Marty Balin: Still Coming Up the Years

My wife and I celebrated our wedding anniversary in Rhode Island last month. We got a bed-and-breakfast just a block or two from Misquamicut Beach in Westerly. We happened to be there during the Misquamicut Spring Fest, which was unfortunately largely rained out. Boy, did that immobile Ferris wheel look forlorn on the windswept beach. So would the performers actually, you know, perform?

The Airplane in its hey day, with Balin at right. Not best buddies in real life.

The Airplane in its hey day, with Balin at right. Not best buddies in real life.

The headliner Saturday night was “Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane & Jefferson Starship.” Now, I’ve only seen Balin perform once, at the (now reopened) Capitol Theatre in Portchester, New York, circa 1970—shortly after their great Volunteers album was released. They did most of that album with great authority, and I really did think the revolution had arrived. But I am a multi-decade fan of the quiet ballads Balin wrote, particularly for Surrealistic Pillow.

So I went, with wind blowing water in sheets across the sidewalk. The tents were sopping wet, underlaid with sucking mud. In the background, we could hear music from the nearby blues and beer event. But there on stage, with maybe 30 people in the audience, was Marty Balin. Older, yes—he’s 71! On the whole, though, he looked good—perhaps a testament to the drugs he didn’t take back in the golden era.

Here’s Balin on what life was like in the Airplane, from an interview with Crawdaddy:

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 bullshit—a 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.

He doesn’t appear to miss the old gang, if the quote “I wouldn’t let Grace Slick blow me” is accurate.

So what would Balin do on a rainy night in Rhode Island, not much at stake, 30 people in the audience, and not one of them an important record executive (do those even exist anymore?).

Balin as a solo act. He had his biggest hits as a member of Starship.

Balin as a solo act. He had his biggest hits as a member of Starship.

I’m happy to report that Balin was a trouper. That’s right, he came on, did his show, and played a bunch of Starship songs with undiminished enthusiasm. He also tried out many new ones (he’s a prolific writer), and one Airplane gem, “Come Up the Years,” from the very first, eponymous, album. Backing his strummed guitar was a fine second guitarist and a drummer, low key but effective.

Balin told jokes, said that the mud reminded him of Woodstock, sniffed the “doobie” in the audience and asked if it could be passed forward. He was personable. He introduced “Come Up the Years” as an “oldie.”

I should have stayed and talked to him, but I was freezing and wet, and my wife was back at the B&B. So I’ll leave it at that. A nice encounter, coming up the years. Balin seems to be doing well, spending time in Florida, painting (portraits of Jerry Garcia and French flatulist Le Petomane, among others). I know the 60s were supposed to be about peace and love, but it’s rare when someone immersed in that era survives intact.

Balin's portrait of Jerry Garcia. He painted it from life.

Balin’s portrait of Jerry Garcia. He painted it from life.

You can read the whole Crawdaddy interview here. And here’s a great video of the Airplane performing Fred Neil’s “Other Side of This Life” at Altamount, where an angry Balin–who had jumped into the crowd–was knocked unconscious by the Hells Angels. All of that’s in the video: