a move to Los Angeles where he became a founding member of Steely Dan. When the band retired from touring in 1974, he joined the Doobie Brothers and went on to be one of the most influential and in-demand session guitarists in Hollywood.

According to Guitar Player, Baxter is “one of the greatest guitars for hire in the business,” at one point owning more than 400 guitars and providing stand-out solos for tracks like Steely Dan’s “My Old School” or Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff.”

Soloing Cybersecurity

But the Skunk had another stripe: Baxter was passionate about music technology and it got him thinking about how other types of tech, notably data-compression algorithms and large-capacity storage devices used by military agencies, could also be used for recording. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Steely Dan guitarist received a subscription to an aviation magazine after mentioning his interest to a neighbor — who happened to be a former Pentagon engineer — which led him to wonder if existing military systems could be adapted to serve other purposes.

Armed with time and interest, Baxter wrote a five-page paper suggesting that the military’s ship-based Aegis anti-aircraft system could be converted into a missile-defense solution. He took the paper to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who in turn passed it on to Rep. Curt Weldon. Both were amazed, and Baxter was quickly drafted into service as a consultant; along with the U.S. Department of Defense he’s also done work for the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and private defense innovators such as Northrop Grumman.

Creative Genius

So what makes Baxter so valuable? He’s whip-smart, learning the ins and outs of missile defense and military technology on his own, but his biggest draw is creativity. He puts it simply: “We thought turntables were for playing records until rappers began to use them as instruments, and we thought airplanes were for carrying passengers until terrorists realized they could be used as missiles.”

He’s able to examine current tech and consider new ways it might be used to threaten U.S. security, a skill he has in common with the new breed of terrorists, and that won him a regular spot as the leader of “enemy” forces in Pentagon war games. For example, in the late 1990s, he led a fictional coalition of Iran and Iraq trying to drive out American military forces in the Persian Gulf. Outmatched and outgunned, Baxter came up with the idea of an oil-eating bacteria which rendered Saudi Arabian oil supplies worthless and saw oil-dependent U.S. allies pressuring the country to back off before the damage became too great.

The best ideas sometimes come from the most unexpected places. Baxter’s passion for music technology sparked his interest in national counterterrorism, while his creativity made him the ideal candidate to think outside the box and discover new ways terrorists could repurpose existing technology and threaten U.S. soil. Oh, and to top it all off? He’s a celebrity just about everywhere, making it easy to access resources or technology when leaders recognize him as the “guy from Steely Dan” or guitarist from the Doobie Brothers.

Bottom line? “Interesting” is just the ground floor when it comes to Jeff Baxter.

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