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Marty Balin on flying high and low with Jefferson Airplane

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With two new albums, a Grammy Award, and the loss of two band-mates (on the same day), the past few weeks have been a little surreal for Marty Balin, founder of legendary San Francisco band Jefferson Airplane and vocalist for Jefferson Starship.

On Feb. 15, Balin and the members of Jefferson Airplane were feted by the Recording Academy with a Lifetime Achievement Grammy at the 58th annual ceremony.

'It's nice, you know?' Balin tells me of the honor, in a phone interview from his home in St. Augustine, Florida. 'They call it lifetime achievement,' but I really don't feel like I've accomplished anything yet. It's like people saying, You did something worthwhile, buddy.' It's like when someone says that a song you wrote meant something to them.'

It's a bittersweet recognition for Balin, who lost two former band-mates on Jan. 28, when Jefferson Airplane guitarist Paul Kantner and original lead vocalist Signe Anderson, both 74, passed away following chronic health issues.

'I just think back to the good times that we had together,' Balin says. 'I hope they accomplished everything they wanted to do.'

Balin recounts a recent phone conversation from Kantner. 'He called me to go on a world tour with him for the 40th anniversary of the Starship. 'He sent me a schedule and it was just grueling, you know? They had us playing somewhere every night in different countries. I called him back and said, I don't want to tour like that.' And I told him, 'You'd better watch it yourself with your health,' you know? He just said he was as strong as a bull and that nothing could hurt him. The next thing you know boom.'

In December, Balin issued 'Good Memories,' a two-disc collection containing new versions of songs originally recorded with Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship along with his solo hits. 'It was commemorating the 50-year anniversary of the Airplane,' Balin says. 'I had been doing those songs live in my shows and we thought, Let's get this down.''

Balin is especially excited about his newest disc, released on Feb. 12. 'The Greatest Love' contains 15 new Balin songs that he says are among the best he has ever recorded. 'It's got some story songs on it, some love songs and a couple of fun songs,' he told me.

Stylistically, the new album is a varied affair, while Balin's voice retains his impressive range and tone. 'You'll like Superman,' it's a rocker,' he says. 'There's an exotic song called Scheherazade' and another rocker called Rollin' Ball' that people seem to really like. I've been doing these in concert for a while and the audience kept asking me to put them out.'

To support his new albums, Balin has announced several concerts around the U.S. through July (details but has no intention of duplicating his grueling schedules from the past.

'We played every night in the Airplane,' Balin says. 'After a while, you start to think alike. I look back at some of those shows, and they were pretty good. Sometimes, I'll hear one of my songs on the radio and go, 'Jeez, that sounds great.'

What of the stories about Jefferson Airplane taking drugs before a concert? True?

'God, yeah. We were on a lot of acid back then,' Balin remembers. 'If we didn't take it, somebody would dose us. It was in the punch. Every apple [backstage] would have it. You had to be very careful. Otherwise, you'd be flying when you didn't really plan on it.'

Balin says that bands like Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead created the concept of the 'jam band.' 'We'd jam out and bend those ideas. We'd warp those ideas and go off into outer space with those ideas and then all come back into the song. It was a lot of fun.'

For awhile. The low point in Jefferson Airplane concert history, Balin says, was the Dec. 6, 1969 Altamont Speedway concert with the Rolling Stones, near San Francisco.

A free end-of-tour show headlined by the Stones, Altamont was billed as a sort of 'Woodstock West,' coming less than four months after that much more idyllic gathering in upstate New York.

Oblivious in the art of festival planning, the Stones took the advice of the Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead, and 'hired' the local Hell's Angels chapter to act as concert security in exchange for free beer. The Angels had a reputation for being tough but, in fairness, they'd successfully worked with area bands for several years and there was reason to believe that, with their help, things would be groovy at Altamont.

It literally turned out to be the concert from Hell. The Angels, ripped on bad acid, savaged members of the audience with pool cues. 18-year old Meredith Hunter, violently driven away once from the stage area, returned with a revolver only to be beaten and stabbed to death by a Hell's Angel, as the Stones played 'Under My Thumb.'

The entire affair, immortalized on film in 'Gimme Shelter,' is still rock's most shocking documentary.

Balin was nearly killed that day after jumping to the aid of a concert-goer.

'I started singing the first song of the set and I looked up and saw this kid in front of the stage being beaten by Hell's Angels with pool cues,' Balin remembers. 'I saw the whole audience step back. I jumped off the stage and went to help this kid because he needed it. I got into a punch-out with The Hell's Angels leader I call him the wolf's head guy' because he wore a wolf's head. I was beating him down in the back of an empty semi at the back of the stage. I remember thinking, I'm really doing pretty good here.' And then black out. I woke up covered in blood with boot marks all over my body where they had stomped me.'

Sixteen months later, Balin 'did a 180.' He left the Airplane, stopped drinking and took up yoga.

'I had been drinking like a fish and had serious back trouble,' Balin remembers. 'God, I was a mess. I said enough with this drinking. I went to a yoga class and remember sweating a puddle around me. Within my body, I felt my muscles stretch and say, Oh, this is good.' I kept going back. Yoga helped rejuvenate my whole body.'

Balin says he still takes care of himself today, as evidenced by the strength of his voice and musicianship on 'The Greatest Love' and 'Good Memories.'

'I'm a singer and singing fills you up with air,' he said with a laugh. 'I don't eat much and try to keep everything balanced. You have to take care of yourself or you'll be in trouble.'

'The Big Morning Show with Mike Dow' can be heard on Big 104 FM The Biggest Hits of the '60s, '70s & '80s - airing on 104.7 (Bangor/Belfast), 104.3 (Augusta/Waterville) and 107.7 (Bar Harbor/Ellsworth).


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