Marty Balin was a single-minded creature from the day he was born.
All he ever wanted was to express himself artistically -- his way. Some called him a loner, moody, weird, an egotist, but he had no time to waste with that. Marty didn't suffer fools gladly.
Marty Balin: I've always had the same mind, the same consciousness. I just couldn't wait till my body grew up to my mind. I was totally aware of who I am, what I wanted to do and what I was going to do.
By high school, he was accomplished enough as a painter to earn
a scholarship, talented enough as a dancer and actor to handle both Shakespeare and musicals. But more than anything, the kid could sing. Marty, his mother once said, could whistle a tune before he could even speak.
Marty's father, Joseph Buchwald, had also been an iconoclast, ambitious and determined. Joe's parents, Samuel and Celia, had, like hundreds of thousands of persecuted eastern European Jews during the early part of the 1900s, shipped out to America with little more than a promise in hand. They settled eventually in Cincinnati, where Samuel found work within the family trade of tailoring. Joe was born there in 1917 and married an Episcopalian orphan girl born Catherine Eugenia Talbot. Jean, as she was called, also hailed from Cincinnati, where a couple named Charles and Magdalene Edmonds had adopted her.
Joe and Jean remained in Cincinnati, where their two children were born, first a girl, Marilyn Joan, in 1938 and, on January 30, 1942, a boy, Martyn Jerel Buchwald.
If the Buchwalds' interfaith marriage was a problem for others, Joe didn't lose any sleep over it. Although Joe's parents had instilled in him the traditions and beliefs of Judaism, he couldn't stand the discipline religion demanded. Religion divided people, and he believed in bringing them together. The Buchwalds judged others by who they were, not by the God they worshipped -- or didn't worship.
When Marty was young, his father took him to jazz concerts, where he witnessed Louis Armstrong and, on another occasion, a fierce drum battle between Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. Sitting up front, Marty stared bug-eyed as the spotlights darted from one musician to the next. He was transfixed by the effect the music and the lights had upon the audience. As soon as he was old enough, he told himself, he would be up there too.
It didn't take long. Both of the Buchwald kids loved to express themselves, but Marty was unstoppable. When Joan, as Marty's sister preferred to be called, took tap dancing lessons, her kid brother watched like a hawk and quickly picked up the moves. Soon he was adept enough to join his sister in shows, often the only boy dancer in the troupe.
Marty also painted and was crazy about the movies and the theater. He performed whenever and wherever someone would listen -- acting, singing, dancing -- especially after the family relocated to California in the late '40s. They hadn't planned on living in San Francisco, but Marty had been a sickly child, suffering from a heart murmur and a bronchial condition, and the Buchwalds hoped that the fresh, dry air of Phoenix would cure him. But there was no work for Joe in Arizona so the Buchwalds pushed westward, first to Los Angeles and then north. Living in a predominantly black neighborhood in the city of Richmond, across the bay from San Francisco, Marty was drawn to gospel, the earthy sounds of early rhythm and blues and the street-corner vocal harmony style later known as doo-wop.
In the 1950s Joe found work in San Francisco as a lithographer. The family settled in the Haight-Ashbury district, years before the arrival of the flower children.
Joan (Buchwald) Benton: It was just a little neighborhood, kind of pleasant, with not a whole hell of a lot going on.
All the while, Marty performed, whether in a church choir or a local production of The Nutcracker Suite. His infatuation with the world of the arts expanded as he reached his teens, and he took his first steps toward becoming a professional, landing jobs as a dancer and playing the role of Action when a touring company of West Side Story came to town. In the audience one night was Bill Thompson, who later became Marty's roommate and eventually Jefferson Airplane's manager.
Bill Thompson: Marty was considered kind of unusual at that time. He was in a gang, the Lairds. He tried to act tough, but he wasn't; he was the kind of guy that, when he'd get mad at someone, would say something like, "You knucklehead!"
By 1962, Marty, now 20, was bored and restless. He'd been granted a scholarship to the Art Institute in San Francisco and had taken college preparatory classes at San Francisco State College while still in high school, but any desire to complete his formal education was quickly supplanted by his interest in the arts, including the new sounds that were sucking in the nation's youth. Rock and roll was his generation's private language, and Marty spoke it well. He'd become hooked one evening when his sister threw a party, playing the same three rock and roll records -- by Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis -- over and over again. Marty also loved the raw rhythm and blues sounds of the day: Ray Charles, Bobby "Blue" Bland.
Marty Balin: But I never wanted to be like [the black artists]. I wish I could, but I'm not. I remember at high school they had this thing etched in stone: "Of all the good things in the world a man can learn, is to learn himself." And all I ever wanted to do was to learn what music was inside me.
By the early '60s, most of the trailblazing rock and roll stars were already fading from view: Elvis was in the army, Chuck Berry in trouble with the law, Little Richard in the ministry and Buddy Holly dead in a plane crash. While rock certainly didn't die during this era, as one popular song later suggested, its public face, encouraged by governmental pressure and several other factors, did temporarily soften. Well-scrubbed, nonthreatening pinup boys -- Frankie Avalon, Fabian and a bunch of guys named Bobby -- replaced the wild boys.
Marty fell somewhere in between. He was too soulful and sexy to throw his lot in with the whitewashed camp, but his solid education, city street smarts and artistic background didn't allow him to engage in the sort of unfettered country-boy abandon that had marked the first wave of rockers.
Still, with his brooding demeanor, dark good looks and natural ability with a song, Marty saw no reason why he too couldn't be a singing star, and when an opportunity to record presented itself, he took it. While in L.A. accompanying a female acquaintance to a music publishing house, he found himself invited to sing background vocals on a session. There, at Gold Star Studios, Marty came to the attention of Jimmie Haskell, a young arranger who had made his name working on Ricky Nelson's hit records. Haskell took Marty under his wing, but nothing came for free. Marty's father first had to pay for the session, hiring the musicians, singers and recording crew, and then Haskell would record the aspiring performer.
Marty learned the three songs Haskell had asked him to learn and brought in one that he cowrote, "I Specialize in Love." When Marty arrived at the studio, he found a full orchestra and several of the top session musicians in Los Angeles there to accompany him, among them guitarists Glen Campbell and Barney Kessell, drummer Earl Palmer, keyboardist Jack Nitzsche, Milt Jackson on vibes and bassist Red Callender. The Blossoms added background vocals.
After the sessions were completed, Joe Buchwald, along with Marty's new manager, Renny T. Lamarre, worked out a deal with Challenge Records, a label owned by cowboy singer/actor Gene Autry, to release the four songs on two 45 rpm singles. But when the records were sent out from the pressing plant, the singer's name on the record label did not read Marty Buchwald but, rather, Marty Balin.
Marty Balin: They didn't like my name. Renny Lamarre had a bunch of theaters and one was called the Bal. One day he said, "How about Balin?" I couldn't think of anything named Balin, so I said okay.
The Challenge recordings never made the charts, but they reveal the neophyte Balin to be a well-developed vocalist already. Although the music is consistent with the frothy pop of the era -- post-Elvis, pre-Beatles romantic, teen idol puffery -- with more than a trace of Gene Pitney and the young Paul Anka in Balin's style, all of the hallmarks of Marty's later approach with the Airplane are present and accounted for. The voice glides easily, swoops and swirls fluidly, playing with the lyric in a nonlinear, often surprising manner. It's a smooth, flexible voice, unabashedly alluring without being schmaltzy. Balin's mastery of dynamics is fully formed; the honey in his voice is as sweet as it would ever be. Yet there is a toughness behind it too, as if the singer has been around the block a few times more than he's letting on.
Despite the failure of the Challenge records, Marty Balin enjoyed his first taste of the rock and roll life. But he was soon drawn into folk music, which had become pervasive throughout the Bay Area over the past several years, ever since the Kingston Trio had broken out of San Francisco in the late '50s. With a preponderance of colleges in the Bay Area, and a student population that tended to lean left politically, folk had become the music of choice for the post-high school set. By 1963, artists like Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary had reached the mainstream with songs that carried a message. With a young president in the White House, the civil rights movement dominating the news and the dual threat of nuclear annihilation and the escalating Cold War, the puppy love-obsessed rock and roll of the day could no longer speak to an increasingly disaffected college-aged youth.
Marty Balin got by on his nylon-string Martin guitar, and his voice adapted easily to the high-spirited lead and tight harmony singing preferred by the folk groups. He began hanging out at the Drinking Gourd, a folk club at 1898 Union Street in San Francisco. One night in April 1963, he met three other singers looking to form a group.
Led by multi-instrumentalist Larry Vargo, the Town Criers also featured tenor and baritone singer Bill Collins, who played 12-string guitar and five-string long-neck banjo, and Jan Ellickson, a female soprano whose vocal style was similar to that of Joan Baez. Marty became their featured male vocalist, singing tenor and playing guitar and string bass. Having dabbled in songwriting for several years (his first composition, written around 1959, was called "Wish I Were"), Marty also teamed with Vargo to come up with original material.
parAlso in 1963, Marty married his girlfriend, a Las Vegas dancer named Victoria Martin. They took an apartment on 16th Avenue, and their daughter, Jennifer Ann, was born later that year. The group played regularly at the Drinking Gourd through 1964, and was also booked at college campuses and the hottest local folk clubs: Coffee & Confusion, the Coffee Gallery, the Hungry i and Barney Gould's Gold Rush.
Reviews were encouraging. The San Francisco Chronicle covered the Town Criers on three occasions, calling them first a "great find" and then a "beautifully harmonizing folk-singing group." By January of 1964, the paper was raving: "The upsurging folk group pours out three-part harmony, then doubles back with counter melody...strong, unusual balanced sounds that have been exciting audiences since they first joined forces."
The Town Criers' repertoire was fairly typical of young folk groups of the time, a mix of the traditional and new, of political and social commentary tempered with humor, songs like Hoyt Axton's "Greenback Dollar," the spiritual "Oh Mary, Oh Martha" and the Jimmy Dean hit "Big Bad John" (done as a parody of the right-wing John Birch Society). "Wayfaring Stranger," a song recorded by dozens of folk acts, provided opportunities for the Town Criers to show off their individual vocal skills, and Marty took a solo turn on "900 Miles," an Odetta tune. The group recorded its gigs on several occasions, but never released an album or single.
By the middle of 1964, the Town Criers' run, as was true for many of the folk revival groups and soloists during this period, was coming to an end. Dylan had sounded the clarion bell: the times they were a-changin'. President Kennedy had been assassinated, domestic unrest and America's involvement in the Vietnam conflict were escalating and young people were starting to band together in their own communities, with their own rules.
The '60s was beginning in earnest, but folk music was not to be the sound of the decade. Once the Beatles arrived on American soil in February 1964, nothing would be the same again. Collins was the first to exit the Town Criers, in the spring of 1964. By June the group had packed it in. Marty went to work with his father in the lithography trade, hoping to put together enough money to go to Europe and study sculpture.
At the same time, Marty's brief marriage was on the rocks. While still legally attached to Victoria, he started seeing Janet Trice, a registered nurse from Brooklyn.
For several months during this interim period Marty performed as a solo artist. Jacky Watts, an English girl who'd just arrived in the Bay Area, happened upon one of Marty's shows in June 1964. That evening marked the beginning of a long professional and personal relationship between Jacky and what was to become Jefferson Airplane.
Jacky (Watts Kaukonen) Sarti: My first night in San Francisco I went to the Drinking Gourd, which was a spit-in-the-sawdust type of place. Marty Balin was playing there, doing a Rod McKuen song. There was this really rowdy drunk and Marty stopped almost in midword, removed the drunk from the bar and then went right back into his word, and carried on singing. I thought this was astonishing.
Jacky soon moved into an apartment on Frederick Street with Janet Trice and Judy Barry, the future wife of Bill Thompson. Marty, meanwhile, had it all figured out by March of '65. A new musical hybrid called folk-rock, exemplified by San Francisco's own Beau Brummels and soon to become a national craze via groups like the Byrds in L.A. and the Lovin' Spoonful in New York, was beginning to bubble under on both coasts. Marty decided to form a band, one that mixed folk-rock's pointed songwriting and electrified rock and roll with the musical freedom of jazz. He'd incorporate the other arts that had always captivated him: graphics, dance, whatever was available. He'd be its leader, its guiding force and spirit.
Marty Balin: I had seen Trini Lopez do a folk song with an electric guitar. I said, "That's the direction it's going." But the folk people were prejudiced; nobody wanted drums in those clubs in the folk era. So I was really an outsider at the time.
Marty also decided to open a nightclub, similar to the folk rooms he'd played with the Town Criers, but catering to the fans of this new sound. He'd decorate it, help publicize it and provide the music. It would be a sensation, and his band would make history.
Now, if only he had the backing capital -- and others to share his vision. He approached Bill Collins about joining him in his new venture, but Collins had a steady gig as a solo performer. Marty sat in the Drinking Gourd wondering who among the singers there might go for his idea.
Marty Balin: One night they had a hootenanny. This guy came in and he had two [instrument] cases. He was a weird-looking guy. I said, "Hey, give him my spot. Let me see what he does."
And it was the funniest thing. He started to play, and then just stopped. He said, "I can't do this."
And for some reason I said, "That's the guy. That's the guy, right there."
His name was Paul Kantner.
Copyright © 2003 by Jeff Tamarkin
by Paul Kantner
Paul Kantner here
San Francisco calling
So what are you lookin' at?
What are you lookin' for?
The joy of the path?
Nearly most anyone can learn how to play music
Fewer can discern the why
It helps to have Pete Seeger and the Weavers in your (my) distant past
as Reverend Gary Davis was in Jorma's
or as Betty Grable was in Grace's
Why San Francisco?
Why Jefferson Airplane?
or just another bozo on the bus???
Beyond all that, I just call it random factors
seeming events, unplanned, unexpected and, most importantly, unprepared for
can't predict them, plan for them, or even know how to deal with them
beyond your capabilities
In our time 'twas things like (in no particular order):
Rock & Roll
Little Richard -- THE King! -- and Jerry Lee, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, James Dean. Brando's Wild One
And then, the Beatles and Stones, et al., in music
the advent and escape of LSD into the culture
marijuana for white children
peyote, mescaline, et al.
the birth control pill...leading directly to:
the sexual revolution (there goes the neighborhood)
the civil rights movement (ditto)
the atomic bomb
the ban the bomb movement...leading to
the peace movement
modern jazz (Miles, Coltrane, Roland Kirk...)
good Communists -- Pete Seeger, et al.
The JFK murder and the aftermath
Martin Luther King
(that dulled the sheen of America and only served to define the path -- Nixon, Hoover, early Goldwater, blah blah blah)
...getting my drift?
All that swirl of events and factors led to one fuckingly cool decade, didn't it, my brothers and oh my sisters?
For me, it was the Kennedy aftermath that really shut the door on that world that had existed before. There was no further reason to hold hope in those people, those values, that plan.
An entire alternate quantum was necessary.
And all the rules died.
And into this world was born
for me, anyway...
Don't get me wrong. Our new parallel universe in San Francisco in nineteen-sixty-something did not become a world couched in hate, or rejection or soapbox ranting, but a world involved in creating a new and different realm for ourselves...naive, hopeful, a children's crusade, if you will...
and a world in which we were for things, not necessarily against things. We succeeded in creating a place that, for a brief, shining moment, embodied all that we had been taught to hold dear.
Built on the truths of the lessons we were taught, and learned (!), in those god-awful civics classes:
truth, beauty, justice (!) and the American way
equality before all the sky
And dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal, and were destined for a place where life, liberty and, particularly, the pursuit of fucking happiness were definable and achievable goals.
And fuck all the rest of you and your terribly outdated, illogical and, most importantly, untruthful ways.
And it worked for a while, didn't it?
showed that it was possible?
And some of those thought patterns continue today
ripples felt well into this next century
The Sierra Club mentalities
the ACLU thought streams
Jefferson Airplane was a mirror of its time
madmen in a time that demanded madmen
a catalog of the highs and lows
a reflection of the quantum
Shining, I like to think, in its own peculiar way
And that's what they rarely see or write about or televise or film effectively in their endless analyses of "the sixties," San Francisco and those particular years. Mostly they will focus on the drug overdoses, the chaos and anarchy, the "breakdown." Nobody concentrates on the uplift, the freedom, the passion, the unbridled joy and ecstasies of the era, well beyond the mere sex, drugs and rock and roll.
49 square miles surrounded entirely
Know what I mean?
And now, we live
we go on
we still explore
the why of making music
The future is about nerve
Those who have it
Those who don't.
Over & out
Copyright © 2003 by Jeff Tamarkin
The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane
Got a Revolution!
The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane
Jann Wenner, editor-in-chief and publisher of Rolling Stone, wrote, "The classic [Jefferson] Airplane lineup were both architects and messengers of a psychedelic age, a liberation of mind and body that profoundly changed American art, politics, and spirituality. It was a renaissance that could only have been born in San Francisco, and the Airplane, more than any other band in town, spread the good news nationwide."