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The Strange Case of Jeff Baxter

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You’d think playing in a band with Jimi Hendrix would be the pinnacle of most careers. Or maybe being in Steely Dan for their early Seventies holy trinity of Can’t Buy A Thrill, Countdown To Ecstasy and Pretzel Logic. Or maybe 8 Platinum Records and two Grammys. Or being in the Doobie Brothers. Or even in psychedelic band Ultimate Spinach. That should be enough for one lifetime, right?

Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter was all of those things… and then he developed an interest in military technology, became a defence consultant and a Congressional adviser on missiles.

This is not your average working life.

Jeff studied journalism at Boston University and then moved to New York where he worked in Manny’s Music Store in Midtown and played in an early Hendrix band Jimmy James And The Blue Flames, along with fellow Manny’s employee Randy California.

He was then in Ultimate Spinach, a psychedelic folk act from Boston who gave the world such far-out cuts as ‘Ballad of the Hip Death Goddess’, ‘Plastic Raincoats/Hung Up Minds’ and ‘Sacrifice Of The Moon’. Look, man, it was 1968 okay? He also played with The Holy Modal Rounders – a band that sometimes featured screen icon Sam Shepard. They were folksy, Lower East Side scenesters whose music is not especially well-remembered apart from the claim to fame that their 1964 version of ‘Hesitation Blues’ reportedly features the first use of the word “psychedelic” in a song lyric.

But Jeff soon moved to California to work as a session player, where he became a founding member of the Dan with Becker and Fagen. His work on their first three records is brilliant, of course – amongst his many highlights was the solo on ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’.

By 1974 it was clear that Walter and Donald wanted to stop touring, and Jeff saw the writing on the wall. He quit the band and began touring with the Doobie Brothers – with whom he had done session work. By 1975’s Stampede he was a full member of the band. His jazzy style contributed to three more successful LPs – Takin’ It To The Streets (1976), Livin’ On The Fault Line (1977) and Minute By Minute (1978), which contained the band’s biggest hit ‘What A Fool Believes’.

He left in 1979 and spent the next decade sessioning with Joni Mitchell, Clapton, Carly Simon, Rod, Barbara Streisand and countless others; also touring with Elton and Linda Ronstadt. In 1990 he was in a short-lived supergroup called The Best with Keith Emerson, John Entwistle, Joe Walsh of The Eagles and Simon Phillips of Toto (and Judas Priest).

If that wasn’t a strange collection of personalities, then Jeff also occasionally plays in an extraordinary-sounding band called Coalition Of The Willing, whose members include or have included the US Ambassador to South Korea; the Hungarian Ambassador to the United States; a former US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs and various other bigwigs.

The reason that a man who once played with Ultimate Spinach is up in the cake with these powerful movers and shakers is equally random.

In the 1980s, Jeff became curious as to what data compression technology the military had and how it compared to the machinery currently available for electronic music recording. Around the same time, a neighbour gave Jeff a subscription to an aviation magazine and he became interested in missile defence systems – the neighbour was a retired military engineer who had worked on Sidewinder weapons.

Self-taught, Jeff became an expert in the field and wrote a proposal to harness an existing naval missile technology for land defence. It was submitted to congress and he became a defence consultant. He has lobbied for increased missile defence systems for the US and has advised NASA on missile applications in the space race.

Although none of this immediately seems related to his career in music, he explains with an analogy as precise and illuminating as his playing with Steely Dan.

“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.”

“My big thing is to look at existing technologies and try to see other ways they can be used, which happens in music all the time and happens to be what terrorists are incredibly good at.”

So the man who gave the world some of the most liquid, scorching jazz-rock guitar of the early Seventies is now taking care of business for Uncle Sam. Jeff Baxter: guitarist, journalist, missile boffin – rocking in the free world.

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