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Marty Balin’s Many Incarnations
By Susan Johnson
He grew up in the projects of Richmond, California, just outside of San Francisco, and can’t remember a time when he wasn’t singing or dancing or making music of some kind. “I was always singing. When my mother took me to church for the first time and I heard the choir, I remember I went right up to the choirmaster and said, ‘I want to do this!’ Everyone sang. We would all be singing on the street corners.” As a kid, he would head downtown with Ralph Mathis (Johnny’s younger brother) to hear music by artists like Coltrane, Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk.
“I look back on it now and see how fortunate I was as a young man to grow up in Frisco … I got to see all the great musicians, all the great poets, the beatniks. There was always creativity going on. And me? I was always into all that. I got myself in to dancing shows and all kinds of stuff. I just wanted to do whatever I could. To learn. To create.”
Marty Balin learned his creative lessons well. He released his first single record in 1962 and, in 1964, was leading a folk group called The Town Criers. Then, in 1965, everything skyrocketed. Balin had met Paul Kantner at a club called The Drinking Gourd in San Francisco; they teamed up and brought Jorma Kaukonen and Signe Anderson on board and the Jefferson Airplane was born (Anderson had family conflicts shortly after signing on and was replaced by Grace Slick). The rest really is a part of our country’s musical history.
Did he think his music would have the impact that it has? As Balin puts it, “When we started out, I was just having a good time. You know, we were just having fun. We were a part of the ‘60s movement: a part of all the great things that were happening; the British invasion, the Beatles, the Beach Boys in America, Motown, we even had things like the Rat Pack in those days. There was a lot going on. People coming out, people protesting the war; everybody was doing something to change the world and music…well…we actually did have this great idealism that maybe the music would be changing the world, especially after the Beatles…everybody had that positive feeling for the music and the idealism. The music was new and different and positive and bringing people together and we were a part of that so we did feel that yes, but, you know…who knew where it would be taken?”
Fast forward to a look at exactly where his music has taken him — Balin now has an art gallery, Marty Balin’s Atelier, located at 130 King St. right here in St. Augustine. Managed by his sister-in-law and St. Augustine-resident Lana Lavande, the gallery is full of paintings of almost everyone Balin has worked with over the years – and there is a wall full of gold and silver records. How many exactly? Balin laughs and says, “You know, I’ve never really counted them. Let’s just say ‘A wall full!’” He’s also been working with a new band and has released two new albums over the course of just three months. December’s “Good Memories” celebrates 50 years of Airplane and Starship music and “The Greatest Love,” a stunning collection of beautiful love songs, was released on February 12. On the personal side, Balin is married to professional photographer Susan Joy Finkelstein Balin and together they have five daughters.
But wait…there’s more. He recently headed out to L.A. to pick up a little thing from the Recording Academy called a Lifetime Achievement Award at February’s Grammy’s for his work with Jefferson Airplane. Was he expecting this at all? “No, I wasn’t actually. I can’t see the Lifetime Achievement Award because the Airplane or the Starship never won a Grammy. But, I don’t know if that matters or not. It’s the body of work they’re celebrating.” What is he doing to prepare? “Oh, I’m ready. Just throw a coat and a shirt in the trunk and off I go!”
What would Marty Balin consider to be his greatest achievement in the music world? He laughs when I ask him that and immediately says “That I’m still alive! Still trucking away, putting on shows, still doing it. Of course, I never did all the drugs and everything everybody did, you know…I didn’t smoke cigarettes, all that jazz. I was into Yoga and all that kind of wimpy stuff.” What about outside the music realm? “My greatest achievement there would be my greatest love, I guess…like my new album says. To be here, still doing it and having fun and continuing on and not wasting my life away like a lot of people do. And now I have a great love and that adds to the music a lot, actually.”
So what can possibly come after a Lifetime Achievement award? Again, Balin doesn’t’ hesitate: “I think my best work is yet to come. I’m working on 8 or 9 new songs and would love to go back and do a classic album of all the standards I grew up with through my parents’ day. And, I went through that whole folk music thing before the rock and roll so I’d love to do an old album of my favorite folk songs. I would also love to do a musical on Broadway of the airplane music and in fact, I have an idea for that. I have a lot of things I want to do yet.”
Well, I’m no psychic but even I can see another lifetime of achievement ahead for Marty Balin.
To learn more about Marty please visit www.martybalinmusic.com.