December 16, 2010
In his nearly 50 years of performing and recording, Marty Balin has
seen plentymostly ups, a few downs, but hardly a dull moment. After
spending his youth growing up in the tough San Francisco Mission
District, balancing gang life with drama classes, he kick-started his
recording career in 1962 by cutting two perfect pop singles for the
Challenge label ("I Specialize In Love" b/w "Nobody But You"), both
very much indicative of their time with jumpy backbeats, strings,
backup singers, and his swooping, diving vocals, which showcased
unusual confidence from such a young performer.
Balin's knack for adapting musical styles was also evident as he
deftly moved into the folk circuit by joining the Town Criers and,
briefly, the Gateway Singers. He knew that genre was dying, however,
and the future was in electric instruments, so he went and co-founded
the Jefferson Airplane with another folkie, guitarist Paul Kantner.
If that wasn't enough, he also helped finance, build, and run San
Francisco's first rock 'n' roll club, the Matrix. It was 1965, and he
was already a bit of a renaissance man.
His introspective worldview didn't always fit with the increasingly
rocking Airplane; guitarist Jorma Kaukonen referred to Balin's songs
as "trite" (to his face) and thus began inward tensions. With the
arrival of vocalist Grace Slick in late 1966 he withdrew even
further, bristling at the lack of credit given to him. The symbolic
end came at the band's performance at the Rolling Stones' free show
at Altamont Speedway in December 1969, where Balin was stomped by
members of the Hell's Angels after the singer tried to break up a
fight. See? Renaissance man.
The Marty Balin who left the Airplane in 1970 was exhausted and
burned out. But after a few side projects he stepped in ever so
slowly to the world of Jefferson Starship, a band created from the
ashes of the Airplane by Kanter and Slick. Originally, he just lent
his vocals to the epic Kantner single "Caroline", but the response
was overwhelming and he was a full-fledged member of the band for
three albums beginning with 1975's Red Octopus. Within a short span
of time, his songs had raced up the charts into the American
consciousness and pushed the band into arena rock superstardom. The
biggest of these, "Miracles", remains one of the most played songs
from the '70s. His first solo LP, 1981's Balin, contained two hit
singles, establishing a solid solo career that was distinctly
separate from his Airplane and Starship affiliations.
It's been over 30 years since Balin has spoken to Crawdaddy!; one of
the last interviews in January 1977 (with the magazine's title
unpunctuated) was perhaps the most notorious interview of his career.
The writer, Mitchell Glazer, tagged along for a couple of days on
tour with Jefferson Starship, taking place alongside the band in
hotel rooms, a friend's house, backstage, and on stage, giving us a
grand version of their rock 'n' roll behavior. He described Balin as
having "a dancer's body with a gangster's glide," and the singer came
off as both the loner and savior of the group, all the while trash
talking other band members. It was this article in which he uttered
the now infamous words: "I wouldn't let Grace Slick blow me." He was
also misquoted as saying he was "too big for Jefferson Starship."
(Balin actually said, "The Starship isn't big enough to keep me
busy".) All in all, he was painted as a complex figure: Angry and
frustrated with the confines of fame, yet excited over what could happen next.
We caught up with him at his home in Tampa, Florida, where he is
presently in the throes of an unprecedented creative surge having
recently recorded three albums worth of material. The latest, Blue
Highway, came out this summer and will be followed by The Witcher
early next year. He's also started his own label, Balince Music, and
retains creative control of his output and master tapes. He speaks in
a slow and serious voice, taking time to consider the questions and
answering them thoughtfully without candy coating them. When I began
the interview by asking him his thoughts on the current state of the
music industry, he answered with a brisk: "You're talking to the
wrong guy." But it didn't take long for Balin to warm up, using his
charm and nonchalant attitude to prove his point.
**Marty Balin vs. the Ever-Changing Music Industry**
Crawdaddy!: Tell me about Balince Music and talking control of your
Marty Balin: Well, I can't find the industry. I don't know anything
about the new world of recording, and everybody told me the album was
dead, [so I] thought I'd make one for the funeral. I just put my own
label on it because I don't know anybody else. Handled it myself.
Crawdaddy!: And you have complete artistic control and distribution?
Balin: Yeah, I've got a major distributor and talked to a few other
people who handle recordings, and they all have the same distributor,
and that's about it. In fact, right now I'm working on a big show
called "Teach The Dream," which is an all-day seminar with people
talking from the industry and different bands playing. I'm playing
towards the evening. They're talking about the situation for
musicians right now and what's going on and how to deal with it. So,
I'm learning as I go.
Crawdaddy!: Is it disheartening seeing the music industry change so
much or do you see this as just another way it's evolving?
Balin: Well, you know, to young kids coming up, they don't know what
went before. They can get everything on their phone and download
everything they want and check things out… People are always coming
up to me and going, "Oh, I saw a clip of you and the Airplane doing
something way back when…" I don't know who puts that stuff up there
and finds it, but seems like there's a lot out there. The musicians
aren't necessarily getting paid for anything anymore, but the access
seems to be a lot. [If] I'm looking for a certain record, [it's]
something I have to really research. We have a couple of really old
stores here where I can go find old recordings, but even that's kinda
hard. Or you can go on the web; I was looking up some Skip James
blues stuff the other daycouldn't find it in the record store, but I
found it on the web. It's a different ball game totally. I put this
record out and I don't know if people are going to hear it. A few
people will, I guess, who like my music, but I don't really know
what's happening out there. I just watch and see and help promote it
the best I can.
I'm working now with a whole big band down here, and doing a bunch of
songs and getting to do a good show, and they're all interested in
the same thing: People are calling from all over the country wanting
the show to come tour. So there are people out there looking for
something more than what you can get on your TV set.
Crawdaddy!: It's almost too immediate these days.
Balin: I used to love to get up and play a set, and I'd tell the
guys, "Hey, let's play this song, I just wrote it today. Key of E,
c'mon guys." Then I go do the next gig and someone says, "Are you
going to play that song you did last time?" And I say, "Oh, you were
there?" and they say, "No, I saw it on YouTube." I've learned to be a
little more careful, but it takes some of the fun away.
Crawdaddy!: The spontaneity goes out the door.
Balin: Yeah. I stayed home from touring with [Jefferson] Starship and
put down about three albums worth of material in the studio, and some
of the guys who came in to do overdubs were such good players, I just
said, "Hey, let's go cut a new album." We went in all together for
three days like the old way, and cut a whole new album and had a real
good time and everyone was saying, "Gee, haven't done it this way in
a long time." The engineer was saying the same thing. It was easy
'cause we did it one time together in the studio. I guess there's
still a lot of ways to record.
Crawdaddy!: How do you feel about the new studio technology?
Balin: What they can do now on a computer is amazing: Cut and paste,
stretch notes, auto-tune a note. Now I gotta make sure the guy
doesn't auto-tune me. If I hit that note, that's what I felt. The
possibilities are endless, but can you duplicate it live? That's what
counts. If you play live, are you as good as your record? It should
be even better 'cause it's kinetic and exciting, and you have an
audience to feed back from, and you're feeding off each other in the
band. I like that, I like the live thing.
**On His New Record**
Crawdaddy!: Are you going to tour behind Blue Highway?
Balin: Well, if anybody wants me to. I don't have any agents. I'm
just working with a band down here. These guys have my songs down and
we're starting to get offers to tour. I'd like to, yeah, but I don't
know yet. If not, I still got my guitar and still writing songs.
Crawdaddy!: You're in a position where you could go out by yourself
with a guitar and do shows that way as well.
Balin: Yeah, I've done that or gone out with just a guitar player or
a few guys. I like to do the big band thing, and then do a few small
clubs in between and make up some extra money and play an intimate
setting. Coming up tomorrow night, we're playing a café just for the
fun of it, 'cause it sounds good broken down like that, too. I like
going back and forth.
Crawdaddy!: The string section on some of the new songs are a really
nice touch. "I Need Love" turns into quite an epic.
Balin: Well, I like some of the string things; they add a lot but I
didn't want them too obtrusive, but a little bit here and there is
good. I couldn't get all the ideas I wanted across, but I got some of
it. I just wanted to reinforce that riff.
Crawdaddy!: I don't think people were expecting that.
Balin: I don't really know what they're expecting. I was working with
[Jefferson] Starship for a couple of years and I'd write a new song,
go to sound check, and play 'em the new songs, and then they turn
around and say, "We're going to go in and do a folk album." I said,
"Well, let's write the folk album." Paul [Kantner] said, "Oh no, I
wanna do a Peter Seeger/Weavers again." I said, "Paul, even
Springsteen didn't have a big hit with his Seeger album." So I said,
"You do that and I'm gonna go in and put down all the songs I've been
sitting on for a while because I'm tired of waiting for you guys." So
I did that and I'm having fungetting to my show, my way, my songs,
and don't have to wait for the other guys. They wouldn't let me be
involved that much; it was Paul and the manager and I never had a say
in who did what. I earned the right to be the lead singer, but I
guess they didn't feel that way. So now I'm having a ball.
I met this guy in the grocery store [laughs], and he said, "Do you
know who you are?" and I said, "Yeah, do you know who I am?" He said,
"You're Marty Balin!" Turns out this guy's a guitar player and had a
hard-rock band. He asked me over to sing some backgrounds on their record.
Crawdaddy!: The song "Versace" has a strange film noir feel to it,
even though it's a true story, and it's unlike anything you've ever written.
Balin: Actually, I was working off some weird chords, and I love
Versace, his design, his style… thought he was a great artist. I was
just playing these chords and walked into the room and the news was
on and they were talking about the Versace murder. I started singing
[emphasizing the syllables] "Ver-sa-che." I just loved that
word"Ver-sa-che"and bam, five minutes later I had that song. The
best kinds of songs come out real quick that way; those have all been
my favorites. "Get out of your own way"that's always been my
philosophy for songwriting.
You ought to hear the dance mix I did for thatdifferent bass line.
It's really funky. This friend of mine in Boston, he's gay and he
said, "Oh, I love that song, man." And I thought, "Hmm, gay guy,
Versace…" So I went back into the studio and did a whole re-mix of it
for a gay club, and it came out great, and he freaked over it.
Crawdaddy!: And your next record is which one?
Balin: Joe [Vertino, Balince Music manager] came in with this
recording of me in this club with a band I had in Frisco, and he
said, "Do you remember any of these?" And I said, "Jeez, these are
really good songs, I forgot all about them." When I was recording
with the guys, overdubbing, I said, "Hey, would you be game and just
record?" I redid these songs I had done in the '80s, and we did them
live and it was real kinetic. It's called The Witcher. It came off
really hot. I'm ready to record again. I've got so many songs. I've
been inspired by working with these guys, and I've been writing my
head off. Plus, I've got some other songs from friends I've been sitting on.
Crawdaddy!: What do you find easier, writing by yourself or collaborating?
Balin: Either. I like when somebody gives me a challenge, try to hear
what he's sayin' and try to make it work and see if I can hear what
he's playing. Or sometimes I'll have a lyric and I'll give it to a
guy, and they'll collaborate with me. Or I'll have an idea for
myself. Sometimes I'm not even thinking, and I'll play some weird
chord and something pops outlike, I get out of my own way and let it
come through. I like all the different ways of working; it's like a
little game for me. What is this music conveying to me, how can I get
that across and sing it to people?
**On the Repetitions of the Past**
Crawdaddy!: Just before Blue Highway was released, Sony [Collector's
Choice Music Live Series] put out not one, but four archive releases
from one of your old bands.
Balin: Really? Huh. I don't know where they keep finding that stuff.
Crawdaddy!: Do you ever feel you're in competition with yourself?
Balin: No, I'm better than my old self. I'm much better now than I ever was.
Crawdaddy!: Is it frustrating that you're known mostly for something
you did 45 years ago when you've been creating this whole time?
Balin: Not really. The world never catches up with you. I've always
been there, but other people have always taken credit or gotten
credit. I've never had that pressure too much. I'm still doing what I
want to do and still getting by without anyone inundating me with
fame or any of that crap. I've seen too many people under that
pressure take the credit. I don't care; I'll go over here and do my
thing. I just follow the music. I love the idea of singing an old
song, and I love singing the old songs because if they're good, they
always last. I pull out the old ones and people sing with me. I dig
that. If it's a good song, it'll be one forever and ever.
Crawdaddy!: So you don't get sick of singing [Airplane's 1966 single]
"It's No Secret" for example?
Balin: No! It rocks and it works. As long as they still work, I'm
happy. I've played performances where people have come up and said,
"You know when I was a kid I wanted to go see you at the Fillmore but
my parents wouldn't let me go there. But now my kids are really into
you, and they brought me here tonight." I get the whole gamut of
ages. It's fun.
**Marty Balin's Best Bad Day**
Crawdaddy!: One of my favorite Marty Balin moments is your fight at
Altamont. The band was fried from too much touring; no one wanted to
do the show. Tension within the band was peaking, some of which was
due to [guitarist] Jorma Kaukonen referring to your songs as "trite"
a few years earlier. Yet you had the balls to jump into the crowd and
try to break up one of the many fights that had broken out that day.
Was there any reaction from the rest of your band to that move?
Balin: Nobody was listening to me that day. I was kinda angry. I saw
the whole crowd step back en masse and allow these guys to beat this
guy to death in front of me, and I just figured he needed some help,
you know? And nobody was there and nobody was listening to me, that's
for sure, so I joined in the fray. In fact, some of these Hell's
Angel guys had pool cues, and they were like, [adopts tough guy
voice] "Hey Marty, whaddya doin'? You'll get hurt; you should be
singing." I got back up and started singing again, and they're
beating up the guy behind me, and, oh, the hell with it. I guess I
had a few drinks.
I was winning actually, I was backing this guy up, and I'm thinking
to myself, "I'm actually doing pretty good." We were pretty evenly
matched, and I was backing him down and then, boomI got knocked out.
I woke up from being stomped. I had all these boot tattoo marks all
over my body, and the only person who said anything was Jorma, who
said, "You're a crazy motherfucker." And here's Jorma who travels
with machine guns and knives and gunsbig, macho, bullshit lead
guitarist crap. "Where the hell were you? I could've used a machine
gun right there, it would've been great." I just looked at him.
"Sure, thanks a lot for helping."
I remember sitting with Keith Richards and Jagger in [filmmaker D.A.]
Pennebaker's studio in New York; we were looking at the footage.
Keith kept running it back and forth over this little part, the
murder, and I said, "Why do you want to point that out for?" And he
goes [adopts slow Richard's like drawl], "It happened man… It
**Marty Balin vs. Crawdaddy**
Crawdaddy!: One of your most notorious interviews was with this
publication [title unpunctuated] in January of 1977 where you were
misquoted as saying you were "too big for Jefferson Starship," as
well as saying you wouldn't let Grace Slick "blow you."
Balin: [Irritated] Oh right, I remember that. The guy freaked out
over that, all he wanted to do was go to bed with Grace, and that's
all I kept talking about through the whole interview so that became
the big quote. Big deal.
Crawdaddy!: The writer wanted to sleep with her?
Balin: Oh yeah, he was enamored with her; he wanted me to set him up
with her. That was a big thing. I never slept with Grace, I causally
threw that off. I wouldn't let her blow me, and that became the big
thing. [laughs] I didn't mix business with pleasure. We sang on stage
and everybody thought we were married, and I would burn her down,
drive her crazy. Off stage, I couldn't be bothered. [Mitchell Glazer
could not be reached for comment.]
Crawdaddy!: In that interview you seemed both elated with the future
but also really despondent with the present. Do you recall that
period of your life?
Balin: That was a crazy time. I left [Jefferson Airplane in 1970] and
came back [to Jefferson Starship in 1975], and it was the same old
bullshita bunch of cocaine and everyone thought they were god's gift
to the world. You couldn't talk to anybody; everyone had their own
entourages. It was boring, everyone was so full of themselves, you
know? I don't really care for that. Once you get that famous they
want to do "Their Thing," and I don't believe in that. I believe in
doing "The Thing." I hate that; it happens every time. Even the
roadies are on coke, and you can't talk to them. And me, I'm a
student of yoga, and I'm meditating and in a calm place. I just… oh well.
Crawdaddy!: What with you bringing in hit songs and all but saving
the band from mediocrity, it's amazing you lasted as long as you did,
considering you could've kept those songs for yourself.
Balin: I was back playing with Paul [in the '90s] after years and
years, and you'd think I could get across to the guy, "hey let's
write together." I sent him songs and demos and lyrics; at soundcheck
I'd give him a couple of songs. He's got that manager guy… I told the
manager, "Hey man, either use me or lose me." I don't like just being
trotted out to sing a few songs, not knowing where we're going or how
much money we're makin' and not being included in anything. So, I had
to go and do something else. It's the same old, same old.
**Marty Balin's Mysterious Autobiography**
Crawdaddy!: There was talk of your autobiography coming out in 2003
Balin: Really? Hmm.
Crawdaddy!: That's according to the Jeff Tamarkin's book [Gotta
Revolution: The Turbulent Flight Of Jefferson Airplane].
Balin: I'm not writing an autobiography.
Crawdaddy!: There's even a title for it.
Balin: Really? [laughs]
Crawdaddy!: [reading from the book's postscript] "… he also wrote his
autobiography, Full Fight: A Tale Of Airplanes And Starships which
was scheduled for publication in early 2003."
Balin: I've never done an autobiography, and I wouldn't title it Full
Flight, that's for sure.
Crawdaddy!: [laughs] Where'd he get that info?
Balin: I'd probably call it… Best Seat In The House or something.
I've written a play about those old days I'd like to put out. I'd
like to write something some day, but writing is the hardest thing in
the world. You gotta get the seat of your ass to the seat of the
chair long enough to do something. I'm still writing songs. I like
reading books, but I haven't written anything.
Crawdaddy!: Your story would make a pretty good book.
Balin: Oh, it [would be] just one of those books on the shelf. I sit
around and talk to people, and I notice a silence falling over the
room [laughs] when I'm telling stories. [Mockingly] "Then Jim
Morrison and I… then Janis and I… one time Garcia and I…" People hung
on my words, and I think to myself, "Hmm, maybe I should write this
stuff down." Maybe I'll have a last burst [of creativity] and have
some good chapters at the end of the book.