The magnificent Marty Balin makes a visit to Seattle tomorrow, Saturday, June 13th for an appearance at the Triple Door. In a series of rare shows, Seattle has gotten very, very lucky that singer-songwriter Balin has selected the city for one of those events. Balin, who was a member of Jefferson Airplane (that’s one of the best bands ever to you), also had mega-success as a solo artist. I’ll point you to the song “Hearts” as the first evidence of that.
Fact: Jefferson Airplane helped change music as we know it today. While the San Francisco band ushered in experimental, electric songs the likes no one had heard before, they also had a sound of its own. Balin’s voice has always stood out to me as not only unique, but otherworldly. You can call it a gift. I might, as well, call it a wicked presence in rock and roll, a titillating presence of terrifying truth. Like something out of Greek mythology.
My initial exposure to Jefferson Airplane came when a copy of Surrealistic Pillow (one of the band’s best albums) was given to me as a present. The album spooked me beyond all my comprehension. It is sexy stuff with songs that really could destroy you. That I spent hours playing this album and staring at the cover is something I will admit. As I got more into the band’s other albums, I appreciated more of Surrealistic Pillow, and loved psychedelic, avant-garde songs (most written by Balin) such as “She Has Funny Cars,” “Plastic Fantastic Lover,” “Lather,” “The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil,” “Today,” “If You Feel,” and then a sexy ’70s song such as “Miracles.” So I flipped out hard when I noticed Balin had a show scheduled here. And even harder when he granted me an interview.
I’ve never read an interview where you describe how you picked your last name (Balin’s original last name is Buchwald).
MB: I had a manager who ran a theater called The Bal. I made some demo recordings for Challenge Records, and they wanted me to have a name that was catchier. They were throwing things out, somebody said, How about Balin?” I didn’t know anybody named Balin. It was kind of like Dylan at the time.
You were only 20 years old when you recorded your first single, “Nobody But You.” How did that happen?
Marty Balin: I just fell into that. I was a dancer in a show – one of those Broadway musical things – and some girl that was working in the show went to L.A. and I went with her. We went to some publishing house and some guy was playing piano, and I went over and started singing with this guy. He said, “Hey, can you do this?” And next thing I knew I was doing background singing at some recording company. And then they said, “Hey kid wanna do some demo singing?” I said sure, and one thing led to another.
You were a dancer at that time?
MB: I was a dancer in Guys and Dolls. That’s where I met Bill Graham, in fact. He was playing Big Julie for a while, and then he got in an argument with the director, who fired him. Years later I was rehearsing this new band called Jefferson Airplane in the mime troupe rehearsal auditorium where they worked, and he was in the office and I kind of recognized him. I went in and said, “I remember you from Guys and Dolls,” and he said yeah, and he asked me what I was doing. I said we’re just playing original music. He put on this benefit for his mime troupe and we played. They (fans) were lined up around the block. We said, “Why don’t you open a club, and we’ll play it?” So he opened The Fillmore, and never looked back.
You also opened a music venue.
I had a little club. I used to be in his folk band called the Town Criers in the early ’60s. Then I wanted to work with drums, and electric pickups on guitars. That was strange to people. I had worked at the hungry i and The Purple Onion in a folk band and it was acoustic. But when I did things with electricity and drums, nobody would hire me. So, I said, “To hell with you guys, I’ll open my own club.” Somehow I did. From the day we opened it was a big deal.
Was there resistance to the new sound?
MB: When I opened my own club, all these people came out of the woodwork looking for a place to play, just like me. There was the Dead, there was Janis Joplin. . . Steve Miller, Boz Scaggs. You name it. The Doors came up from L.A. Everybody was looking for clubs and places to play their music. From the first day, it was a big hit.
We were in a movement that was happening, but it was happening in art and comedy (too). . . women were getting their rights, gay guys were coming out. I mean, so much was going on. It was part of that let’s express ourselves, let’s be free, let’s be honest. We used to go to L.A. to get some jobs when we first started, and they’d say, “Will you do all the hits on the jukebox?” And I’d say, “Oh yeah, sure.” We’d get up and do these original songs. They’d fire us after the first set, but at least we got something to eat and a little bit to drink. We wanted to be original. We wanted to express something new. I think everybody was feeling that at that time.
What do you remember about meeting your Jefferson Airplane bandmates?
MB: I met Paul Kantner first. I was looking for somebody who could play a twelve-string guitar, because I worked in a folk band and the guy played a twelve-string, and he didn’t want to go from folk into electric. I used to go to this folk club called The Drinking Gourd, and people came out for hoot night and play. One guy came up to the door and he had a six-string in one hand and a twelve-string in the other. They said (at the door), “We don’t have any room.” I said, “Give him my spot, I gotta see this guy.” Paul came out, pulled out his guitars, tuned up, looked at the audience and said, “I can’t do this,” and he walked off. I said, “That’s the guy for me.” Didn’t hear a note he played, but I thought, I gotta have that twelve-string. I went backstage and said, “Let’s get together, I’ve got some ideas.” We got together a couple times at his place and went over ideas. And then I saw this guy coming down the stairs, who had just given a lesson to one of his roommates upstairs, and it was this beautiful looking cat with a guitar. I said, “Who’s that?” Oh that’s Jorma (Kaukonen). I said, “Let’s get him to be in our band,” and Paul said, “Oh no, he’s real good.” I said, “That’s what we want!” So I kept bugging Jorma, getting him to play with us. And that was fun. Piece by piece it all came together.
That seems to be as good way as any other to do it.
MB: I gotta go by people’s aura and their light. I look at somebody, I see their aura, and I need their light. (One time) I walked into The Matrix club that I was building at the time, and there was this kid sitting there with this girl. He was the most beautiful guy. He just shined like a light. I was having trouble with the guy I was using on drums. He was bugging me. This kid was sitting there, like an angel, and I walked up to him and said, “You’re my new drummer.” He goes, “No, I’m a guitar player.” I said, “No, you’re my new drummer.” He said, “But I don’t play drums.” I gave him a couple sticks and said, “Go home, practice, I’m going to call you in a week.” A week later, my drummer gave me some shit, and I fired him. I called this kid up and I said, “Can you do it?” He said, “I gave it a try.” He did it, and he was great. It was Skip Spence, who eventually went on to become Moby Grape. He turned out to be great drummer.
You also paint a lot.
MB: I do. I even have a gallery here in St. Augustine Florida. It’s all my paintings and memorabilia. I go over there once a year or couple times a year and play for the town. It’s really cool. I love to paint. I can only paint people I worked with, or knew, or met, or was on the same bill with. It gives me a chance to think about it.
I especially love the ones of Jim Morrison. What are some memories you have of him?
MB: We used to get really drunk a lot together, and have fun. My favorite was, we were in Europe, touring together with the Doors and the Airplane. We went out one morning, and we got really drunk and went to see things, and then we came back to the hotel – it was this castle on a hill made up into a hotel. Me and Jim said we’d meet up at the swimming pool. I go up there and he’s already in the pool. I was feeling really great; I always smoked a lot of stuff over there, and was drinking all day. Had our boat going through the archipelagos. I dive in the pool, and I happen to be at the low end of the pool. I hit my head, and I come up and I’m bleeding all over the place. Jim looks up at me, and says, “Oh man.”
(That night) we go on stage, and some nights he would go on first and other nights I would go on first; we traded back and forth. So this night I go on first. I’m doing “Plastic Fantastic Lover,” and I’ve got the crowd going crazy, and I see Jim sitting at the side of the stage. I see this guy give Jim this big ball of hash, and he just pops it into his mouth and swallows it down. Washes it down with his whiskey. I’ve got the crowd, and suddenly out of the corner of my eye I see Jim coming out with his hands above his head dancing like a flamenco dancer. He starts dancing all around me, so I’m wrapping us up in the cord and I’m singing and he’s dancing. The crowd’s going crazy. Then we unwrap at the end of the song, and he’s standing there looking at me with his hands up like a flamenco dancer and he goes, “Beat that motherfucker.” And then he just passes out on the stage. He didn’t make the gig that night.
“Plastic Fantastic Lover” is one of my favorite Jefferson Airplane songs, and it just gets more and more relevant in the world.
MB: That was actually written to a TV set. I always said it was written about Grace Slick. In those days you’d be so drugged up from hash, you’d go back to the TV. Remember when the TV would go off at the end of the night? After they’d play the theme and the jets would fly by, and there’d be all these little dots on the screen? If you were on acid, you’d sit and watch these dots. You’d see all these amazing things, watching these dots. It was kind of written to that – that moment sitting in a hotel room watching dots on the TV set.
What kind of books and movies are you into?
MB: I read tons of things. I’m a voracious reader, it’s like my dope. Everything from mysteries to histories to biographies. I like biographies a lot. I’m a student of Hollywood, early ‘30s, and that whole studio star system. I pretty much have a complete library of early Hollywood. I know a lot about that early process. Hollywood was this fantastic myth-making machine that we all grew up with. It didn’t even exist because it was the Depression and that. But all that stuff on the screen was just BS, that glamor and all that. Very few people could get that. It’s like the One Percenters now. It affected the whole world at that period.
I’ve always been interested in the people who made it, directors, writers, producers, stars. When it comes to movies, I pretty much like the old ones. Good acting, the old lighting. Many of the great scriptwriters would work on one script. A mishmash of great talents. Sad to say, it’s all gone, but we get to see the films.