As far as rock’s elder statesmen goes, Marty Balin (pictured above, at left), who died Sept. 27 at age 76, was one of its rarest birds. While helping to create the freewheeling San Francisco psychedelic scene and sound that gave rise to his Jefferson Airplane, he possessed a richly fluid and romantic tenor unusual for rock’s early raw power. Here are five defining moments from Balin’s time in Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship.
“It’s No Secret,” from Jefferson Airplane’s 1966 debut, “Jefferson Airplane Takes Off”
Before wild Grace Slick brought her white rabbits and wonton sprit to the Airplane, the band’s first album was mostly a solidly folksy, nascent San Fran affair made darker and starker by Balin’s worrisome woes on “Blues from an Airplane” (co-written by Balin and Skip Spence of Moby Grape fame) and “It’s No Secret.” Here, his love of Otis Redding, a genuine feel for soul vocalizing and a desire to portray beyond his age (“As I get older the years they get heavy for you / Oh is it any wonder why I feel that my whole life is through”) made Balin’s initial contributions to the Airplane catalog stand out.
“Today” from 1967’s “Surrealistic Pillow”
Balin has several signature psychedelic moments on the band’s breakthrough album, such as “She Has Funny Cars” (penned with Jorma Kaukonen), and the now-corny, but still sensuous “Plastic Fantastic Lover” with its “neon mouth with a bleeding talk smile” and a “super-sealed lady” with “chrome-color clothes.” But, “Today,” co-written with Paul Kantner, and featuring Jerry Garcia on the aptly surrealistic leads, was supple, cottony lounge psychedelia that would eventually find favor in the freak folk movement of Devendra Banhart and Espers.
“In Time” from 1968’s “Crown of Creation”
While “After Bathing at Baxter’s” and “Crown of Creation” found the rest of the Airplane’s membership in full-tilt psilocybin-laced lyrical and musical mode, Balin was moving father from that sound and into a theatrical soulful purity best heard on this lost, quiet moment in the middle of the maelstrom. “Long time since I climbed down this mountain before,” Balin crooned, with his most prescient lyrics to follow. “Things I’ve seen here make me want to go running home / Lean close put your lips next to my face / Look further on past the surface.”
“Volunteers” from 1969’s “Volunteers”
Short, sweet, punchy and terribly au courant for these times of political tribulation, Balin’s loudest, proudest and shoutiest moment of the anti-Vietnam movement find hims possessed of the angriest croon you can imagine. “One generation got old / One generation got soul / This generation got no destination to hold.” The band’s performance of “Volunteers” at Woodstock in among their most recognizable.
“Miracles” from Jefferson Starship’s 1975 album “Red Octopus”
Far from the madness of the Airplane, and into the MOR AOR (middle-of-the-road album oriented rock) mainstream, Balin’s swerving voice on this slick, swaying ballad is coy, cloying and seductive — a flickering candle on a sticky, breezy Bay Area night.