The late Marty Balin, who died this past Friday at age 76 from an ongoing, but undisclosed ailment, ranks as one of the great singers of his generation and an artist who helped change the face of rock in the hallowed and halcyon days of the mid-to-late ’60s. The band he helped found, Jefferson Airplane, were former folkies, but they not only helped define an era of lysergic influence and experimentation, but a broader cultural sweep as well. His vibrant tenor was assertive and authoritative, and even when paired with the Airplane’s reigning sex goddess Grace Slick, he more than held his own, no small feat considering her own bold and brassy approach.
While the Airplane may have soared on the strength of Slick’s dark, decisive presence, there was never any doubt that Balin added his own elements to the mix. An assured frontman on his own merits, he showed he was assertive enough to stand up to the Hell’s Angels at Altamont, where he became a legitimate rock-star casualty after an Angel knocked him unconscious as a penalty for calling them out from the stage.
In addition to his strengths as a singer, Balin was an accomplished songwriter as well, and he contributed several key numbers to the Airplane’s canon early on and later supplied several successful songs to its designated successor, Jefferson Starship. Although Starship was Slick and singer/guitarist Paul Kantner’s vehicle after the mothership’s demise, Balin’s loyalty to his former flightmates helped give that band its first hint of commercial success.
Here then, are 10 tracks that helped define Balin at his best.
Written with drummer Joey Covington and an occasional collaborator Vic Smith, “With Your Love” was one of the final significant songs in the Airplane’s last years. It made its appearance on the album Spitfire shortly before their initial break-up. While the subject matter may have been of a more mundane variety, a style the group turned to in their final desperate grasp for commercial success, Balin’s vocal remains as impassioned as ever. Here was proof that even as the Airplane’s other engines were failing, he could still help them takeoff.
In many ways “Caroline” was Balin’s audition contribution to Jefferson Starship. Balin hadn’t yet committed to joining the band on a full-time basis, but this dynamic ballad, recorded for the album Dragonfly, helped transform the group from a loose conglomeration of fellow travelers with little commercial intent into a viable radio-ready entity that was well worthy of taking on the Airplane’s legacy. Shedding the psychedelic sheen for a sound well in keeping with the early ‘70s AOR, Balin helped the band make the leap.
A staple of the Airplane’s set during their prime, this Fred Neil composition was radically transformed as a fiery rocker by the time it made its appearance on the band’s early live album Bless Its Pointed Little Head. Another dynamic vocal duel between Balin and Slick, it acquired an undisputed urgency that turned it into one of the band’s most memorable rallying cries. “Would you like to know a secret just between you and me?” they ask in unison. It’s an entreaty the listener dared not resist.
Culled from his eponymous solo debut, “Hearts” garnered Balin his first and only solo hit. A riveting ballad of a typical romantic nature, the song found his voice in fine form and suggested he had a future as a mainstream artist. Unfortunately, his future solo sojourns failed to follow up on that promise. Likewise, his other outside projects—a short-lived Bay area funk band called Bodacious DF, a rock opera he composed called Rock Justice, a brief reunion with Paul Kantner and bassist Jack Casady in an outfit dubbed KBC and a reboot of the Airplane in the mid ’80s—failed to catch fire.
While some might complain that this uncommonly commercial entry upended Jefferson Starship’s attempts to become a renegade outgrowth of the Airplane’s rebellious spirit, “Miracles” remains an inspiring song all on its own. Sung by Balin with full-throttle conviction and intent, the uncommon optimism couldn’t help but strike a chord with listeners. Soaring over its riveting refrain, Balin’s resonant vocals confirmed it as an immediate classic. As a result, his addition to Starship’s ranks was nothing less than a welcome return. It brought the band a top-five single and solid standing as a viable radio-ready entity.
Legend has it that this arch ballad, which made its initial appearance on the Airplane’s defining album Surrealistic Pillow, was written on spec in hopes of securing a cover by Tony Bennett. That never happened, of course, although Balin’s emotive delivery made it an unlikely addition to an album known mostly for psychedelic suggestion. Jerry Garcia’s simple repetitive guitar figure adds to the track’s poignancy and design, but it’s Balin’s heart-wrenching vocal that ensured its searing embrace.
One of Balin’s most indelible contributions to the initial Airplane album Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, “It’s No Secret” helped define the Airplane’s oeurve, a striking sense of defiance coupled with an emphatic emotional investment. Balin seems to teeter on the brink of desperation in trying to convince a skeptical lover that he’s all in as far as their relationship is concerned (“It’s no secret, How strong my love is for you/ It’s no secret, when I tell you what I’m gonna do/ ‘Cause I love you, yes I love you”), and indeed, by the time the song reaches its soaring conclusion, it becomes a notion that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
One in a series of searing duets with Grace Slick, and another highlight of the landmark Surrealistic Pillow album, this song was widely believed to be a euphemism for a sex toy, although Balin later insisted that it was written in praise to his new stereo set-up. The staunch drive and determination inherent in the song’s emphatic performance set a standard for the banshee wail that would come to full fruition on later albums Crown of Creation and Volunteers in particular. The song itself was ensured immortality when it was tapped as the B side of the band’s most immortal anthem “Somebody To Love.”
Sung in the manner of a tribal chant, “Crown of Creation” finds Balin soaring above Slick and Kantner’s insistent wail, adding to the song’s irrepressible urgency and forward thrust. Taken from the album of the same name, its militancy and unapologetic verve made it a standout of their early sets and another example of their populist platitudes. Here again, there’s a menacing sense of irony and insistence at play (“You are the crown of creation/ And you’ve got no place to go”), seemingly assuring its subject that “the stability you strive for” will be found, but only in barren environs they refer to as “a place among the fossils of our time.” It’s a dismal assessment indeed.
The title track from the Airplane’s most insurgent effort of their collective career, “Volunteers” was exactly the anthem needed when dissent and desperation raged across the country throughout the Nixon era of the late ’60s and early ’70s. The emphatic rallying cry, “Up against the wall mother fucker,” emphasized the outrage and intent inherent in Balin and Slick’s banshee wail. This was indeed protest with both passion and purpose.