By Chris M. Junior
About three years beforeco-founding Jefferson Airplane, Marty Balin recorded a single called “I Specialize in Love” for the Warner Bros.-distributed Challenge label.
Although the song may be a footnote in Balin’s catalog, its title has essentially stood as his musical motto throughout his career, whether with a group (see “It’s No Secret” by the Airplane and “With Your Love” by Jefferson Starship, for starters) or as a solo artist (“Hearts” and “What Love Is”).
The same holds true today, but don’t think for a second that he’s stuck in a romantic rut.
“I’ve got a whole collection of songs that are such powerful rockers,” Balin says, “but I don’t want to bang you over the head. I just want to seduce you.”
It’s a Friday afternoon, and Balin is taking it easy in his New York hotel room on Park Avenue South. As the late-day sun streams through the window behind him, he grabs a chair and gets ready to look back 50 years at some key Airplane-era achievements and provide an inside look at his two recent albums, the career-spanning “Good Memories” and the all-new “The Greatest Love.”
[Note: this interview was conducted before the sad passing of Balin's former Airplane bandmates, Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson.]
Building the Airplane framework
One night in 1965, during an open-mic session at a San Francisco folk club called the Drinking Gourd, Balin relinquished his spot to a guitar player for no specific reason other than he had an interesting look to him. That guitarist was Paul Kantner, and after he left the stage, Balin approached him about playing music together. They eventually got together at Kantner’s place.
“I showed Paul a few of my ideas and what I was thinking of doing, and we exchanged some ideas about songs that we both knew that we could play,” Balin remembers of their initial get-together.
Balin and Kantner didn’t have to look very far to find a very capable second guitarist for their fledgling band.
“I saw Jorma Kaukonen walking down the stairs; he was giving a guitar lesson at this house [where Paul lived],” Balin says. “I asked Paul who that guy was, and he said, ‘That’s Jorma Kaukonen.’ I said, ‘Let’s get him in the band.’ And Paul said, ‘Oh, no, he’s a real good guitar player.’ And I said, ‘Paul, that’s what we need: a real good guitar player.’ So we went after Jorma and got him involved.”
Balin says they didn’t have a particular sound in mind at first, but adds, “There was a surge of energy from this new music that was coming out of people from San Francisco, New York and London. We just wanted to be a part of that.”
Unforgettable Matrix moments
After settling on a name that was suggested by Kantner, Jefferson Airplane made its official concert debut on Aug. 13, 1965, at the Matrix, a club on Fillmore Street in San Francisco that included Balin among its early owners.
The Airplane’s Matrix debut coincided with the opening of the venue. According to Balin, on that historic night, “Every record company in the world was sitting out in the audience and offered us a contract. The guys all wanted to sign, and I told them, ‘No, no, no. We’re not going to sign until we hear from Phil Spector.’ The second night, Spector’s sister is sitting in the audience. She says, ‘Phil wants you to come to Hollywood to meet him.’ So we went to Hollywood and met him, and we didn’t get along at all.”
It was at the Matrix where Balin says he first met singer-guitarist Jerry Garcia, who, with the Grateful Dead, would perform many shows at the club in 1966. Other notable Matrix moments for Balin include “having some of the old blues guys there, like Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker. That was impressive for me because those guys were classics when I was getting started.”
As for the Airplane’s history with the club, Balin says, “We didn’t really stay there too long. Things started happening so fast; we started getting offers to play Chicago [and elsewhere]. We started to move, and so we left the Matrix behind.”
Making a Slick transition
The Airplane — Balin, Kantner, Kaukonen, singer Signe Anderson, bassist Jack Casady and drummer Skip Spence — eventually signed with RCA, which released the band’s debut, “Takes Off,” in 1966.
That same year, two Airplane members would take off: Spence, who went on to form Moby Grape; and Anderson, who departed because she “needed to be a mommy,” as she put it in a 2014 radio interview. (She’d given birth to a daughter in May 1966.)
Spencer Dryden became the new drummer. When it came to finding someone to replace Anderson, Balin recalls, “Paul definitely wanted to have a woman in the band; the rest of us didn’t care.”
That said, Balin claims there were only three worthwhile options in the San Francisco area at that time: Janis Joplin, a Texas transplant who had recorded with Kaukonen years before; Lydia Pense, a member of the band Cold Blood; and Grace Slick, who fronted The Great Society, which had released a single in 1966 called “Someone to Love.”
When Casady suggested Slick, Balin says he reminded him that she had her own band and also pointed out how popular The Great Society was. But Casady wasn’t deterred.
“Jack went and asked her that afternoon, and that evening, Grace left her band and joined us onstage — just like that,” says Balin. Slick made her Jefferson Airplane debut at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium on Oct. 16, 1966 (one night after Anderson’s farewell).
“Grace was a great vocalist, very powerful, so together, we were like two horn players,” Balin says. “And from the first night, it was magic. We both had confidence in each other. In those days, there was a lot of experimentation going on in the music, like vocal jamming. We would do that a lot.”
A surrealistic time with Garcia
Mere weeks after Slick joined, Jefferson Airplane went to Los Angeles to begin recording the band’s second album, “Surrealistic Pillow,” which would spawn the Slick-fronted Top 10 pop hits “Somebody to Love” (a retitled cover of the Great Society song “Someone to Love”) and “White Rabbit” (also from her Great Society tenure). And recollections differ as to whether the Dead’s Garcia was in the studio with the Airplane as a guest musician or not.
Producer Rick Jarrard stands by his no-Garcia-at-all story. In Jeff Tamarkin’s liner notes for the 2001 reissue of “Surrealistic Pillow,” Jarrard is quoted as saying, “Jerry Garcia was never present on any of those sessions. Jerry Garcia played no guitar on that album. I never met Jerry Garcia. I produced that album from start to finish. If Jerry Garcia was there, he was certainly in his spirit form.”
Jarrard’s last comment may have been his way of acknowledging that Garcia was officially credited on the album’s back cover as a “musical and spiritual adviser.” But Balin says Garcia was there in person and most certainly an actual contributor to the music. Is it possible that Garcia tracked his parts for “Pillow” when Jarrard wasn’t present?
“Probably so,” Balin says without hesitation. “In fact, he came in with the arrangement for ‘Somebody to Love’ rhythmically and played the guitar on that and kind of led the way on that recording. On ‘Comin’ Back to Me,’ Garcia is the guy playing the noodling guitar while I’m doing my part. And he played on a couple of other things.”
As for Jarrard, he “didn’t know what was going on” during the “Surrealistic Pillow” sessions, according to Balin.
“[RCA] sent him there to make sure we didn’t burn the studio down,” Balin adds. “Nobody listened to him, and he didn’t listen to us. He was kind of afraid of us, actually — a bunch of wild, drugged-out hippies. He sat back there, like, ‘Oh my God, who are these people?’ He had nothing to do with that album, even though he’s credited as producer.”
A fresh take on familiar songs
Balin himself had a hand in the production duties for his album “Good Memories,” which was released in late 2015. It’s a two-disc collection that features stripped-down reworkings of choice Jefferson Airplane material, as well as signature tunes from his Jefferson Starship years and his solo career.
The title track is a personalized update of “Good Shepherd,” which the Airplane included on 1969’s “Volunteers” album.
“Ever since I’ve been singing background on that song,” Balin says, “whenever we would hit [the chorus], I would think, ‘We should go and name everybody in the band.’ So on my own, I rewrote it and did it so that it means something to me and my audience.”
What’s heard on the “Good Memories” album in terms of arrangements and instrumentation is what fans can expect to hear during a typical Balin concert.
“It’s much more intimate [this way],” he adds. “Everybody has constantly said to me, ‘You know, Marty, I just like to hear you. I don’t want to hear a girl singing over you; I don’t want to hear a lead guitarist playing all over you.’ So that’s what I started to do: I started singing and playing guitar, and then my buddies started playing with me.” (Guitarist Chuck Morrongiello and upright bassist Lloyd Goldstein back him on “Good Memories.”)
It’s an approach that suits Balin just fine at this stage of his career.
“I don’t have all of these egos to deal with,” Balin says with a smile. “It’s just moi, and I’m having a good time doing moi.”
Love still reigns supreme
On his latest album, “The Greatest Love,” reelased in February via MVD Audio, Balin sounds like he’s having a good time covering a wide range of musical ground. Included are the bluesy “Stripper” and the reggae-flavored “Jamaican Me Crazy,” as well as the kind of love songs and ballads Balin is best known for, such as “Always” and “Surprise.”
“You can call me the Picasso of song — I have many styles,” Balin says in a comical theatrical voice. “It’s just the stuff I’ve written and been performing the past couple of years. These songs all fell together in the same moment; they all came about at the same era of time. This is me now.”
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