If only you believe in miracles, baby, so would I

(Please note: I’ve made a pretty big mistake. I saw more than one posting this week about the passing of Marty Balin, so I devoted this week’s essay to a tribute to him. Somehow I inadvertently overlooked the fact that these posts were referring to his death THREE YEARS AGO this week. How embarrassing! Ah well, we can still celebrate Balin and his contributions…)

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Mention the name Jefferson Airplane and the first thing that comes to mind is fiery lead singer Grace Slick. At a time when female rock stars were virtually nonexistent, Slick had a high profile, thanks to her indelible vocal contributions to the Airplane’s 1967 hit singles, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” and her arresting visual presence on stage and in TV appearances.

Truth be told, though, the world might have never heard of Slick if not for the group’s founder, singer/songwriter Marty Balin. He may not have the name recognition, but he played a pivotal role in putting the various players together, writing many key songs in their catalog, and bringing his strong tenor to bear on lead vocals and harmonies. He proved to be the level-headed leader of one of San Francisco’s best known bands of psychedelic experimenters.

Balin became yet another famous member of the Sixties counterculture generation to pass away when he died this week at age 76.

“Marty and I were young together in a time that defined our lives,” wrote Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen on his blog. “Had it not been for him, my life would have taken an alternate path I cannot imagine. Marty always reached for the stars, and took us all along with him.”

Balin had a passion for folk music and love songs. He grew up in the Bay Area and, at age 18, founded and led The Town Criers, a folk-singing outfit modeled after The Weavers and The Kingston Trio. They had a modest West Coast following (the first two tracks on my Spotify playlist below are from that early period), but the folk movement was on its last legs once The Beatles and others showed up to lead a revolution in popular music. The Town Criers disbanded in 1964, and Balin set his sights on forming a rock band.

He turned first to Paul Kantner, a visionary songwriter and rhythm guitarist, who shared his interest in the burgeoning folk rock scene exemplified by The Byrds and The Lovin’ Spoonful. “Balin and Kantner came together and, like plutonium halves in a reactor, started a chain reaction that still affects many of us today,” said Kaukonen. “It was a moment of powerful synchronicity.” Balin and Kantner recruited other area musicians, most notably Kaukonen and singer Signe Anderson, and although the group’s original drummer and bass player didn’t last, their replacements — drummer Spencer Dryden and bassist Jack Casady — both became mainstays in the group’s classic lineup.

At the beginning, 1966. (L-R): Marty Balin, Spencer Dryden, Signe Anderson, Paul Kantner, Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady

“I knew I wanted to play with electric guitars and drums,” Balin said in a 2000 interview, “but when I mentioned that notion in clubs where I had played, the owners would say, ‘We wouldn’t have you play here. This is a folk club.’” Balin’s solution? With three other business partners, he opened the Matrix Club in San Francisco, down the street from what would soon become the famed rock venue The Fillmore Ballroom. The Matrix would become an important part of the burgeoning San Francisco music scene, and would host performances by the Grateful Dead, Steve Miller, Santana, Janis Joplin and many others.

When it opened in August 1965, The Matrix’s first concert was by Balin’s new band, which they had dubbed Jefferson Airplane, named after bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson and the idea of taking flight. The group’s performing skills improved quickly and, with Balin writing compelling folk-oriented songs for rock band arrangements, the band got the attention of San Francisco Tribune music editor Ralph Gleason, whose complimentary reviews helped them win a contract with RCA.

On the Airplane’s debut LP, “Jefferson Airplane Takes Off,” eight of the 11 songs were penned by Balin, including the first single, “It’s No Secret,” featuring Balin’s strong tenor voice, and other seminal tracks like “Blues From an Airplane” and “Come Up the Years.” While Anderson did a decent job on vocals as well, she chose to leave once her first child was born in 1966. Her replacement was Slick, who had been singing with The Great Society, often as a warmup act for Balin and company.

Jefferson Airplane became a national act in 1967 with the classic album “Surrealistic Pillow,” which brought Slick’s powerful vocals to the forefront as an effective counterpoint to Balin’s lighter tone. Their vocal blend, with Kantner often adding a third harmony, became the Airplane’s most identifiable sound.

Balin was eager for the group to succeed and willingly let Slick become the focal point and even the spokesperson for the group he founded. As Kantner put it, “Marty was quite the businessman. He was the one who pushed us to keep an eye on all the business stuff, orchestrating, thinking ahead, looking for managers and club opportunities when we were still young and new. He was very good at it.”

Grace Slick and Marty Balin, 1968

Balin’s knack for irresistible melodies provided a crucial contrast to the group’s sometimes meandering instrumental outpourings. He co-wrote the fan favorites “She Has Funny Cars” and “Plastic Fantastic Lover” with Kantner, but even more noteworthy was his gentle, trippy ballad “Today,” which got plenty of airplay on the underground FM radio stations that were sprouting in major markets at that time.

Jon Pareles of The New York Times came up with the best description of Jefferson Airplane’s oeuvre I’ve ever read: “They play a molten, improvisatory mixture of folk, rock, blues, jazz, R&B, ragas and more, sometimes adopting pop-song structures and sometimes exploding them. The songs were about love, freedom, altered perception, rebellion and possibilities that could be transcendent or apocalyptic.”

Balin, Kaukonen, Kanther, Slick, Dryden, Casady, 1967

The Airplane’s next three LPs — “After Bathing at Baxter’s” (1967), “Crown of Creation” (1968) and “Volunteers” (1969) — saw fewer and fewer Balin love songs and more Kantner explorations of science fiction themes and radical politics. Simultaneously, the group was leading the way in psychedelic drug use, which Balin didn’t particularly care for. The Airplane played all the milestone concerts — Monterey, Woodstock, Altamont — but Balin somehow felt out of place. By late 1970, he withdrew from the group.

“I don’t know, I’d say Janis (Joplin)’s death around then really struck me,” Balin said in a 1993 interview. “Those were dark times. Everybody was doing so much drugs and I couldn’t even talk to the band. It was getting strange for me. I was into yoga and health foods and I’d given up drinking. Cocaine was a big deal in those days, and it made people crazy and very selfish. I couldn’t talk with everybody who had an answer for every goddamn thing, rationalizing everything that happened. I thought it made the music really tight and constrictive and ruined it. So after Janis died, I thought, I’m not gonna go onstage and play that kind of music anymore.”

The group soldiered on without Balin for a couple more ho-hum albums (1971’s “Bark” and 1972’s “Long John Silver”) while various members concurrently recorded solo projects, like Kaukonen’s and Casady’s splinter band, Hot Tuna, and Kantner’s sci-fi project, “Blows Against the Empire,” credited to “Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship.”

It’s not surprising to me that, when Kantner and Slick regrouped in 1974 with new backing musicians to officially launch Jefferson Starship as a more mainstream “next-generation” offshoot, Balin was persuaded to participate. For “Dragon Fly,” the Starship’s first official LP, Balin wrote and sang lead on just one track, “Caroline,” a remarkable seven-minute power ballad. It’s arguably the best song on a very solid album.

That worked out so well that Balin joined full-time for the next project, “Red Octopus,” which turned out to be the most successful album in the entire Airplane/Starship catalog. Balin co-wrote and sang lead on four tunes and was the sole writer of the dreamy ballad “Miracles,” which peaked at #3 on US charts.

Jefferson Starship, circa 1976. Top row: Johnny Barbata, David Freiberg, Grace Slick, Paul Kantner; Middle row: Marty Balin, Pete Sears; Bottom: Craig Chaquico.

Diehard fans of Jefferson Airplane didn’t like the decidedly slicker, more commercial approach of Jefferson Starship’s music, but it appealed to the 1970s pop-rock audience. “Red Octopus,” “Spitfire” (1976) and “Earth” (1978) all reached the Top Five on the album charts, due in large part to Balin’s melodic hit singles, “With Your Love,” “Count on Me” and “Runaway.” Kantner and Slick and guitarist Craig Chaquico played important roles in the group’s success, but without Balin’s songs and vocals, I don’t think they would’ve achieved as much as they did.

Tired of touring, Balin bailed again in late 1978, and while the band continued on with singer Mickey Thomas at the mic, Balin took a stab at a solo career, releasing a solo album (“Balin”) in 1981 that branded him as a power balladeer, with the #8 hit “Hearts” and #27 “Atlanta Lady” giving him chart cachet.

The 1989 reunion LP (Balin in center)

The original classic Jefferson Airplane lineup of Balin, Slick, Kantner, Kaukonen and Casady (but not Dryden) buried hatchets and reconvened in 1989 with a new album (“Jefferson Airplane”) full of songs originally recorded on various solo works but re-recorded by the band. It didn’t sell well, but they played to full houses on tour, playing many old Airplane tracks, a few Starship tunes and a handful of the newer stuff like Balin’s sentimental reverie about 1967, “Summer of Love.”

“We went out and did 36 shows, and I thought we were dynamite,” Balin said. “At the end, we finished, and everyone said, ‘This was great,’ then split apart. Everybody went home. Nobody calls anybody, nobody says anything. Same old band.”

In 1996, this lineup of Jefferson Airplane was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Balin spent the last 20 years periodically performing and recording, both on his own and with Kantner in various iterations of Jefferson Starship. I only recently learned that he was also a painting enthusiast, doing sensitive treatments of many major musicians of the rock era, which remain on display at his art gallery in St. Augustine, Florida.

“R.I.P. Marty Balin, fellow bandmate and music traveler,” Casady said upon Balin’s passing. “He was a great songwriter and singer who loved life and music. We shared some wonderful times together. We will all miss you!”

I suspect many readers weren’t really aware (until now) of Balin’s name or his contributions to making Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship what they were. Now you can hear precisely by listening to my Balin-oriented playlist on Spotify below. Thank you, Marty, for your songs, your singing and your devotion to your craft.

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A line of cars and they’re all painted black

“To me, Charlie Watts was the secret essence of the whole thing.” — Keith Richards

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In the wake of Watts’ death last week at the age of 80, many musicians have stepped forward with heartfelt and laudatory remarks about the man and his contributions to rock music in general and The Rolling Stones’ music in particular. It seems to me there’s no better way to kick off my tribute to the late great drummer than with Richards’ comment. In his 2010 autobiography “Life,” Richards gave Watts a great deal of credit for the band’s success and his own development as a guitarist.

“If it hadn’t been for Charlie, I would never have been able to expand and develop,” he wrote. “Number One with Charlie is he’s got great feel. He had it from the very start. There’s tremendous personality and subtlety in his playing. If you look at the size of his drum kit, it’s ludicrous compared with what most drummers use these days. They’ve got a fort with them. Charlie, with just that one classico setup, could pull it all off.”

Richards gets a bit technical as he explains an important truth about The Stones. “The other thing is Charlie’s trick. On the hi-hat, most guys would play on all four beats, but on the two and the four, which is the backbeat, which is a very important thing in rock and roll, Charlie doesn’t play, he lifts up. He goes to play and pulls back. It gives the snare drum all of the sound. He does some extra motion that’s totally unnecessary. It pulls the time back because he has to make a little extra effort. Part of the languid feel of Charlie’s drumming comes from that. It’s very hard to do — to stop the beat going for just one beat and then come back in. The way he stretches out the beat like that, and what we do on top of that, is the secret of The Stones sound.”

Most casual music lovers don’t realize how integral drums are to any great band’s sound, and The Stones are no exception. Jack White of The White Stripes once said, “Drummers are like the foundation of a building.  They are the girders. The other musicians are going to add the doors, the windows, the floors, the roof and all the shiny details everybody notices.  But without the drums, there’s no building.”

Or, put another way: “If you have an OK singer or an average guitarist, you might still have a great band, but if you have a mediocre drummer, your band will never be anything more than mediocre.”

Charlie Watts was the epitome of the rock and roll drummer who put the emphasis on the roll — with swing but without flash, with the steady backbeat but without the drum solo. He had a love for jazz music, and his drumming style reflected that sort of intelligent approach. He played to the song, giving it just what was necessary — no more, no less.

Stewart Copeland of The Police, who also had a background in jazz, said, “One thing you can see of the jazz influence on Charlie is that he went for groove, and derived power from relaxation. Most rock drummers are trying to kill something. They’re chopping wood.  Jazz drummers instead tend to be very loose to get that jazz feel, and he had that quality. The jazz factor in Charlie wasn’t in the use of the ride cymbal going ting-ting-ti-ting, it was his overall body relaxation. It’s also why he hardly broke a sweat while driving the band to light up a stadium.”

To get a feel for what Watts brought to the party in the Stones’ best moments, I invite you to refer for a moment to the first five tracks on my Spotify playlist, found at the end of the essay. Just listen to these classics that illustrate what I’m talking about: “Honky Tonk Women,” “Beast of Burden,” “Get Off Of My Cloud,” “Rock and a Hard Place,” “Paint It Black.”

The way he opens “Honky Tonk Women” and then gradually, imperceptibly, picks up the pace by song’s end… The easy, deliberate, loping beat behind “Beast of Burden”… The quintessential example of a drummer setting up the song on the intro to “Get Off Of My Cloud”… The furious yet controlled attack that highlights “Rock and a Hard Place”… The insistent double-time underneath “Paint It Black.”

I confess to not really noticing the finesse Watts brought to the Stones repertoire, at least not until much later. In the ’60s and ’70s, I admired the flashy guys — Keith Moon, Ginger Baker, John Bonham — but I eventually came to understand the excellence of drummers like Watts, and how the “playing to the song” approach is more valuable. I have three different friends who are drummers, and their experiences and informed observations have helped form my appreciation and respect for drummers and what they do. They have each mentioned Watts as one of the best ever.

Rod Argent, who has known Watts since 1964 when The Zombies and The Stones were on the same tour, said, “Like all the great jazz drummers, Charlie existed to serve the music, serve the groove, and enhance everything that was going on in front of him. His drumming sounded deceptively simple, but it swung. Every fill really counted, and nothing ever detracted from what was being played. The architecture of what he constructed was always absolutely right, and was one major reason why The Rolling Stones always, right from the beginning, sounded so exciting, and made some magnificent records.”

Randy Bachman, guitarist/singer with the Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive, said he felt Watts was “one of rock and roll’s greatest drummers and time keepers of all time. Many times, when playing with drummers who were getting a bit too flashy for their own good, I’ve said to them, ‘Please just play like Charlie Watts!’ What a legacy of music he leaves behind.”

Max Weinberg, drummer for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, echoed Bachman’s declaration that Watts was one of a kind. He recently recalled, “When I was a kid in New Jersey, if you were looking for work, there’d be ads for musicians. In the mid-60s and 70s, they would often say: ‘Wanted: Charlie Watts type drummer.’ Charlie was not just a drummer – he was a genre.”

As Watts himself recalled in a 2012 interview, he had a natural predilection, an innate desire, for playing drums at an early age. “I was always pounding on countertops, pots and pans, tables, whatever was around. My dad bought me a cheap banjo, but I couldn’t get the hang of it, so one day, I took the bloody thing apart and started beating on the parts instead. I never really learned to play drums in the traditional sense. I didn’t take a single lesson. I actually got in bands by watching drummers play and copying them.”

He remembers, at age 13, first hearing jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, “and I fell in love with that, whatever it was called.” He drifted toward jazz combos, entranced by the “elasticity” of jazz. “Rock and roll is restrictive. It has no movement. But jazz breathes, you know. Improvised music breathes. It’s very difficult to do well. It still comes as a challenge to me.”

The Stones in 1968: Brian Jones, Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman

Watts was 19 when he met Brian Jones, the founder and original spark plug of The Rolling Stones, who asked him to join his new group. Said Watts, “When they asked me to join, I figured, well, OK, it’ll last a year and then it’ll fold. That’s how it was in London in those days. Nothing lasted too long. So for me, the Stones was just another gig. But then we started touring England… I was hoping to start another job, but I never went back to it. I was a little out of sync with them at first, but Keith advised me to listen to Buddy Holly and Jimmy Reed and things like that. Mick (Jagger) taught me a lot about playing TO songs, and about melodies, and guitar parts. When you’re playing rock and roll, the challenge is the regularity of it.”

In addition to the universal praise for his skills on the skins, Watts is also noted for being a genuinely nice guy, and a very well-dressed man off stage (and sometimes on stage). He was absolutely not a typical rock star, not remotely flamboyant like Jagger or Richards, even in the band’s peak years, as he would be the first to admit. “When people talk about the ’60s, I never think that was me there. It was me and I was in it, but I was never enamored with all that. It’s supposed to be sex and drugs and rock and roll, and I’m just not like that. Touring was tough. I like what I do, but I wish I could go home every night.”

Watts had his period of drug abuse in the late ’80s, but it didn’t last long. What did last long was his marriage to his wife Shirley, with whom he celebrated his 57th anniversary this year. What rock star does that?

“He singlehandedly brought the rock world some real class,” said rock historian and E Street Band guitarist Steve Van Zandt. “He was a gentleman’s gentleman. Rock and roll will miss him profoundly. We are significantly less without him.”

Elton John referred to Watts as “the most stylish of men, and brilliant company.”

Joan Jett added, “Charlie Watts was the most elegant and dignified drummer in rock and roll.”

Denny Laine, who served with both The Moody Blues and Paul McCartney and Wings, said, “He always made me feel at ease in his company. That’s the thing that stands out. What a gentle soul.”

I find it particularly telling that a newer generation of rock musicians have also lavished praise on Watts very publicly following his death. There’s guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, who had this to say about Watts: “He was one of the greatest and most important architects of the music we love. Rock and roll would not be rock and roll without the rhythm, the style, the vibe of this incredible musician.”

Pearl Jam’s lead guitarist Mike McCready paid tribute by saying, “The Rolling Stones have always been my favorite band, and Charlie was the engine. I’ll put on ‘Sway,’ which is my favorite song of all time, and listen to how he anchors that track. None of us in a rock band would be here if it hadn’t been for Charlie.”

Duran Duran drummer Roger Taylor called Watts “an absolute inspiration to a legion of drummers since the 1960s. A man of grace, style, dignity and composure.”

Hmmm. Well, even the coolest cucumber has his breaking point, and the story that illustrates this point emphatically has been repeated often in numerous articles in the past ten days. It’s chronicled in great detail in Richards’ autobiography, “Life.” It goes like this:

The band was on tour in Amsterdam in 1984. Richards and Jagger went clubbing after the performance, not returning to the hotel until 5 a.m. Jagger decided to call Watts’ room to wake him up, yelling into the phone, “Where’s my drummer?” No answer, so he hung up. Twenty minutes later, there was a knock at the door. Richards opened it, and in walked Watts, not disheveled in pajamas but fully dressed in suit and tie. He approached Jagger, grabbed him by the lapels, and screamed, “Never call me your drummer again! I am not your drummer, you’re my damn singer!!” Then he punched Mick in the face, knocking him over a tray of smoked salmon, then turned on his heels and marched out.

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Does the death of Charlie Watts spell the end of The Rolling Stones? Maybe it should, but it won’t. After a year of inactivity due to COVID, the band has been eager to get back out on the road in 2021, but Watts had some sort of medical procedure that required rest and recuperation, so he announced he’d be opting out of the tour. The group had lined up a replacement named Steve Jordan, who had performed with Richards in the past. In the wake of Watts’ passing, the band is laying low for a couple weeks in respect for their longtime drummer, but the revived tour begins September 26.

For years, The Stones have been lampooned for not knowing when to quit. When they reached 60, critics started calling them The Strolling Bones. Now they’re past 75…but they’re living legends, they keep coming back for more, and they still sell out everywhere they play.

Watts and his wife Shirley

In the 2013 interview, Watts reflected on how much longer the band would last. “Now you have to seriously look at your age, because if this continues for another two years, I’ll be 74. But I say it at the end of every tour. And then you have two weeks off and your wife says: ‘You are not going to work?'”

Rest in peace, Charlie Watts. God knows you deserve it.

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The Spotify playlist was selected to highlight the tracks in The Rolling Stones catalog that show how Watts’ drumming proficiency was pivotal to the band’s sound, groove and overall presentation.

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