marty balin, 1942-2018

Jefferson Airplane in 1967 on the cover of “Surrealistic Pillow.” Back row: Jack Casady, Grace Slick, Marty Balin. Front row: Jorma Kaukonoen, Paul Kantner, Spencer Dryden.

Any contemporary band is defined by its lead singer. That role might not always dictate the musical vision of the ensemble at hand, but the vocalist is the individual whose presence is most unavoidably visible. If a band happens to have more than one featured singer, the group personality either becomes more diverse or fractures entirely.

During it psychedelic heyday, between 1966 and 1970, the Jefferson Airplane utilized four lead singers – two were exclusively vocalists (Marty Balin and Grace Slick), two others, featured less frequently, doubled as guitarists (Jorma Kaukonen and Paul Kantner). For many, it was Slick – a fashionable and authoritative presence on and off stage – that dominated the Airplane’s vocal crew. But Balin, who died Thursday at the age of 76, largely set the standard for the band’s flight pattern and offered, nearly a decade latter, an out-of-nowhere hit.

Balin was a singer versed in pop and poetry, a blend that propelled the Airplane’s 1966 debut album, “Jefferson Airplane Takes Off,” a record cut prior to Slick’s involvement and the full emergence of Kaukonen and Kantner as singing alternatives. But it was with the vanguard 1967 recording “Surrealistic Pillow” that Balin’s broader pop profile revealed itself, whether it was through the uneasy calm of “Today” and “Comin’ Back to Me” or the unrelenting bravado of “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds” and, especially, “Plastic Fantastic Lover,” a parable about television that bordered on funk. But the album also included two monster hits sung by the newly recruited Slick (“Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit”) as well as a critically lauded guitar instrumental by Kaukonen (“Embryonic Journey”). That meant having to share the spotlight.

The Airplane’s front line would stay intact though the recording of its leanest, most immediate album (1969’s “Volunteers”) as well as the euphoric highs and disastrous lows of two noted music festivals (Woodstock and Altamont) that reflected the extremes of late ‘60s pop counterculture. He left the band in 1970. The Airplane itself folded in 1973

There is a bizarre footnote to the band’s saga. Reborn in 1974 as Jefferson Starship (without Kaukonen or founding Airplane bassist Jack Casady), the band earned a huge No. 1 hit with 1975’s Balin written and sung “Miracles,”  an ultra smooth pop-soul crooner that placed Jefferson Starship at the very heart of the pop mainstream the Jefferson Airplane spurned a decade earlier.

Balin played Lexington only once that I know off – a May 1978 concert at Rupp Arena with Jefferson Starship, but the wings were clearly coming off at that point. It played like more a pack of disparate, discontented artists than as a actual band. A year later, Balin and Slick were gone, Southern singer Mickey Thomas was picked up and a move deep into ‘80s pop began. This was the band that became simply Starship, which still tours today.

All this makes Balin sound like a mere board member of rock ‘n’ roll conglomerate, which is perhaps what he really was. But listen to his best recorded performances, from “Comin’ Back to Me” to “Miracles,” and you hear a singer taking on the world. It’s just that there were a lot of other equally eager hands in his ranks also reaching for it.



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