Marty Balin Live at the Throckmorton Theatre
I keep getting tangled up in strange loops of time. I’ve told the true fairy tale of how I came to Mill Valley in the summer of 1970, vowed to live there and then found myself doing just that, 44 years later. But that was last month. Whatever time-release spell enchanted me wore off, leaving me in Oakland.
Or so I thought, until an old friend invited me back to Mill Valley, to hear Marty Balin at the Throckmorton Theatre.
Jefferson Airplane, 1967, Marty Balin top right
I last saw Marty Balin….44 years ago, at the Fillmore East, with the Jefferson Airplane. If Jerry Garcia was my Guitar Hero back then, Marty was more of a personal hero to me. He put fine lyrics to lovely melodies, and sang better than anyone else in the scene (unless you count Janis, and I don’t know that ”singing” is exactly what she did. Shreiking is more like it.) Behind all the stuff Marty did so well was something unique. He was a guy who sang unabashedly about the way he felt. Yes, John Lennon had broken that ground. But everything Lennon sang had a tinge of anger. Marty Balin expressed dark things too – regret, sorrow. But he also did love (and lust) and exuberance.
It’s obvious that the radical 60s were all about liberation – for blacks, women and gays, and from sexual repression. That time was also about the struggle for freedom from emotional repression.
When the Beatles hit and the girls screamed my parents pointed out that “they screamed for Sinatra, too,” as if that explained it. It didn’t. Sinatra and his ilk were all about pretending to express feeling while avoiding it. The way my parents did. The way I did, until the Beatles came along. I heard the Beatles and wanted to be free. I heard Marty Balin and wanted to be him.
Marty had a way of manifesting things that had previously been contradictory. His lovely tenor was androgynous, yet he was no wimp. When the Hell’s Angels started beating on a naked guy at Altamont Marty jumped off the stage to protect him and got knocked out for his trouble. He was smart, a deep thinker, yet when it came time to lay bare his heart he pushed all the thinking aside, and went for the gut.
But what was he doing now? I wondered as we sat in the Throckmorton along with maybe 150 people. Marty appeared with a guitar, a standup bass player and another guitar player. All acoustic, but plugged into amps. At first it was too loud for us geezers. But we got used to it.
They started with “It’s No Secret,” from the first Jefferson Airplane album, followed by some newer songs I didn’t know. They were decent, and at moments through the crummy acoustics I could tell, he still had his voice! That voice.
Marty hit a certain familiar riff and I got chills. I had hoped against hope that he would do my very favorite of his songs – “Young Girl Sunday Blues” from After Bathing at Baxter’s. Baxter’s was one of the only successful psychedelic art experiments in history – five brilliant but discordant personalities dropping a ton of acid at some spa and somehow emerging with a melodious masterpiece that speaks more truly of the High 60s than any other musical work. I was so smitten with “Young Girl Sunday Blues” back in the day that I felt compelled to perform it, despite the ridiculously high range. I could never hit the notes.
Marty couldn’t hit them now, either. So he sang the whole song on a lower harmony. Lesser singers might have copped out to a falsetto, but Marty Balin could no more sing in falsetto than Wyatt Earp could shoot with a pea-shooter. Unfortunately that made the song unrecognizable. All the time he sang the version from the record was playing in my head, and that thing I wanted so badly was just there, out of reach….No, you can’t go home again.
Or maybe you can. Because he followed that disappointment with “Today,” then “Coming Back to Me,” hitting the notes (they are ranged lower) and I was back in some dorm room, marveling at those words, at that unfamiliar tugging in my chest….
He covered Paul Kantner’s “Martha” from Baxter’s, and they extended the end into a little Grateful Dead style jam, and I thought – These are the original San Francisco Sound guys. Or at least one of them.
And then it was onto the Starship. Jefferson Starship is unquestionably a greasy, unclassy 80’s Big Hair band. In the early days of the Internet a number of “Worst Songs in History” lists were topped by “Built This City.” This is plain unfair. I can think of a hundred far worse songs. No, the unreasonable animus towards the Starship is really outrage at the chutzpah of implying this creaky vehicle could ever take you higher than the Airplane.
I like “Miracles,” despite it’s schmaltzy arrangement. Hearing it stripped of strings and Grace Slick’s over-enthusiastic harmonies
I realized just what an odd hit record it makes. The chord changes are all over the place and the form wanders, echoes of the eclectic, searching spirit which made Baxters.
“Hearts” is a well crafted tune, but it has an old standard vibe that threatens to reduce that voice to mere crooning. Still, a couple of days later it’s stuck in my head.
I couldn’t imagine how he could possibly cover “Volunteers” – a period piece if ever there was. Neither could he. He didn’t.
“Summer of Love” is a recent song that does a decent job of capturing nostalgia for the spirit of ’67, but with one poignant note. He sang:
Summer of Love, which I was a part of….
And I wanted to shout, Come on Marty, you don’t have to tell us. We all know!
He sang for a solid two hours, didn’t forget a single lyric, and was plenty pumped, a spry 72. Near the end of an extended encore he really loosened up (I suspect he shares with many great performers some stage fright.) His guitar player laid down a bump-and-grind riff, Marty unstrapped his guitar, grabbed the mike and lit into a most unusual song: “Stripper.”
You show me yours, I’ll show you mine….Take it all off!
He gyrated like a rock star, which was somehow surprising, except that of course he is one. But I detected in his smile a strong note of irony. Smart Marty.
As the song developed it became apparent that this was no mere sex song, but sex as metaphor for the very opening up of the heart that’s always been his gift to rest of us. He made it explicit:
Love is a stripper.
Stripping away all the defenses, all the delusions and fears.
He ended by turning the metaphor on its head, whispering some stuff that made the steamier parts of “Miracles” seem tame. I heard gasps from some of the gals (and guys) in the audience.
I’ll let Marty close this show:
Don’t you know that I have found it, maybe you’ve found it too
Today is made up of yesterday and tomorrow
Young girl Sunday blues and all her sorrow