The Jefferson Airplane Chronicles: Part Six, Marty Balin
by Jeff Tamarkin – Relix Magazine, April, 1993
Reading the following interview, one might get a sense that there are two Marty Balins. The one, who talks about the early days of Jefferson Airplane, when there was happiness in the air and flowers in the hair, is a fun guy who likes to reminisce nostalgically. The Marty Balin who recalls the down side of the Airplane years, when heavy drugs entered the picture and peace and love turned to talk of revolution and infighting among band members, comes off as bitter and dismissive.
Read more carefully, though, and the picture adds up to one Marty Balin after all, one who simply doesn’t like strife and greed, who believes in fairness and cooperation, and above all the power of music. More than 25 years after he brought the members of Jefferson Airplane together, Marty Balin is still in the music business for the reason he entered it: he likes to sing. There is no one besides Balin who can rightfully claim to be the founder of the Airplane. It was his dream, his plan, his band and he made it happen.
Born Martyn Jerel Buchwald in Cincinnati, Ohio on January 30, 1942, he came to California with his family at age four, settling in the central part of the state before moving to San Francisco. Always interested in the arts, Balin was a dancer and a sculptor as well as a singer. He performed in a local production of West Side Story in the early 60s and when the popular singer Johnny Mathis heard him sing, he encouraged the teenager to pursue that course professionally.
In 1962, Martyn Buchwald became Marty Balin and recorded two 45 RPM singles for a small record label called Challenge, which were unsuccessful. That led to a stint with a folk group called the Town Criers in 1963-64 and, with the invasion of the Beatles and their fellow Brits, a dream to open a rock’n'roll club and start a band.
By 1965 Balin had accomplished both goals: he was a partner in the Matrix in San Francisco, and had assembled Jefferson Airplane, the band that would open the club and go on to bring worldwide popularity to the San Francisco scene. Fronting the Airplane, and combining his still-spellbinding, silky voice with the icy sound of Grace Slick’s and the folky Paul Kantner’s, Balin became one of the best-loved voices of the 60′s.
When he left the Airplane in April 1971, dejected after the death of his friend Janis Joplin and the shift in the tone of the entire scene, Balin kept a low profile for a few years. By the mid-’70s, though, he’d turned up in the reconstituted Jefferson Starship, a revolving door of musicians that yielded lesser returns musically with each passing year.
Bailing out at the end of that decade, Balin launched into a solo career which continues to this day. His most recent album, Better Generation, released in early 1992 on the independent GWE Records, finds him proffering the same sort of positive vibrations that have always been his trademark, while looking back nostalgically at the same time. And for the record, he’s never sung better.
RELIX: You were an artist and sculptor when you were young and also a dancer. Why didn’t you pursue those areas?
MARTY: I was going to. I actually started the Airplane just to get enough money together so I could go to Italy and study marble.
RELIX: You started singing when you were young and recorded two singles in 1962 on Challenge Records (I Specialize in Love and Nobody But You), three years before forming the Airplane. What were they like?
MARTY: Oh, they were cool. That was the first time I’d walked into a session and Jimmy Haskell, the arranger, said, “Can you do this?” I guess the guy (who was supposed to record) had gotten sick or something and I was down there with somebody singing in some producer’s office with some guy at a piano, and then I heard him play and I went over and started singing with him. Pretty soon I went into the session the next day and there was Barnie Kessel on guitar, Glen Campbell, who was the hot new guitar player on sessions, and Red Callender on bass, Milt Jackson on vibes, the blossoms singing background, all these strings and everybody at the same time, too. They put me in a little house and said, “Sing,” and I was game for anything. I had fun. They put out four singles (including the B-sides) and game me the name Balin and everybody started calling Balin and asking me to sing, and kept paying me more money to sing than anything else.
RELIX: How did you get to that point where you could get a record deal? You must’ve been singing for some time by then.
MARTY: I’d been singing all my life-in churches, vocal groups and choirs.
RELIX: You were in a band between the Challenge singles and the Airplane called the Town Criers. What were they like?
MARTY: That was during the early days of folk music, four-part folk music. That’s when I first came across Odetta and the Weavers, blue-grass music, pickin’ and playin’. I got to work with a lot of great blues artists. That stuff opened my eyes. That was a good learning time for me and we got to travel a lot.
RELIX: There’s one story about the formation of the Airplane that says you got the idea for that kind of band after seeing the Byrds. Is that true?
MARTY: No, actually, I remember when Trini Lopez was doing folk music to electric and it was very tacky, but I thought the idea was pretty cool. And then the Beatles. That was a big one. When the Beatles came, that was it; there was only one way to go.
RELIX:You put the Airplane together almost according to a plan, picking out one member at a time until you had your band.
MARTY: No, I just got together with some people and fooled around. Still doing that.
RELIX: There were a few early members who’d dropped out before the band made it. Who was Jerry Peloquin?
MARTY: He was the band’s first drummer. His girlfriend, Jackie, became the Airplane’s secretary for all the years we were together (and later married Jorma’s brother, Peter). She was my girlfriend’s girlfriend and kept bugging me to get Jerry in the band, but I had to let him go. He just didn’t get it.
RELIX: What about Bob Harvey?
MARTY: He was the first bass player. He left his wife and kids and everything just to play bass with us, but he couldn’t play. He played stand-up first and then he got an electric. He also wasn’t getting it. There was something about bass that I wanted to hear. I had been around folk and jazz and I knew a good bass-that’s one thing I really did groove on. I knew what I wanted to hear; something as wild and crazy as I was. I couldn’t stand that folk bass. That was cool for a time. But at the time we were getting wilde!
RELIX: You met Paul Kantner at a place called the Drinking Gourd?
MARTY: Yeah, it was a folk club. They had an open mike night. I remember I was standing at the door and he came in and the guy said, “No more room, we’re filled up.” I said, “Give him my spot,” because he looked interesting; he had two guitars, one in each hand, which was rare. Kind of a weird looking dude. So he came in and he had a 12-string and a six and he came out onstage and tuned up, like he still does, and started to play this song and then stopped. He was embarrassed or something. And he walked off. And I said, “That’s the guy. I like that. “So I went back to him and I said, “Hey, man, I want you to play with me,” and I remember I said it just like that, too. And he looked at me and I said, “No, no, I mean music. I want to sing and show you some ideas.” He said okay and game me his address. Finally, after we talked, I went by there one weekend and game him some ideas of mine and he gave me some ideas of his, and we said, okay, let’s see if we can work together. He didn’t know where I was coming from at all.
RELIX: Jorma came next. Did Paul bring him in?
MARTY: I was at Paul’s house one of the times we got together to play. I remember Jorma came walking down the stairs and I asked Paul who that was and he said, “That’s a guitar player.” So I said, “Hey, let’s ask him to play with us.” And he said, “Oh, no, Jorma, he’s real good.” I said, “Well, that’s what we want!” So I bugged Jorma to come to rehearsal and he came one time and played and I didn’t hear from him for the next couple of weeks. So I finally called him up and said, “Hey, why don’t you come back and play?” And he said, “Oh, I didn’t know you wanted me.” He was Paul’s friend so I thought Paul had taken care of it, but obviously he didn’t. So I told him to come back and we started to! happen by that time and needed a good bass player and Jorma had known this guy who he had played with when he was younger, before college, and he was the lead guitar and Jorma was the rhythm guitar. He had heard this guy went to bass and his name was Jack. He said he’s probably a good bass player, so I said, “Cool, let’s call this guy.” Jorma said, “Well, he’s in college and he doesn’t want to do a band thing.” But we called him every night; it would be 12 our time and three or four his time, and we’d always wake him up. I told him how much money we were making, even though we weren’t making any, and told him to quit that college scene and come out and have some fun. I kept talking to him for a couple weeks and finally he came.
He walked in and he had this god-almighty handlebar mustache and it was totally gross. The guy looked like Joe Nerd. I as really disappointed, but I said, “Well, let’s get up and play anyway. He came all this way.” So we got up onstage and played at this club I was building at the time, the Matrix, and the guy was phenomenal. I said, “Do you want me to show you the chords?” And he said, “Nah, just go ahead.” So, I thought that was cool. I mean, obviously, this guy was great. So I told him, “You’re fine, you’re great, but that handlebar mustache has got to go. I can’t take it.” And he said, “Nah, nah, man, I’ve been growing this for years.” He said it was cool in Washington, or wherever he went to school. So he kept it on but I kept after him and one time we went to the record company after we got signed and Jack finally shaved off half of it. He went to all these meetings with half a mustache. I think that helped us get a contract. But people never mentioned it. It’s funny. We’d go to these fancy restaurants and Jack would be sitting there with half a mustache.
RELIX: Where did you get Signe Anderson? Was she singing on the same circuit where you and Paul had met?
MARTY: She was originally from Portland, Oregon (Author’s not: Actually, she was born in Seattle, but grew up in Portland) and she was around the clubs. She got pregnant and had a crazy husband and didn’t want to travel outside the city.
RELIX: Between Jerry Peloquin and Spencer Dryden, Skip Spence was the Airplane’s drummer for a while. Supposedly you picked him for the same reason you picked Paul, you liked the way he looked.
MARTY: Yeah, Skippy was this beautiful kid, all gold and shining, looked like a little Buddha and I went “Whoa!” because I always go by people’s vibrations, my first intuition on people. I know immediately. And I just saw him and said, “Hey, man, you’re my drummer.” And he said, “No, I’m a guitar player.” I said, “No, no, no, you’re my drummer.” I gave him some sticks and said, “Go home and practice and I’ll call you in a week.” I called him in a week and asked him if he could do it because I’d fired this other guy and I had no drummer. And he said, “Well, I’ll give it a try.” And he was great.
RELIX: Why didn’t he work out?
MARTY: During the drug days he just got too drugged. Too many pretty women. He just went off one day. We went to a gig and somebody said, “Hey, Skippy went to Mexico.” I said, “No, we got a gig tonight.” But I found out he had gone to Mexico, drugged out, so we stopped his bank account.
RELIX: Who brought in Spencer Dryden?
MARTY: He was just this guy that came around when we held open auditions. He said he’d played in some stripper clubs and we said, “That’ll do.”
RELIX: The name Jefferson Airplane came from Jorma. Do you recall the circumstances when it was first mentioned?
MARTY: We had been trying to come up with a name-everyone had names like Animals and Byrds-and we had all these different names. Jorma one day said, ” How about Jefferson Airplane?” We just fell on the floor, cracking up. Every time anyone would tell their friends about the name, they’d laugh. So we thought, well, that’s the spirit. Let’s call ourselves that.
RELIX: The Airplane pretty much stayed in the ballrooms in San Francisco and toured, but you didn’t really take part in the Trips Festival and the Ken Kesey scene, like the Dead. Was there a reason you stayed away from that?
MARTY: I guess because (Bill) Graham had us on the road all the time. We were opening up the publicity avenues for everyone else. We were out there working.
RELIX: When did you start to see a scene taking shape?
MARTY: There was a scene there, it just wasn’t formed. As soon as everyone started doing something there were all these people suddenly, like light people, rock people, managers, and suddenly they were a scene. I remember it was really pretty and beautiful for a year or two and then Time magazine came out and they were interviewing me. I told the guy, “It’s great that you’re publicizing this beautiful-feeling scene out here,” and he looked me right in the eye and said, “Fastest way to kill it.”
RELIX: What was the making of the first album like?
MARTY: We were just happy to do it. It was what we expected and wanted to do, so when we got the opportunity, we rushed at it. The first one we did in a week.
RELIX: Was “It’s No Secret” the first song you’d written?
MARTY: Not really; I wrote a lot of other ones.
RELIX: Did you really write that for Otis Redding?
MARTY: Yeah, I did. Otis was my main man; I was really impressed by him.
RELIX: There were a couple of songs that were banned from the first album by RCA.
MARTY: I remember the song “Run Around” they didn’t like that it used the word trips. And I just went, “trips?” They’d find all this meaning and give it a great deal of importance and it was just a word to us, slang and part of the language. They’d sit us down with their censors and talk to us and we’d say, “You know, you guys are crazy.”
RELIX: How did the making of the second album Surrealistic Pillow, compare to the first?
MARTY: I liked that album. We had a good time doing that. It was really stoney and we felt good about ourselves. It was a real fun time. We were pretty stoned all the time; they called us freaks. People would kind of look at us strangely-”Let them alone, let them do what they want to.”
RELIX: By that time Grace was in the band.
MARTY: Yeah, she was in her band, the Great Society, and they were popular. She was Janis were the two girl singers in town. Grace used to watch our band because we used to play together a lot. So when the time came, I remember we had to let Signe go because she didn’t want to leave town. Everybody was asking me who I could sing with and I said, “There’s only Grace. But she’s already got a band and she’s pretty popular.” So Jack said, “I’ll ask her,” and he asked her that afternoon and she joined us that night.
RELIX: She must’ve known all the material just from sharing the bill so often.
MARTY: She was just like we were-drugged out, drinking, free and ballsy and outrageous. She just fit in great.
RELIX: By the time the second album came around, late ’66, early ’67, the band had begun improvising a lot more onstage. Why did you start turning in that direction and away from shorter song forms?
MARTY: That was the whole point of the band, the stage performance. I don’t think we ever really put that on record. That happened one night when we were stoned on acid. We’d been playing these songs for about a year, playing them exactly the same. Then one night we were playing and Jorma just took off. He started playing amazing, and it was just real and free. The next night we did it again and we all started joining in. Pretty soon we realized that once everybody knows that arrangement you could just take off. So we started that whole thing of being free and it was like jazz. Whenever we wanted we’d just signal each other. You’d have this kind of subconscious connection on acid and drugs and if you’re into the music you’d just look at each other and say, “Okay, we’re going back to the changes.” You can hear it coming in the music and its just logic. Pretty soon we got to a place where the music was playing us, we weren’t playing it. That’s where you want to get to. And from the first note you hit, no matter where you are, even in the biggest hall in the world, from the first note of the first song, you know at that moment you are there or you’re not. That’s the fun of it, when you’re at that place where we did it every night. We had it down. I thought we had that again when we did that reunion tour in ’89. When we walked onstage the first night in Milwaukee, it all locked into place and we all fell back into our remembrances of how to play and what the band was like. It was very interesting.
RELIX: Why do you think “White Rabbit” was such a big hit?
MARTY: It was timely, for the era. The myth, the idea, the acid.
RELIX: It wasn’t just a case of good promotion by the record company or your management?
MARTY: I think a lot of that had to do with it. Once we had a hit they got behind it and gave it a good push. Later on when I had “miracles,” I told RCA I wanted their whole machine behind it and they put it there and it went boom!
RELIX: How did the sudden fame that came with hit records affect your lives?
MARTY: It changes your life. It’s a bit like prison. You can’t walk down the street. We couldn’t leave our homes. They thought we were gods or something. It was very strange.
RELIX: For the third album, After Bathing At Baxter’s, you kept a very low profile. You didn’t really write or sing much on that album.
MARTY: I got disgusted with all the ego trips, and the band itself was so stoned out even I couldn’t talk to them. Everybody was in their little shell and had private rooms in the mansion. It was like, “Hey, I got a song. Does anybody want to help me with it?” In the studio it was like, “Oh, man do it yourself. I can’t be bothered to help you out. I can’t play the bass for you. I can’t play the guitar for you.
RELIX: So was that the beginning of the end for you?
MARTY: I thought it was, because I need a band. I don’t just want to do a solo.
RELIX: What do you remember about the Monterey Pop Festival in ’67?
MARTY: First, we played the Jazz Festival. That was a rush. They gave us a review that we loved. It said we had a sound that was “like a mule kicking down a barn door.” And I thought, wow, what a great thing.
RELIX: In the Monterey Pop movie, Grace is shown during the whole time you’re singing “Today.” You couldn’t have been very happy about that.
MARTY: Well, I wasn’t happy about the whole career. Ever time I did something, it was always Grace Slick and the Airplane and Grace Slick and the Starship. Even if it was my voice, I’ve even done songs of mine on my own and people come up to me and say, “I’m surprised you do that song. I always thought it was Grace’s.” For a while that hurt my feelings, but there’s nothing I can do about it.
RELIX: Was Woodstock a rush, too, or was it a mess?
MARTY: It was a mess for our performance, but for what it did musically and everything it was great. That was the high point of all the concerts and festivals. That was the beginning of what music can do politically and as a force.
FELIX: What actually happened to you at Altamont, when you were beat up by a Hell’s Angel? What did you say to the guy?
MARTY: We had just finished touring and we came back to Frisco and they said, “You have to play Atamont now.” We went on the stage in late afternoon and were doing the first number. I had my eyes closed and I looked up and saw these guys beating this guy with their pool cues. The whole crowd kind of steeped back and that really cheesed me off. Nobody was listening to me sing so I thought, well, this guy needs some help. So I jumped off to help him out. I was helping him out and the Hell’s Angels were going, “Hey, Marty, you better get out of here, you’re gonna get hurt. What are you doing?” So I said, ” Hey, I’m trying to sing a song, you know?” Anyway, I got back up and started singing again and the naked guy went back behind the stage. Then they were fighting behind me and I was really pissed so I went back and started punching out this one guy. He had this wolf’s head on his head and we were pretty evenly matched. I was getting in some good ones. And that’s the last thing I remember before I got knocked out. I woke up with all these boot marks all over my body. I just walked out there. I remember Jorma saying, “Hey, you’re a crazy son of a bitch.
RELIX: What was Crown Of Creation like for you? After taking a bit of a vacation on Baxter’s, was that sort of a rebound?
MARTY: It was a lot of fun. We were doing a lot of fun things at the time and that got us into the music. Volunteers was fun too.
RELIX: You wrote that title track for that one with Paul. Was that the first time you got involved in a political song?
MARTY: It became political but it didn’t start out that way. I had woken up to the sound of garbage cans crashing outside the mansion and looked out, and there was this Volunteers of America truck, so I wrote that down and gave it to Paul and he wrote the song. Bang. People put all kinds of meaning into it.
RELIX: Did you think the live album Bless Its Pointed Little Head was a good example of the Airplane at their best?
MARTY: I thought it was a great album. That was fun. I like the live stuff because it shows what we were like at the time and what we were doing, what a night was like. The great thing now is how the Dead let people record every show. I always wanted to record every Airplane show because live was what was happening. We’d take off in the middle of a song.
RELIX: After Volunteers you left the band. What was the final nail in the coffin for you?
MARTY: I don’t know, just Janis’s death. That struck me. It was dark times. Everybody was doing so much drugs and I couldn’t even talk to the band. I was into yoga at the time. I’d given up drinking and I was into totally different area, health foods and getting back to the streets, working with the American Indians. It was getting strange for me. Cocaine was a big deal in those days and I wasn’t a cokie and I couldn’t talk with everybody who had an answer for every goddamn thing, rationalizing everything that happened. I thought it made the music really tight ! and constrictive and ruined it. So after Janis died, I thought, I’m not gonna go onstage and play that kind of music; I don’t like cocaine.
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RELIX: You stayed out of music for awhile after you left.
MARTY: I didn’t stay out of music. I played with my friends, I had that Bodacious group, which was a bar band that somebody recorded. (Note: Bodacious D.F. recorded one album on RCA in 1973, with Balin on vocals.)
Marty Balin is currently working on a new record.
Special thank you to Deborah Ruggles for sending me this fabulous article and to Joni Mazone for her typing dedication!