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Behind the Curtain: Prepping for the End of the World with Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter

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In this latest Behind the Curtain entry, Steve Rosen recounts an unexpectedly serious chat with Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, then of the Doobie Brothers, all about survival. 

Imagine the world is ending. Well, maybe not the end of the world but some very nasty stuff is happening. You can choose your own scenario about how it happens:

Scenario One

A giant meteor crashes through the earth’s atmosphere, causing all the planet’s oceans to overflow. Tidal waves 150 feet high wash over cities and turn the planet into one big swimming pool. Surfers the world over rejoice.

Scenario Two

A huge earthquake — let’s call it a 12.8 — rips through California. The earth’s crust opens up in gigantic fissures and swallows everything in sight. This triggers fault lines all over the country to start shaking, rattling and rolling. Huge waves are created in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, the Gulf of Mexico and every bathtub, toilet bowl and fish tank around the world. The California coastline is rent asunder and falls into the ocean whereby the Golden State begins its own country.

Scenario Three

Prehistoric dinosaurs are simultaneously cloned in laboratories all around the world, and if this sounds suspiciously like what happened in the Jurassic Park movies, Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg stole the idea from me [but not really]. They break out of their cages and start chomping and stomping on everything in sight. They eat all the food out of the supermarkets and just for good measure, knock down all the buildings afterwards. They generally exhibit the personality traits of a five-year old child having a temper tantrum if that five-year old child stood 40-feet tall, weighed over 14,000 pounds and give a shit about anything else in this world except for devouring everything in its path.

Scenario Four

Aliens invade from outer space. These creatures from distant galaxies don’t look like spiders or stick-figures or gooey globs of gelatinous jello. They look just like we do, only they’re a little bit smarter and better looking. Imagine a spaceship full of creatures who look like young versions of Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart and Jimmy Page. Oh, there are women creatures as well, and they all look like Angelina Jolie, Marilyn Monroe and a 20-year old Grace Slick. They don’t kill each other and they don’t pollute the air they breathe or the water they drink. So, when they come to Earth and see what we’ve done, they are mad. Martian mad. Alien angry. They don’t blow us up or zap us with rayguns. They just stare at us for three minutes and we fall asleep. Not a bad way to go if you consider the previous two options. We wake up in a thousand years and we’re all younger and smarter and now we travel to distant planets to help fix the problems there.

Yes, these are all fantasies and just flights of fancy. Science-fiction foolishness. Daydreaming dalliance. None of this ever happens except on television — but if something did happen, would you know what to do? I know I sure as hell wouldn’t have a clue. Anybody know how to speak Martian sign language? Anyone know what to do or where to go if there’s a flood? Do you know how to build a boat? A raft? If a T. Rex just made kindling of your house, would you try to shoo him away like a dog? Would you yell, “Bad, bad dino”? That’s about all I could do.

So when I flew to Memphis, Tennessee back on November 5, 1975, to interview Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, the last thing I expected was to be asked a bunch of questions about survival and the end of the world. I mean, my idea of survival was making sure the night before that I had enough coffee to make a fresh pot of java in the morning. That’s how my brain worked. But it wasn’t how Jeff’s brain worked.

I thought we’d be talking about the upcoming Takin’ It to the Streets album, which would be released in about four months. I figured I’d be asking Baxter about Michael McDonald’s new role as lead vocalist — Takin’ It to the Streets would be the keyboardist’s first album on which he was the featured singer — and how that switch had shifted the band’s sound.

The new album represented the guitarist’s second record on which he was a full-fledged member of the band [he made his debut as an official member on the preceding Stampede release, though he had provided miscellaneous guitars including pedal and steel as a session player on The Captain and Me and What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits], and I wanted to know how it felt to be a truly integral part of the band’s sound.

We eventually talked about all those things, and much more. But before we got there, “Skunk” — a nickname he received back in Boston in 1971 from close friend Michael Brewin, and I’m not exactly sure where the tag came from but I think dirty socks had something to do with it — wanted to ask me a couple things. No, he didn’t question me about alien invasions or huge lizards trampling through the rose garden. Jeff didn’t think in fantasies and science-fiction. Rather, he confronted me with a more real world situation in which he said I might one day find myself.

So there we were sitting in his Memphis hotel room and I was starting to set up my cassette player. I pulled my notes out and laid them on the table where we were sitting. There was a carafe of coffee on the table and I was already on my second cup. As I was inserting a tape and aligning my thoughts, he said something about survivalists or something. I muttered some half-informed response because I wasn’t really listening and honestly didn’t have a fucking clue what he was talking about.

Jeff shot a sympathetic look my way and I couldn’t quite decipher why he was staring. He gazed at me through a pair of plastic-framed glasses, that huge and bushy Fu Manchu mustache curling down both sides of his chin and virtually covering his upper and lower lips. I couldn’t quite decipher why he was staring at me in that fashion. It was the type of benevolent look parents might direct at an infant, one which suggested, “Oh, poor baby. We will help you. We will guide you.”

Or maybe I misread his gaze entirely, and he was simply eyeballing me in disbelief. Maybe he was really trying to convey the message, “You poor, stupid fuck. You are going to die like a dog in the streets when the shit hits the fan.” Thinking about it now, I’m pretty sure Jeff felt sorry for me and my stupidity.

I set up the plastic microphone on a little stand, placed it on the tabletop in the space between us and was about to frame my first question when Jeff jumped in. “If there were riots in the streets,” he said, “would you know what to do?” I was so taken aback by what he had asked that for a second I thought he uttered something about Takin’ It to the Streets. I asked myself, “Did he just say ‘Takin It to the Streets or riots in the streets?’” In the nanosecond it took for a neuron to fire in my brain, I unraveled the words and realized he was continuing the discourse he had begun a few moments ago when I was setting up my gear. I was still not entirely sure if he was just fucking around with conversation or was serious. My brain can’t find any relevant response so I answered, “Well, umm, I, uh, would lock myself in the house. Grab a baseball bat, grab my cat, hide in the tub and hope for the best.”

Jeff was not happy with the answer. There was not a shred of sympathy left in his face — if there was ever any there — and he now looked at me like I was doomed beyond all hope. My answer had been a bit naive and lighthearted, so I amended it. “I wouldn’t have any idea what do. I never thought about it until right now.” I turn this around on him. “How would you … ?” And before the sentence left my mouth, the mustache responded. “I have a motorcycle filled with gas at all times in my garage,” he told me. “The streets and freeways will be blocked by cars trying to get out of the city and there won’t be any gas left anyway. You need a motorcycle to weave through the traffic.”

Holy shit. Baxter was dead serious. I didn’t doubt him for a second. He had the voice of authority, and what did I know anyway? Me, hiding in the bathtub with a Louisville Slugger and praying as hard as I could that the invading hordes would leave me alone. No, Jeff knew what he was talking about. What interested me was how in the world did he know about all that stuff? Turns out he had a neighbor who had worked on the Sidewinder missile program. A top level military engineer who knew how to blow things up and take care of business when the hammer came down. The guitarist was fascinated by his neighbor’s stories and began an earnest search of his own into the world of missile defense systems, guns, and how to survive in very bad situations.

In fact, Baxter had always been a geek for technology. Very early on, his interest in music technology led him to wonder about the hardware and software developed for military use. In fact, the musician would ultimately receive a series of security clearances in order to work with some pretty highly-classified information. We’re talking high-level spy stuff here.

So, when he began our conversation by asking me what I would do in a national crisis, he was just talking shop. That was the type of discourse he engaged in every day: how to survive. He told me he was a reserve policeman, which didn’t surprise me at all. Admittedly it was a little difficult to picture the guitarist in a cop uniform. Could you imagine Jeff cruising along in his black-and-white with his shoulder-length hair pulled up and under his police hat and his huge and bushy mustache trimmed back to the grooming standards of the L.A.P.D.?  I imagined an electric guitar stashed in the trunk and whenever he wasn’t out on a call, I could believe he’d pull the instrument out and run through some fabulous blues licks.

Talking about the police, Baxter informed me that just the night before the Doobie Brothers had encountered their own situation with local Nashville officers. It was a major confrontation, but one that Jeff now seems mildly amused by. “Our limousine driver was a planted policeman who had allegedly seen a box full of barbiturates on a counter in the Doobieliner,” he says, talking about the band’s private plane. This story coming from anyone else would reek of fiction, but when Baxter related it, you believed every word. “When we got back to the plane after a show, it was surrounded by policemen who didn’t have search warrants. They held us until three o’clock in the morning.” Jeff chuckles. “All they found was a lot of organic vitamins.”

At that moment, drummer John Hartman walked into the room. He was built more like a defensive lineman than a drummer, but maybe pounding on a kit for the previous 15 years had a lot to do with that. He had heard the tale portion of the police story and quickly jumped in. “That’s all well and good that the police are paid to protect the people,” Hartman said. “But who protects the people from the police?”

John left the room. Watching as the door closed behind him, I turned around and saw that Jeff had pulled out a gun. “Oh, fuck,” I thought, my brain once again scrambling to find some reasonable explanation for what I saw. Instantly, however, I realized Jeff wasn’t trying to scare or shock me in any way. On the contrary, it was obvious in the way he handled the weapon that he knew his way around guns and treated them with respect. It also told me that Baxter was always strapped — he had a permit to carry a concealed weapon — and if the rioters ever landed on his doorstep, they were in for a world of hurt.

Jeff holstered his gun. He talked a little bit more about the CIA and the end of the world. I was fascinated by his lecture because I’d never had this type of dialog with anyone. He knew I was ultimately there to talk about the music and deftly steered the conversation there. “’Takin’ It to The Streets’ is about the day-to-day situations we all find ourselves in,” Baxter explained. “It’s about the fact that all of us are all in the same bowl of soup. We’re all much in the same situations so let’s get it together and do something constructive.”

Though Jeff wasn’t really disturbed by the previous night’s confrontation with the police, it has left him sleep-deprived and fatigued. He probably didn’t get to bed before four or five in the morning and the lack of sack time has affected him. Looking like some wizened hippie walrus, Baxter’s eyes were lowered to half-mast. Yawns were stifled. Still, he was totally in the moment and determined to talk as long as I wanted about the new record, his guitar playing and anything else on my mind.

Hoping some sustenance might revive him, Jeff ordered room service. Twenty minutes later, a cart was wheeled into the room. Jeff removed a round silver lid from the tray in front of him to reveal a huge, sizzling hamburger. He took a huge bite and settled back into his chair to digest it. I allowed him a few minutes to enjoy his lunch. I tried to digest everything he has just told me about marauding hordes, survival at any cost and always having a full tank of gas in your motorcycle. I was tempted to ask him more about what to do in when the aliens landed or dinosaurs were devouring the earth. Should I learn how to shoot a gun? Should I learn how to ride a motorcycle? Should I learn how to build my own Martian-frying raygun?

But that’s not who I am. In fact my vision of the world’s end is a simple one: We run out of potable water or temperatures continue to rise or Mother Nature really gets pissed off and clears us all out with floods, hurricanes and earthquakes. No revolution in the street, no invading  hordes. Just good old-fashioned tempests, tornadoes, squalls and storms. Fast and efficient.

So, I just sat there content — though naive I may have been — in the knowledge that the only crisis facing me at that moment was making sure I got to the bathroom on time because of the six cups of coffee I’d consumed in the past hour.

That was about as big a disaster as I could handle, and that was totally fine with me.

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