Marty Balin doesn't look or act like a cultural icon from the '60s. His boyish face and cropped reddish hair paint a different picture than one might expect from the 58-year old founder of Jefferson Airplane. Thirty years of steady yoga practice have served him well, he is lean, energetic and experiencing a creative resurgence. In 1998, Balin, Paul Kantner and Jack Casady reformed Jefferson Starship and released two albums, Greatest Hits Live at the Fillmore (CMC) and Windows of Heaven (SPV). They played dozens of dates in 1999, including a headlining gig at HIGH TIMES' WHEE 3 festival. In addition, Balin recently realized a lifelong dream when he performed a set of classic tunes for 200 patrons at Nuance Galleries in Tampa, FL while surrounded by his paintings of fellow music legends. This interview took place in Tampa, where Balin, his wife Karen Deal and their five-year old daughter, Delaney, moved after years of living in Mill Valley, CA.
HIGH TIMES: HOW DID YOU DEVELOP YOUR STAGE PRESENCE?
Marty Balin: I grew up on stage. I've always been singing and dancing. I was a dancer for years, working in professional shows. As a dancer, you learn how to carry yourself.
IT SEEMS EVERY GREAT MUSICIAN IS "DISCOVERED" BY SOMEONE. WHO DISCOVERED YOU?
As a young kid, I hung out with Johnny Mathis' brother, Ralph. He and I were good friends and Johnny heard me singing around the house and said, "You ought to be a singer. You've got a good voice, kid." In 1962, I ended up in LA with this girl I was in a play with. We went to this publishing house and next thing I know, I was in a session doing some background voices on somebody's record. After that, they gave me some demos to try. They had a complete string section with Jimmy Haskell conducting, the Blossoms singing background vocals and Glen Campbell's guitar. I sang for those tunes. They didn't like my real name (Martyn Buchwald) so they changed it to Balin. They put the songs out on this little label, Challenge Records.
WHAT HAPPENED IN THE THREE YEARS BETWEEN THAT EXPERIENCE AND YOUR DECISION TO FORM JEFFERSON AIRPLANE?
I thought I'd try singing, because every time I sang, somebody would pay me. I had an idea to go to Europe and study stonework, drawing and painting, because art was my first love. I thought the fastest way I could earn the money to do that was by singing. So I put the Airplane together.
JEFFERSON AIRPLANE WAS FORMED SO THAT YOU COULD EARN MONEY TO GO TO ART SCHOOL IN EUROPE?
That's what I had in mind. I was just looking for quick money to get to Europe. And then nobody would hire me, because I had drums and electricity. At the time, it was a folk scene. So one night in a club, these girls brought over their boyfriends and we started talking and each guy said they had $3,000 to invest. I just said "give to me, I'll build a nightclub. I'll put a band together and keep the band. You can have the nightclub." And we built "The Matrix" (in San Francisco). Before I knew it, out of the woodwork came every other band there was, from the Dead to Joplin, Santana to Steve Miller, blues and jazz musicians, you name it. It was an alternative place for people to go.
HOW DID JEFFERSON AIRPLANE TAKE OFF?
I remember Ralph Gleason came the first night we played. He was the main jazz writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. At the bottom of his column, he had these little mentions, and I thought, "Boy, if we get in these little mentions, we're going to get some work." The next day, the whole column was about Jefferson Airplane, Whoa! The next night, ever record company was sitting in the audience, offering us a deal. Things went along pretty fast after that, the scene exploded.
WHERE YOU MENTALLY AND EMOTIONALLY READY FOR THE CHANGE IN YOUR LIFE WHEN JEFFERSON AIRPLANE SUDDENLY BECAME THE SIGNATURE BAND OF THE PEACE-AND-LOVE GENERATION?
I was really happy, but nobody's really ready for it. As soon as the band got super famous, well, that was the end of the band. We had so many managers and agents. Everybody had their entourages, except for yours truly! They were living off (royalties from) two or three albums down the line. I, naively, just lived off my $300 a week salary and took nothing extra. Everything else was provided - jets, clothes, hotels, food.
HOW DID THE SEPARATION BETWEEN YOU AND OTHERS IN THE BAND - GRACE SLICK, PAUL KANTNER, JORMA KAUKONEN, JACK CASADY, SPENDER DRYDEN - PLAY OUT ON STAGE?
I'd be on stage with the band, right there at the front singing this song, tearing the crow up, feeling I was going to blow this place apart. Then I'd walk off stage, and the others would be hiding with their bodyguards in the limo. I'd be out there with the people - "Hey, Marty, right on man! Great show!" and the guys in the limo would roll down the window and yell out, "Marty, you asshole, Get in here for Chrissake, would you?"
THEORETICALLY, YOU SHOULD'VE BEEN THE BIGGEST STAR OF ALL.
I always let everybody else take the credit. Grace was the most beautiful girl in rock at the time, so they gave her credit for everything. If I sang "Plastic Fantastic Lover" and brought the house down, the next day in the paper they'd write, "And Grace sang a great "Plastic Fantastic." In the film Monterey Pop, I sing "Today" and you never see me. The camera's on Grace and she's mouthing the words. My voice is coming out and people think she's the one singing!
NOW GRACE IS NO LONGER INVOLVED WITH STARSHIP OR AIRPLANE. MEANWHILE, YOU'RE HEALTHY AND HAPPY AND STILL TOURING WITH STARSHIP.
I've made it this far. I still get to play. I still have a fan base, I get to have a great time and knock people dead with the music and still haven't been wiped out by the pressure. I watched my friends crumble under the pressure - Garcia and Janis (Joplin), Jimi (Hendrix) and Grace.
WHERE YOU AWARE THAT THESE PEOPLE WERE CRUMBLING AND IF YOU DIDN'T DO SOMETHING YOU COULD JOIN THEM?
Fame can be scary. There were times when I was grasping for some strength to carry me through it all. You get that successful and even your friends start saying "You've changed. You've sold out." Well, I didn't change. They changed toward me.
YOU MANAGED TO AVOID THE SPOTLIGHT MORE THAN MOST.
Imagine being Janis. I remember sitting with her, and she'd be crying and weeping. "What did I do? They want me to leave my band. Is this guy good for me? What do you know about these lawyers?" We'd talk about it. Suddenly, you've got all these people working for you who you don't know anything about. Everybody knows you, and you don't know anybody. Everywhere you go, people know you.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO BE IN HAIGHT-ASBURY IN 1965?
We had just been through the (Kennedy) assassination. That was a shock. And there or four months after Kennedy was shot, the Beatles hit. That was a real injection of new spirit. I remember how it injected me. We were all visiting Burrough's Yage Letters, reading about LSD, waiting for the moment we would come across it and try it. The first time we took acid, it was a great adventure, a great time for us. It confirmed a lot of things in my life.
WHAT DID IT CONFIRM?
It opened me up to a lot of spirituality. It was always seeking answers in philosophy and romanticism. I never could find anything I believed in as much as music. It made me realize I was one with God, it confirmed that for me. There came across the philosophy of Vedanta, and I found my way.
YOU'VE BEEN PRACTICING VEDANTA SINCE THEN?
Since about 1968. I feel very blessed. I pray to God every time I go on stage, just asking to let me serve by singing to the people. I always thought singing was a godly thing to do, even as a kid. I love it. I look forward to it and every time I go out, It's like a religious experience. It works for me that way. I don't think I could do this if it was such a job.
IT SEEMS TO ME THAT 1968 WAS THE TIME TO EITHER DO SOMETHING SPIRITUAL OR BURN OUT.
Vedanta and yoga saved my life. I fell down one night playing guitar, threw out my back and couldn't get up, and I thought "Man, I'm out of shape, because of the way I live. I've been through the drugs. I'm just going to quit this stuff." I was 26, and I gave it all up. I was a pretty heavy drinker and took a lot of drugs, but I'd been reading about yoga and Kashmir. The next day, I walked into a yoga class. I was shaking. I couldn't even bend over and touch my knees.
NOW YOGA IS AN INTEGRAL PART OF YOUR LIFE.
I'm a big proponent of yoga. As I get to be an old man, I think I'd love to teach people yoga - how to do things that help their body, how to stand right, how to breathe right. I know a lot of musicians who have turned to yoga. It has helped me greatly.
WHAT IS YOUR OPINION ON THE WAR ON DRUGS, AND SPECIFICALLY THE CONTINUED PROHIBITION OF MARIJUANA?
With all the medical evidence that's come out about its benefits, that it doesn't lead to bad drugs, and all the good information about it, I don't understand why the government doesn't want tax money from marijuana. You can have all these other drugs that we see on TV, but they talk about marijuana like it's some evil thing. Plus, the prison system is filled with people busted only for marijuana and have no reason to be there. It's so ridiculous and so hypocritical.
YOU DO A SONG CALLED "GANJA OF LOVE:""NOTHIN' BETTER THAN THE GANJA OF LOVE/TELL ME CAN YOU REALLY GET HIGHER/ ON ANYTHING ELSE?
Sometimes we pull it out for a straight audience and they go, "What are they singing about?" Then we pull it out for HIGH TIMES crowd, and they love it. Sometimes I say, "And like the old days in the '60s, you don't have to applaud for this song, just throw joints on the stage!" In the old days, you'd get a ton of joints thrown on stage. Now, very rarely does anyone do it. Somebody will get arrested.
DO YOU STILL SMOKE POT?
The first thing I want to do when I smoke is yoga, or pick up my guitar. I love doing yoga after I've smoked.
WHAT ARE YOUR FEELINGS ABOUT TODAY'S MUSIC?
I listen to the radio as much as anybody, and there's a lot of good songs, but nothing really revelatory. But you put on the old stuff, and it still kills, you know? It still rocks. But there's some good bands out there. I like Sheryl Crow, the Goo Goo Dolls and Phish.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE AIRPLANE AND STARSHIP SONGS?
I've got a lot of them! "Blues from an Airplane," "My Best Friend," "Martha," "We Can Be Together," "3/5 Mile in 10 Seconds" and of course "Somebody to Love," "White Rabbit," "Coming Back to Me," and "Today." With Starship we're just doing the ones Paul and/or I were involved with - "Caroline," "Miracles," stuff like that.
HOW DO YOU AND PAUL GET ALONG IN THE REFORMED STARSHIP?
Well, Starship is Paul's band, he owns it. But Paul lets me know what's going on. He lets me help him work out the set, and I do a lot of the singing, so I'm happy.
WHAT WAS THE JEFFERSON AIRPLANE REUNION TOUR LIKE IN 1989?
It was hilarious! All those guys were constantly arguing with each other, and I was the only guy not on the contract; I was hired as a sideman. So there'd be these big arguments in rehearsal and they'd ask me to leave. Paul and Jorma have this love/hate relationship, so one day, they went at each other so hard and heavy that they both just broke up laughing at each other. That broke the ice. We went out and did thirty-six shows, and I thought we were dynamite. We were deadly. At the end, we finished, and everyone said, "This was great," then split apart. Everybody went home. Nobody calls anybody, nobody says anything. Same old band.
WHAT TYPES OF COMMENTS AND REACTIONS ARE YOU GETTING FROM THE CROWD'S WHO'VE BEEN ATTENDING YOUR SHOWS DURING THE PAST YEAR?
Great! One thing that happened was this lady came up to us and said, "You know, I always wanted to see you as a young girl in San Francisco at the Fillmore, but my parents wouldn't let me. But now I've got my own kids, and they brought me to this concert." We have a pretty broad base. We have a lot of young kids who come because they are into the music of the '60s. We get the old folks, too.
WHAT PROMPTED YOU TO START PAINTING AGAIN AFTER 30 YEARS?
Karen had some canvases and brushes around here, so I just wanted to see if I could do it again. I did Jimi Hendrix at Monterey, with the flames coming out of his guitar. I had the flames coming out of him. I found out the old eyes and hand was still there, so I got back into it. I like being visual again.
ARE YOU GOING TO CONTINUE DOING PORTRAITS OR TAKE YOUR ART IN ANOTHER DIRECTION?
I realize I have to take it a little further, get beyond just painting portraits. What I'd like to do it paint scenes from when I was with these people, things like Morrison reading his poetry to me, or Janis and I listening to her album for the first time, or things Hendrix and I did. Moments of my life that could be put on canvas.
WHAT TYPES OF SONGS HAVE YOU BEEN WRITING?
Love songs, love songs, love songs. I really don't write anything but love songs. Right now, I just want to write everything I've ever had in my head, just get it out of me.
WHEN YOU'RE WRITING, DOES THE MELODY COME TO YOUR BEFORE THE WORDS?
Yeah. I'll sing and hum a melody over and over until words start to happen, then I'll write them down. I'll write a song three or four times, then bang! The perfect word will come up, the essences of the whole thing. And sometimes I just play with words; "Plastic Fantastic" was just wordplay.
YES IT'S VERY MUCH A MATTER OF WHAT YOU PERSONALLY WANT TO HEAR, ISN'T IT?
I pretty much just write for myself and since my songs haven't been covered that much, no one really cares. I don't have that pressure. I'm pretty much an underground guy doing what I want to do, singing what I want, writing what I want, painting what I want. I'm pretty grateful for that.