Marty Balin: Cincinnati Roots; Altamont Resistance




For Marty Balin, who as a founding member and resonant co-lead singer of San Francisco’s fabled Jefferson Airplane helped usher in the psychedelic rock/lifestyle revolution of the 1960s, an upcoming rare solo date here serves as a homecoming.

The band started in 1965 and soared to fame during San Francisco’s Summer of Love, 1967. Balin, now 71, is performing Saturday night with just an accompanying guitarist at Fairfield Community Arts Center’s Sojourners Recovery Services concert series. His repertoire may include songs made popular with the Airplane in the 1960s (such as “Comin’ Back to Me,” “Today” and “Volunteers”), with Jefferson Starship in the 1970s (perhaps “Miracles” or “With Your Love’), and as an early-1980s hit-making soloist (“Hearts”), along with newer, less familiar material.

Balin has traveled a long way from his local roots. He was born Martyn Jerel Buchwald here in 1942 and spent his early years in a 19th Century multi-family home on Highland Avenue in Mount Auburn, right before the street descends into Prospect Hill. His family, including an older sister, left for a new life in the west when he was just four, arriving in San Francisco after a few stops elsewhere. The 1940 U.S. Census shows that his father Joseph and mother Catherine rented an apartment in the three-family building while dad worked as a press helper for a lithographer.

Reached by phone in Florida, where he spends winters with his wife and daughter, Balin said he doesn’t recall much of his Cincinnati days. “I remember sledding down this long hillside and making big snowmen,” he says. And once gone, he said, his family —Cincinnati natives — stayed gone. “My father wasn’t close to his family,” he said.

Balin said his dad, who died last year at age 95 (his wife preceded him), made the move for his sake. “It was warmer for him and me. He told me I had bronchitis or something and couldn’t take the cold.”

Actually, Balin’s family did maintain close contact with at least one Cincinnati relative. Randy Buchwald, who grew up in Roselawn and graduated from Walnut Hills High School, went to live with the family in 1976 while attending San Francisco State. His late father, Isaac, was Joseph Buchwald’s brother. (There were also another brother and sister, with whom Randy was not close.)

“Marty and my uncle were really big on family,” said Randy, 54, who now lives in the Bay Area and is engineering director at a software company. “We’d all try to get together at least on Sunday mornings for breakfast.”

Randy stayed close, even after returning to University of Cincinnati for a business degree and then launching a career that took him to L.A. and Rome before returning to the area and renewing family contacts. “His father was like a grandfather to my kids,” he said. “They used to call him grandpa uncle.”

Balin’s father, who died last year at age 95 (after his wife), became something of a San Francisco celebrity in his own right, especially after his son’s electrified folk-rock band became famous with its 1967 hits “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.” (Both featured lead vocals by Grace Slick.) Using the lithography skills learned in Cincinnati, Buchwald got a job with a company that made psychedelic rock-concert posters, Tea Lautrec. And his father loved the whole wild scene, Balin recalled, although he never took the pyschedelic drugs so crucial to the scene’s music.

“I can remember going to these acid parties and I couldn’t even find my way to the door and looking up seeing my dad there,” Balin said. “I’d be saying, ‘Dad, help me. I don’t know where I am.’ And he’d be saying, ‘Sit down and relax, I’ll get you home.’”

One aspect of Balin’s long career has come up for renewed attention because of a recent documentary. In Crossfire Hurricane, about the Rolling Stones’ long career, band members talk about how frightened and intimidated they were by the Hell’ Angels motorcycle members during 1969’s infamous Altamont Speedway Free Festival near San Francisco. There, hundreds of thousands of were cowed and silenced while Hell’s Angels serving as security brutalized and beat concertgoers.

But Balin, however, resisted. During the Airplane’s set, he jumped into the crowd to fight a pool cue-armed Hell’s Angel attacking a fan. After breaking that up, he discovered the Angel on stage, striking the same fan. Balin went to help again and was beaten unconscious. In retrospect, it seems like a heroic act.

“I’m singing and I look out and there are people beating this poor guy with pool cues in front of me, and this whole crowd just stepped back en masse and allowed it to happen,” Balin said, still incredulous. “And it just infuriated me that nobody would help this poor guy. So I jumped down and started pushing these Hell’s Angels away, and some of them started going, ‘Hey Marty, what are you doing? You’ll get hurt down here.’

“I guess I’m just a foolish guy. I don’t know, the guy looked like he needed some help and what was I going to do?”


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