Sadly, it comes time to say goodbye to another rock and roller. Jefferson Airplane co-founder Marty Balin, later a major force within offshoot Jefferson Starship, has passed at the age of 76.
In 2016, according to Rolling Stone, Balin underwent open-heart surgery at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital in New York City. “He later sued them for medical malpractice, claiming they caused him a myriad of injuries, including a paralyzed vocal cord, bedsores, kidney damage and the loss of his left thumb and half of his tongue.” Recent reports had indicated the effects of this had taken a further toll on him.
It’s a hard end to a life, and to a figure who was so tied to the more hedonistic edge of the ’60s where so many of his contemporaries barely made it out, and so many more became casualties. Balin, born Martyn Buchwald, co-founded the San Francisco psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane in 1965. To those who did not follow the psych-rock band closely, it was spitfire singer Grace Slick who would capture much of the public’s imagination with the group, particularly with the song “White Rabbit.” However, you can hear Balin singing the counterpart vocal to the band’s enduring hit, “Somebody To Love.” Followers of the band would know him more as a key contributor, and his departure from Airplane would facilitate the rise of Jefferson Starship.
This is likely where the largest number of fans will remember him best, providing the lead vocals on chart-topping hits like “Runaway,” “Count On Me,” and “Miracles.” Eventually, he would leave this iteration of the band as well, causing the hiring of Elvin Bishop Band vocalist Mickey Thomas, and even greater success as Starship. While that occurred, Balin had another hit as a solo act with “Hearts.”
He was not necessarily finished with the band. In 1989, he participated in the Jefferson Airplane reunion tour and provided the minor hit “Summer of Love” from 1989’s comeback album. He returned four years later to Jefferson Starship. In 2008, he finally ended his association with the unit.
Strangely, thanks to the renewed popularity of the Star Wars franchise in pop culture (although some would argue it never left), Balin has had a backhanded swing at notoriety. The much-derided Star Wars Holiday Special, never officially released on home video but bootlegged by entrepreneurial home recorders, featured Jefferson Starship, fronted by Balin, performing “Light The Sky On Fire,” a bonus cut from their greatest hits album Gold (packaged as a 45 slipped into the album’s sleeve). Each Christmas, the video which was uploaded to YouTube gains a new swath of viewers, albeit their choice is more likely to provoke disdain than delight.
Still, Balin made that transition from FM rock to ’70s AM pop radio seem effortless, and his songs were easy to like and hard to forget.