Nothing says rock & roll like discussing missile defense systems and guitar string bending. Jeffrey “Skunk” Baxter can do both.
“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.”– Jeff “Skunk” Baxter
Baxter was a guitar repair tech by day and a young player by night. He hooked up with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, found himself in Los Angeles, and was an original member of Steely Dan. Baxter literally knew the guitar from the inside out. During those years in L.A., he became a premier session player, lending his guitar with whatever kind of music and format that needed his skills. His goal was to be a “first call” musician. Whenever a guitar player was needed, he wanted them to call him first. They did.
With Steely Dan, he played on Can’t Buy a Thrill, Pretzel Logic and Countdown to Ecstasy. It’s his guitar you on Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.”
When Fagen and Becker decided Steely Dan would no longer tour, Baxter got an invitation to join the Doobie Brothers, which coincided with guitarist/songwriter Tom Johnston stepping away from the band for health reasons. Baxter said that even in those days, his interests stretched into aviation and rocketry. His father was in the military and there were many books and literature in the house that peaked his curiosity.
“One day, I don’t know what happened. I sat down at my Tandy 200 and wrote this paper about how to convert the Aegis weapon system,” Baxter said in a 2016 speech. “I have no idea. I just did it.”
“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,” Baxter told MTV in 2001. “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.”
I was looking around YouTube and found this amazing video of a talk Baxter gave on a different way to approach problems. Baxter uses music as an example of how one breaks down a problem and uses non-linear thinking to build solutions. It is very apparent that Baxter is both self-taught and has utilized access to an array of learning opportunities to feed his expanding interest in different ways of thinking. We tend to do things the same way all the time, and Baxter says that no longer works. Our response and tactical methods are predictable.
This is an hour-long presentation that does not seem like an hour. His journey from musician to government and industry consultant is included, but mostly Baxter weaves together a variety of concepts and influences to explore a very different mode of problem solving. He references changes in musical technology that were occurring around the time he became interested in military technology. The recording industry was moving from analog to digital technology, and the merger of musical instruments and computer technology. As he consulted with the Department of Defense, with high level security clearances, he was also working with recording and musical instrument makers, he saw the potential application of technologies and concepts, like algorithms for data compression, that could be cross utilized.
“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,” Baxter says.
Baxter has participated in wargaming with the military, and he says he has an impressive record against military planners, because he is ruthless and does not use conventional methods. At the beginning of his defense work, Baxter was sent to prospective builders of new missile technology to hear what they were doing and provide his assessment to military leaders. He tells the story of how these defense contractors were taken in by his appearance, but were shocked when he asked them very complicated missile guidance questions. Baxter was a few years into consulting with various military and intelligence organizations when 9/11 happened. He said this event helped illustrate the changing nature of world and threats and the need to change intelligence gathering. Today’s enemies have no concept of Napoleonic warfare, their are no traditional frontiers. Thinking inside of the box won’t work any longer.
I have actually watched several of his presentations on YouTube and they are very similar, I think because Baxter is a popular speaker. He is well-read and quite knowledgeable in science and technology. In one of this presentation, “The Revolution in Intelligence”, he talks about the power of improvisation and how teaching it opens doors to getting difference results in intelligence gathering to avoid the same results that no longer work. Leaders must be willing to take a chance, to push the envelop, explore new possibilities and have a willingness to fail. It’s all about embracing non-traditional ways of thinking.
Baxter is a smart guy, self education, and a sponge for technical information. He grasps complex situations and has a unique ability to break it apart, understand what he has and rebuild it in a different way. He sees the world in a way most of us do not. This ability is well-suited for the work he is doing.
It’s ironic that the military and technology people pegged him as a hippy, since he played rock and roll, and has long hair. Baxter is not a hippy, not by a long shot. He’s no more a hippy than Ted Nugent. Baxter has very conservative, right-wing views. Baxter is part of the military industrial complex, for which he is nicely compensated. The saying, “peace is our profession” is a a lucrative one.
If our country is safer as a result of Baxter’s consulting work, great. Thank you. Let’s begin the countdown to ecstasy.