The Jefferson Airplane and Starship Vocalist Takes A Flight Back to the ‘60s

By Paul Freeman [2007 Interview]

We spoke with Marty Balin in 2007, on the eve of a celebration marking the 40th anniversary of the Monterey Pop Festival and the San Francisco Summer of Love. Balin was a founding member and co-lead vocalist of Jefferson Airplane. He was also a vital force in Jefferson Starship. He wrote many of both band’s signature songs, including “Comin’ Back To Me,” “Today,” “Volunteers,” “Plastic Fantastic Lover,” “Miracles” and “With Your Love.” Balin, who has recorded numerous impressive solo albums, is also an accomplished painter.

The ‘60s were a magical, musical time. And Marty Balin was a key contributor to both the magic and the music.

Balin, the charismatic, silver-throated, witty Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member, played the original Monterey Pop Festival with Jefferson Airplane. He’ll sing at the 2007 reincarnation, at Monterey Fairgrounds, with Jefferson Starship.

“It was the first concert when they gathered all these bands and new musicians together for this one big festival,” Balin says, thinking back to Monterey, ’67. “I mean, there had been jazz festivals and blues festivals. But for this, they gathered all the rock people, all the heavies. To see them, all these rock performers together at one time, was something else. We were proud to be included.”

The Airplane electrified the crowd. “We went on just before Otis came on. I knew Otis, knew how hot he was. And we went on. I think we were the first band that went on that night and really got the audience stirred up. We got them rockin’. When I came off, Otis [Redding] said, ‘Hey man, great to be on the same stage with you!’ That was, to me, a real big deal. He went out, of course, and shattered the place.”

There was an unfounded rumor that The Beatles were going to attend the event. Brian Jones meandered around and appeared on stage to introduce Jimi Hendrix. Ravi Shankar and The Who flew in to play, alongside Los Angeles and San Francisco artists such as The Doors, Moby Grape, Electric Flag, Janis Joplin, The Byrds, Country Joe, The Mamas and the Papas, Steve Miller Band, Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Association and Buffalo Springfield. Two hundred thousand people jammed the Fairgrounds.

“It was a very exciting time,” Balin says. “Everyone was wearing their fine clothes and looking spiffy. All the music was new and exciting. Things hadn’t been done before.”

Balin recalls Hendrix learning that he would precede The Who and resolving to be untoppable. “He was the new phenom. He went out and set his guitar on fire, a sexual sacrifice. Then The Who came on and did their Destruct-O routine. [Pete] Townshend hadn’t done his guitar-destroying thing in about a year, but this moment called for it. It was great.”

The Monterey Pop Festival had a significant impact on the pop scene. “Otis made his big mark there, though we were Otis fans before that. And Janis made her big to-do. Ravi Shankar was presented to America.

“Then they started to hold other big festivals after that, leading up to Woodstock, Altamont and all those things. Everybody was interested in that music then. That was like an official stamp or something.”

The 60s were a fertile creative period. “The Vietnam War was going on, Kennedy, Martin Luther King. Then The Beatles came. There was that positive vibe of wanting to make music, wanting to express yourself your own way,” Balin says. “Then acid came along. That kind of jolted you out of wherever you were, put you in a new frame of mind… or no frame of mind.

“People were looking for something new. There were guys doing new art. There were light shows. There were people tripping on film. New music developments. I remember guys coming in every day we practiced with new amps, new guitars for the guys to try. There was a sudden growth spurt happening at one time. That was amazing.

“I remember starting out with the Airplane and they had these little columns on the sides of the stage, speaker columns, for the sound system. I remember saying to myself, ‘Geez, if it’s like this for us now, I wonder what it was like for Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis or those cats.’ And I watched the whole system development, the whole thing, the equipment, the instruments. God, there was just his amazing growth spurt. And the records! So many great records. I used to get so many records from all the record companies, be on the mailing list, freebies. Everybody was connected… not that they aren’t now, but it’s just not as personal, I guess. What is personal is still playing live. That doesn’t die. There’s nothing like something live.”

A sense of community arose among the rock musicians. “We could travel the country, but it was always so great to get back to California, to Frisco or L.A…. or New York. In between, there was still kind of a lack of awareness of what was going on, really. So we’d travel around, but it was always great to get back home.

“People lived in the same areas and played a bunch of the same places all the time, especially in San Francisco. And even in L.A., we’d go down there and do a few things. So we all knew each other and worked on the same bills with each other and hung out with each other and guys jammed with each other and helped each other musically. I mean [Jerry] Garcia always helped us out with ideas. That went on. But by the time Monterey hit, everybody knew about it.”

Balin remembers the Summer of Love era changing attitudes and lifestyles. “The spirit of it still goes on. I see the big green movement now.”

Balin doesn’t, however, see the same spirit in the music business now as he did in the ‘60s. “It was different then. We had records then, these big black records and 45s. Now everything’s a download. I’m surprised they don’t just download the whole festival. We can phone in our parts,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s come true, folks.

“I notice kids around here are trying to find old lacquer now. They want to hear how it sounds, going around and around in those little revolutions. There is a difference, you know. A warmer sound.”

What isn’t different is the thrill Balin gets from performing. “There’s nothing like it; that personal connection. It’s that way for a musician, a play, a poetry reading, an artist painting on the street - you’re watching that moment actually happening. You get the chills up your back when that’s happening.

“I’ve seen some of the Monterey footage and it’s pretty exciting - but not as exciting as standing right there and being a part of it,” Balin says, laughing. “That was very hip.”

Nostalgia flourishes not only for the ‘60s sound, but for the social consciousness of the time. “Still to this day, it communicates on a very emotional, idealistic, positive level. When I hear an old track on the radio, one of those artists who played at Monterey, Otis or Janis, I go, ‘Yeah, I remember that.’ And I still get the same vibe. When I sing the songs today that I sang then, people still respond. Music is the soul of people. It’s an expression of the soul of people. It’s the great glue that we all have.

“In writing songs, I was trying to express a true sense of what I was feeling. If it was true then, it will always be true. If a piece of music worked once, it’ll always work. It it didn’t work, it’s always going to not work. Do you know what I mean? Whenever you can sit back and listen to some music that you love, it’s very good for you. It’s probably the most relevant thing you can do is to listen to your favorite music. It helps you escape all the b.s.”

Balin performs with Starship only occasionally these days [2007]. He has been in and out of that band over years. “They’re playing all the time, because they’ve got to make a living. I don’t really have to make a living at it. I’m more interested right now in recording. I’m spending a lot of time putting out all of the songs I’ve had in my head. I go out and do solo shows. I have a lot of music that Starship doesn’t get across to people. But I go out with them sometimes. And then I realize how loud they are! Jesus Christ!”

Throughout this summer and fall, the man who has penned such enduring hits as “Volunteers” and “Miracles,” is focusing on solo recording. He lightly refers to his new solo material as “just a bunch of wimpy love songs. That’s what I like.”

His description of the process isn’t at all romantic. “It’s always a good feeling to just get them down and empty my head. I fill up. I’ve got to vomit it all out, otherwise, I’ve got no room left to get sick again with it.”

He’s happy that fans remain eager to hear his creations. “I just want to keep putting out more music for those people who like it. To me, that’s what it’s about. Songs are fun, but if nobody’s listening to it, it doesn’t mean that much.”

Balin is looking forward to the Summer of Love Festival 2007. “I’m hoping to find a large stash of acid, so I can spike the place and see all these old farts dancing in the mud,” he quips. “Watch out for the brown Viagra out there, folks!

“I’m just interested to see who’s going to show up. It’s a fun gig, kind of a circle for me. I get to see my father, who’s out in Northern California. And I get to sing. I always love to sing.”

Though Balin is based in Florida at the moment, he plans to move back to the Bay Area. “I want to be there, when the whole thing falls off into the ocean, 2012. Big party, man! Bigger than Monterey, baby!”

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