Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane / Starship Remembered
Martyn Jerel Buchwald, later to be known as Marty Balin, was born January 30th 1942 in Cincinnati, Ohio. His family eventually moved west to San Francisco, where he aspired to be a singer. Inspired by rock & roll of the Beatles & the British Invasion, combined with the folk of the Byrds & Simon & Garfunkel's success, he went into that direction.
Balin's drive would help him be one of the first key people to develop the "San Francisco sound" of the sixties. First, Balin convinced three other investors to go in with him, in transforming an old pizzeria into a night club on Filmore Street.
This became the Matrix, a groundbreaking club which began to host bands, accompanied by light shows with local artists drawing up colorful posters to advertise the events. An incredible list of bands like the Doors, the Grateful Dead, Big Brother & the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin, Santana, Steve Miller Band, Boz Scaggs & Country Joe & the Fish would all start out playing at the Matrix at some point.
In 1965 Balin met Paul Kantner & formed the Jefferson Airplane. They eventually recruited guitarist Jorma Kaukonen & female singer Signe Toly Anderson.
They debuted at Balin's club & became the house band. Eventually Kaukonen recruited his old friend from Washington D.C. Jack Cassidy to play bass. Skip Spence was brought in to play drums & was eventually replaced by Spencer Dryden.
On the groups first album, "Jefferson Airplane Takes Off" Balin would collaborate with Kanter for the majority of the original songs. It wasn't until later in 1966, when Anderson left the band to raise a family that Grace Slick from the band "The Great Society" another Matrix band, joined that the band broke through to success.
The Jefferson Airplane are one of the most important groups in rock & roll’s history. In 1967 they released their masterpiece album- "Surrealistic Pillow" with a sound defining the Summer of Love.
A combination of rock, folk, blues & psychedelia with vocals from Balin & Slick, at times dueling each other. The accomplished musicians all brought a unique musical experience to the sound behind the singers, with long instrumental breaks added in.
The album featured two all time classics, sung by Slick, songs she brought in from her old band- Somebody to Love & White Rabbit. Both songs became top ten hits, giving the band international national fame. They became one of the sixties biggest groups, playing television shows, touring the country & Europe, making the cover of LIFE magazine while bringing their style of music to national attention.
The group would either headline or co-headline most major music festivals of the sixties- The Monterey Pop Festival, Berkley Folk Festival, The 1968 Isle of Wight Festival, Altamont opening for the Rolling Stones & Woodstock. They also played the first show at Bill Grahams legendary, Filmore West.
On the "Surrealistic Pillow" album, Balin helped design the album cover, contributing more upbeat & heavier songs -"Plastic Fantastic Lover" & "3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds" opposed to his more usual mellower ballads.
According to Balin in the Jeffeson Airplane's Behind the Music, who ever was sleeping with Grace at the time, would have the most control in the band. Balin claimed he was the only one who never slept with her so he lost control.
On the Airplane's third album, Bathing At Baxters, Balin was limited to just one song co-written by him & Kanter. By now the Airplane were one of the biggest bands in the world, as Kanter, Slick, Kaukonen & Cassidy had all come into their own as song writers , also limiting space on the record for Balin songs. The third album did not fair as well as Surrealistic Pillow.
By 1968, the band were living together in a huge house next to Golden Gate Park, known as "The Airplane House" or "the Mansion" at 2400 Fulton Street. The parties were legendary, there they recorded their next album "Crown Of Creation" where Balin would write or co-write four songs. The album reached #6 on the charts.
Trivia: In November 1968, the band was filmed playing live on a rooftop in New York City, eventually the NYPD came to break it up. Two months later the Beatles would do a similar thing with their legendary rooftop performance o used in the Let It Be movie.
One morning Balin was awoken by a Volunteers of America, charity garbage truck going down his street. It inspired him to pen the song "Volunteers", which would also be the title of the Airplane's fifth album.
"Volunteers" featured anti war lyrics & sparked controversies with some of its profound lyrics. Particularly the songs "We Can Be Together" which featured the line “up against the wall mother fu#@er”, as well as The song "Eskimo Blue Day" an ecological song that featured the repeated line “doesn’t mean shit to a tree”.
The album also featured guests Jerry Garcia, Steven Stills, David Crosby & Nicky Hopkins. It reached #13 on the billboard charts & is probably the group’s strongest effort after "Surrealistic Pillow".
The band would now be one of the main performers at Woodstock, although their performance was not their best. Coming on stage at daybreak after a day of partying to excess was not good.
After this major event, the band would start breaking off in separate groups as Grace Slick & Paul Kanter collaborated musically to form the earliest version of what was to be the Jefferson Starship. By 1969 they began living together & had a daughter China Wing Kanter.
Kaukanen & Cassidy put more time into their side project Hot Tuna. This left Balin out in the cold, on his own.
At the Altamont concer a fan was killed by Hells Angels & three others died as well, as the sixties came to a horrible end, no more Woodstocks. At Altamont as Balin was trying to restore order, he was punched in the face by a Hells Angel.
After the death of Janis Joplin, Balin restrained from drugs & alcohol putting him even further from his band mates. By 1971 he left the group.
Three years later Balin & Kanter wrote the song "Caroline" together, this led Balin to join Kantner & Slick in their new group, the Jefferson Starship.
Balin would help write & sing lead on four top twenty Starship hits "With Your Love " "Runaway" both reaching #12. A cover of "Count on Me" reaching #8 & Balins own "Miracles" reaching #3 on the charts.
By 1978 his relationship with the band & Slicks on going alchil problems led him to leave the Starship. He went on to a solo career, releasing the #8 hit "Hearts" in 1981 and another top 40 hit "Atlanta Lady". In 1985 he Kantner & Cassidy formed the short lived KBC Band. In 1989 there was a minor Airplane reunion as well.
Balin would eventually rejoin Kantner in different line ups of the Jefferson Starship, until Katners death in 2016.
Family: Balin had been married three times & has two daughters, as well as two step daughters. He resided between San Francisco & St. Augustine Florida. He also enjoyed painting as a hobby his entire life.
In 2016 he was taken to Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, and needed open heart surgery. Balin was never the same, a lawsuit filed claimed neglect leaving him with a paralyzed vocal chord, loss of half his tongue & a thumb as well as kidney damage. He passed away on September 27th 2018 at age 76.
Quotes- Jorma Kaukonen: “Marty’s passing reaffirms the power of love, the power of family, the power of possibilities." - "Marty and I were young together in a time that defined our lives. Had it not been for him, my life would have taken an alternate path I cannot imagine. He and Paul Kantner came together and like plutonium halves in a reactor started a chain reaction that still affects many of us today. Marty always reached for the stars and he took us along with him. ”
Jack Cassidy: “RIP Marty Balin, fellow bandmate and music traveler passed last night. A great songwriter and singer who loved life and music. We shared some wonderful times together. We will all miss you!!!!”