5 Minutes With: Steely Dan and Doobie Brothers guitarist Jeff Baxter

Guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter visits the White House on Oct. 11. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Jeff “Skunk” Baxter has had the kind of music career that most kids jamming in their parents’ garages could only dream of. He was the guitarist for two legendary rock-and-roll bands — Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers — played as a session member for musical artists such as Eric Clapton, Dolly Parton and Sheryl Crow, and has toured with the likes of Elton John and Linda Ronstadt.

He also has security clearances and chairs the Congressional Advisory Board on missile defense.

Baxter, who was born in Washington, D.C., returned to his old stomping grounds to host a charity concert Tuesday benefiting the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, an organization that aids the children of Marines in their educational pursuits. Some of Baxter’s old pals from groups such as Boston, the Wailers and the James Brown Band will be joining him for the celebration that merges his two interests — music and national security. We chatted with Baxter after he touched down in the nation’s capital.

You were born in the District. How often do you come back?

I’m here probably at least half the year, if not more, working with different agencies and companies in different branches of government work.

What’s changed the most about Washington over the years?

When I was a kid you would go to the Mall on July Fourth to watch the fireworks and it was just the Washington Monument. And now there’s so many different buildings in that whole area that’s grown, so that’s different than I remember.

Do you have certain restaurants that you like to frequent when you’re here?

Oh yes, RT’s. Best Cajun food around. It’s really good. I go there every opportunity I can. It’s down in Alexandria.

You’ve had a successful career in music, and also have a security clearance and work in defense. How did that come to be?

Back in the early ’90s, I wrote a paper on utilizing the Navy platform and a Navy air defense system for theater missile defense based on some knowledge that I had. A few months later I gave it to a congressman friend of mine who then gave it to the vice chairman of the Armed Services Committee. And he said, “Is this guy from Raytheon or Boeing?” and he said, “No, he’s a guitar player for the Doobie Brothers.” Without getting into too much detail, let’s just say that another community had reached out to me. And so next thing I knew, I was strapped to a chair and telling them everything I knew, and then ended up at Lawrence Livermore [National Laboratory] with Department of Energy clearances for nuclear weapons and stuff. So I’ve been doing this for quite a long time, and once you’re in the system and if you can contribute, people seem to want to reach out and avail themselves of whatever talents you have.

You’re originally self-taught in this field.

Oh yeah, absolutely. I was reading about missile defense and other military programs because I was working — and still do work — for a couple of major musical instrument companies, and at that time back in the ’90s, it was sort of the beginning of commercializing digital recording as opposed to analog. The only way I could get the information [about new software] was to read the defense magazines. So I guess something clicked somewhere and I wrote the paper. Next thing I knew I was working for General [Malcolm] O’Neill at the Pentagon.

Is it rare that a famous musician would have security clearances?

No, in fact my old boss at Lawrence Livermore who now is up at the University of Rochester, Mike Campbell, has asked me to reach out to the lead guitar player for Queen, Brian May, because Brian just got his P.H.d. in astrophysics. And there’s a wonderful guitar manufacturer named Paul Reed Smith who has come up with a brilliant, without getting too specific, underwater detection system that is amazing. So I connected him with the Office of Naval Research and the folks at Northrop Grumman. So it’s not that far out.

Did you ever feel like people didn’t take you seriously because you were a rock star?

Of course. But I think it’s an advantage to be underrated. It helps you get through some of the problematics, I guess, of how people accept you and stuff if their expectations aren’t that high.

Were you ever worried your defense work would negatively influence your music career?

I try to stay away from the political side of anything, but I think some folks have a tendency to equate national security and politics. They can’t separate them. And they are really separate. Certainly in Los Angeles there’s a very liberal philosophy that is very pervasive. So before 9/11, a lot of people thought I was nuts. After, a lot of my friends who were not quite sure what I was doing were coming up to me and saying, “Hey, how can we help?”

You’ve worked with many famous artists, from Jimi Hendrix to Sheryl Crow. Who influenced you most?

I grew up in Mexico City. And the music environment there was very eclectic. I think when I was 10 years old, my dad took me to see the jazz all-stars Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker, and it was an incredible experience for me. My mom started giving me piano lessons when I was 5, and my dad had a great collection of jazz.

Howard Roberts . . . His first two albums really influenced my guitar playing. And then the rock and roll stuff. I was a big Ventures fan.

And Winston Churchill was a huge influence on me. He made some mistakes, but he saved the Western world. I mean anybody who can sit naked in a bathtub with a bottle of brandy, smoking a cigar and having a conversation with the president of the United States, is a rock star.

Can you elaborate on the origins of your nickname “Skunk?”

That’ll be in my book. I wanted to write a book because people have told me that my life is very interesting. But it’s all because I grew up in America. You know, I live in an America where a rock-and-roll star can decide that he wants to contribute to national security, and vice versa.

President Trump ended up turning to politics after being a star in the entertainment world, too. Do you have any thoughts on his presidency?

I try to stay away from politics. There’s a lot of vituperation, especially in this town, which is sad. There are presidents that I like and presidents that I don’t like, but I took an oath to defend the Constitution and a duly elected president of the United States is my president. Yeah, and I do have a problem with people saying he’s not my president. I think it’s important to believe in this system. And there’s some things I do like about him — he signed that music legislation [the Music Modernization Act], which other people wouldn’t do. I thought that was a nice move. Sometimes I think that we get the right person at the right time, whether you like them or not.

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