By ALEX HORVATH
A musical riddle: What do Johnny Mathis, San Francisco's beatnik jazz scene, eastern religion, a notorious 19th century flatulist and painting have in common?
Answer: They are brush strokes in the story that make up local rock legend Marty Balin.
Balin founded the Jefferson Airplane in 1965, doing the writing and lead vocals on songs like "It's No Secret" and "Volunteers" (the latter co-written with Paul Kantner). Balin wrote and sang many hits with Jefferson Starship in the mid-1970s before embarking on a solo career. He's well known as a writer of romantic love songs such as "Miracles," "Count on Me," and "Hearts." But these days, when he's not touring, Balin can be found pursuing another lifelong passion -- painting. He specializes in portraits of the many musicians he has known and worked with, including Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jerry Garcia, B.B. King, Otis Redding, Jerry Lee Lewis, Al Green, and KISS.
His repertoire also includes a sentimental portrait of one-time manager and friend Bill Graham, and several renditions of the French flatulence artist, Le Pétomane, for whom Balin professes a special interest. His paintings are on permanent display at a gallery near where he lives in St. Augustine, Florida. But Balin is taking his artwork on the road in a tour titled "Marty Balin -- Music of My Life." Before the tour comes to Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley, this Saturday, Feb. 22, we spoke with Balin about starting the Airplane, the inspiration for his works, and painting a famous 19th-Century Frenchman who actually sang through his asshole.
How did you get into painting?
I just always drew since I was a kid. I actually wanted to be an animator for Disney when I was a young kid. I used to do all his stuff. My father was a lithographer who used to bring me home large sheets of paper and I would draw these things. One time I even sent a bunch into Disney and they asked me to come down and interview for a job as an animator. But I was only, like, 13, so I didn't get the job.
What a dream job interview.
I heard that you were boyhood friends with Ralph Mathis, Johnny's brother?
Mrs. Mathis considered me to be her seventh son. They used to have parties at their house all the time, and everybody would sing and dance, from grandma to the young kids. So I was a little white boy there and they'd ask me to get up, and I'd get up and sing too. Johnny told me, 'Hey kid -- you ought to sing. You've got a pretty good little voice.' And that was the first time that anybody professional pointed it out to me. I thought that oh, well... maybe he had a point.
What was it like growing up in San Francisco?
When I was a teenager, me and Ralph Mathis, we used to go down to those clubs and because it was Ralph, we got into all the clubs and they would buy us drinks. We'd borrow Johnny's clothes -- suits and things. We could actually wear the same size. So we'd go to these clubs and hang out. I saw 'Trane, I saw Monk, I saw Miles. You name it -- I saw all the greats.
Was that before they were really big?
No, that was in the heyday of the jazz scene -- the North Beach clubs and everything.
How did the Jefferson Airplane come about?
I had been in folk (music) and was really fascinated by the twelve string guitar. It was a hoot night at the Drinking Gourd. I was standing by the door with the doorman when this guy came up. He had a guitar case in each hand, so I knew he had a twelve and a six. The (doorman) said 'I'm sorry, we're full up.' And I said, 'No, no. Give that guy my spot. I want to see what this guy does.'
So I was standing there -- and Paul came out and opened his guitar case and took out his guitar and tuned it up -- made sure it was right. He got up to the mic and he started to play. And then he just stopped and said 'I can't do this. I can't do this!' And he walked off.
I thought to myself "That's the guy.' He hadn't played a note. I went backstage and said, 'Hey, I'm Marty Balin, I'd like to play with you.' He looked at me. We made a date.
Is it true you wrote "Miracles" for Jefferson Starship in 45 minutes?
I would think more than 45 minutes. Maybe a couple of hours.
What was behind a song as intricate as that?
I just came up with these changes one night. And then I started singing 'I might have to move heaven and earth to prove it to you baby.'
I was interested in, at the time, the Persian poets, and they would write poems about God. And they would talk about making love to a woman -- but it was really God. I also at the same time was very much into Sathya Sai Baba -- he changed my life a lot. And I was in love with this girl. I was also kind of listening to Marvin Gaye at the time. You put those four together and out comes this long groove of me just wailing over it, and saying these things about making love to a woman. But basically I am talking about God. That was my idea.
How do you get an idea for a painting?
Something from my own life maybe that I'm trying to think about. Mainly what I can do is people I've worked with, musicians I have known. Then I feel honest about it. In painting them, for some reason, it's real to me. Like about things we did together and the memories I have had with this person, that kind of thing. It makes it easy to paint.
There's a painting of you on stage with Jefferson Starship.
Yeah, that was one where I just wanted to convey that moment. I have done another one since then which is kind of cool -- of Starship on stage in this big theatre, and up in the balcony you see this astral projection of myself looking down on myself singing. And the audience below is cheering the band and everything. Meanwhile, floating up above watching it all is this astral body of myself.
That's trippy. I wonder what it means.
A lot of musicians -- they can astral-project. Something about the music releases the inner soul. And it happens still, sometimes. And I find that fascinating.
Speaking of fascinating, can you tell me about Le Pétomane?
Le Pétomane! He was the highest paid entertainer in France at around 1896 -- at the Moulin Rouge. He made more money than anybody -- more than Sarah Bernhardt even. Kings would pay fortunes for private shows.
I started painting moments in his life on stage, off stage, in Paris... It gave me a chance to do totally, once again, intuitive, free kinds of things. Anything I wanted to put in -- people and scenes, dealing with the old Top Hats, the carriages, the early electric lights, the look of things. I just found it fun, so I did a bunch of those. He's the only person I could paint that I didn't know.
Did you put yourself in any of those?
No, no. Unless you could say I'm Le Pétomane. I would love to do a play or something about Le Pétomane. A musical -- that would be funny.
You know what he did, right?
Yes I do know. Professional farter?
He sang through his asshole.
Is that the only thing he did?
It's the only thing he did. He sang and harmonized with himself and did imitations. He was an amazing performer and had them rolling in the aisles.
I like the Le Pétomane pieces quite a bit - they are a departure...
I actually do, too. I think they are my museum pieces. Because anybody can paint rock and rollers and musicians -- that's no big deal....
"Marty Balin -- Music of My Life" comes to the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley this Saturday, Feb. 22. Artists reception at 7:30 p.m., performance at 9 p.m.