Oh, Oooh, Listen To The Music
Once again, sitting up the other night watching AXS TV, a special about the
Doobie Brothers. And once again, memories of my musical past shot to the
surface, making me smile, blurring my eyes. I knew only one small slice of
the Doobies, but man, what a slice it was!
After I left Berklee and went on a fairly wild two-year ride with Jimmy Helms,
I landed at a recording studio about 30 minutes outside Boston… Natural
Sound. It was hidden away in a little town called Maynard, Mass, and lived
on the second story of a Woolworth store in downtown Maynard. We had
recorded Jimmy Helms’ first album there, and when Jimmy was booked for
a six-month tour of Australia and I wasn’t invited along, I landed a temporary
job with Natural Sound as an arranger/piano player. At that time Natural
Sound recorded mostly country music… that’s right, there are tons of
country bands in Western Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. Natural
Sound had become the place to record, most bands rolled in, cut two songs
and had a thousand 45’s cut, that they could sell on their gigs.
But Natural Sound was more than that. They had the only Scully 8-track
recorder in New England, and had a big grand piano in the studio, which also
had room for an iso booth. With a few pieces of outboard gear and an
experienced recording engineer, they had built a name for themselves in New
England as the place to record. And… drum roll, it had the first large synthesizer
that the Arp company, located in a neighboring town, had produced. It was as
big as a small bookcase and took up one entire end of the control room. But
it was The New Thing in 1970, and though all we could coax out of it at the time
were some hums, squeeks, slides, peeps and growls, it was the hot new item,
and most of the bands around had heard about it.
I wasn’t excited about working in a studio that featured country music, but
the boss had suggested that I might learn to be a recording engineer in my
spare time. That was enough for me. I took the job and stayed there for two
years, until the studio closed. And no, it wasn’t my fault. The owner, who we
referred to as “the Angel,” got sick and decided to sell it. In its prime it recorded
several notable bands and musicians. Tom Scholz, the brain and lead
guitarist behind the band “Boston” recorded his entire album there, as a demo.
I was the assistant engineer on that project and learned a ton. Then a new
band, called Bead Game, came in to record an album for Mercury Records.
And that was when i met Skunk.
Everything you might want to know about Jeff “Skunk” Baxter can be viewed
here, and it’s truly impressive. “Asymetrical Thinking In a Conventional World”
In my eyes he’s easily one of the most remarkable people of our generation.
I would say he’s pretty much a normal genius… at least as normal as those
genius-types get. A great guy, funny, playful, immensely talented and smart
Skunk had already been around when he and Bead Game came to Natural
Sound. Bead Game was a good band, good enough to get Mercury
Records to send their hotshot producer, Robin McBride, to Boston to cut an
album on them. The sessions didn’t go well… McBride was a dick head who
didn’t want to be there in the first place and made everyone aware of it. The
Bead Game guys didn’t care too much… a few of them, like Skunk and the
drummer, Jimmy Hodder, had their eyes on bigger prizes. They were just
biding time ’til they moved to L.A. to get really serious about it all. The whole
mood was that they didn’t care if the album was even released, or made
any money. Good thing, too… it wasn’t, and it didn’t.
During those two weeks, though, I got to know Skunk… and he was a case.
The third session he brought in a pedal steel guitar, set it up in the front of
the studio and plugged it in to a nearby amp. I asked him what he was up to.
He said he was teaching himself to play pedal steel, that it was challenging
for him and he wanted to practice while we were setting the session up, and
show us what he’d already learned. Now just so you know, the pedal steel
is a different animal, taking a different group of skill sets than you’ll find on
any other instrument. Skunk had already mastered it, after only a few weeks!
Am embarrassed to share this, but I will. On one of their sessions, I could
hear Skunk playing a great lead on a break, but I couldn’t see him anywhere
in the studio room. So when we stopped recording I went down into the
studio to see where the hell he was. He was lying right under the control
room window on his back, with his legs straight up in the air, playing these
terrific leads! I stood there, looking at him, at his goofy grin. “You know,” i
said, “If you’d just start taking your music a little ore seriously, you might be
a really good player!”
“What a fool believes he sees, no wise man has the power to reason away.”
Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins
Somewhere in the ’90’s i was standing in an airport line, waiting to board a
plane, when up comes Skunk, to stand with me. We start talking about
what he’s been doing, what I’ve been doing, and about the old days back
in Boston. By then he’d played with Steely Dan, the Doobie Brothers and
was now doing some producing on his own. He said he loved playing with
the Doobies but decided to leave when Michael McDonald came on board.
“It became a keyboard band at that point and it wasn’t for me.”
I asked him if he missed the band. “No, and besides, it wasn’t a band…
it was a corporation.”
A young woman just ahead of us, turned and said, “Sorry, I couldn’t help
hearing your conversation. You’re both musicians, right? Are you someone
I should know?”
Skunk grimaced. “Naw, we’re just a couple of old studio rats. Right Stevie?”
That’s right, Skunk. Just a couple of old studio rats. Only difference was, I
was flying to L.A. to record a jingle, and Skunk was flying to Nashville for a
TV interview. Later, after 9/11, Skunk would be flying to D.C. to consult with
some generals at the pentagon. My god it’s a weird world!