Jefferson Starship: The Miracle Rockers
He’d been impressed with the band that night and, not long after, he responded to Kantner’s request that they get together and joined the band for Red Octopus. Asked why he rejoined the group, he smiled and said, “I like doing the last thing anybody would’ve expected.” Given what Balin wanted, though, it was a logical choice. Bodacious had been a lesson: The group never made it out of clubs. “I don’t want to be a singer no one knows with all this music in me and when I die they discover me. I want audiences out there while I’m on that stage.”
With Starship, he could guarantee that and by actively becoming a member of the band and giving it hits, Balin had a lever to pry out of RCA the six-figure writer’s royalties the company had not paid him for all the Airplane albums since Surrealistic Pillow. The funds were frozen as a result of a suit filed by an early manager of the Airplane.
Although definitely a full-time member and getting paid as one, Balin has yet to sign any contracts with Starship, either management or recording. The old wariness remained undissipated and he often took pleasure in describing himself as “just a hired hand, that’s all.” In response the rest of the group treated him delicately, careful not to push or pull too hard.
At a recording session early last spring, Grace was cutting the counterpoint backup vocals for “Miracles” Balin had written “so they wouldn’t be singing on top of me.” She took off on one of her Arabian improvisations and at the end of the take Marty chided, “Hey Grace, none of that. This is background singing. There are no individuals.” Her face went opaque. She folded her arms and uncharacteristically made no reply. On the next take she sang little but the words and notes. Slowly, she eased back into her stylizations and by the last take, was adding just enough of her sliding and slurring to let you know it’s her back there. Marty had made them tasty.
Later that same night, Balin prepared to lay his lead on the previously recorded track of “Sweeter than Honey,” a song of Pete and Craig’s they’d cut before any words were written. After a few run-throughs, he came back into the booth to listen, saying to no one in particular, “I could sure use some Jack Daniels for this one. The key’s too high. I might have been able to make those notes ten years ago but no more.” Balin downed half a tab of Ritalin to add an edge to the vocal while someone went out to fill his request. Later, paper cup in hand, his voice came over the monitor. “This is the first hard liquor I’ve had since Christmas. I made a promise to myself if I was gonna do this thing, I wasn’t gonna drink. Now, I’m breaking my promise to do it.” He grimaced at the dilemma and chugged down the Jack Daniels.
Ready to cut with half the bottle gone, he grabbed the mike off the stand and whipped the cord free while Kantner lowered the lights to a red glow. It was samples for the tour night and everyone except Balin was flying high. He pumped the raunch beat with his arm: “… in love with you, bay-bee!” A small crowd had gathered in the booth, loving every minute of the five takes. Thompson bounced, Freiberg grinned and Kantner just smiled, commenting, “Somebody order a case of that shit for the road.”
Balin was back and burning and afterward, drunk to the point of giggles, he careened outside. “Yeah, it was good! It’s a hot tune!” Almost immediately, though, he remembered his stance of participation without commitment and added, “Uh, if you like that kind of music.”
When he rejected the Airplane, Balin also rejected its brand of heavy rock and in doing so, part of himself. He prefers black music and sees himself ideally in a progressive rhythm & blues context. His real genius lies in the welding of his favored musical forms into the structure and sound of “white rock.” The early Airplane did exactly that with folk music and electronics and one of Balin’s biggest disappointments with them came when they declined to respond to his love of soul. With “Sweeter than Honey,” the “love one another” chant he adds to Kantner’s “I Want to See Another World” and even the sensuality of “Miracles,” he is finally being given the freedom to bring those elements into the band.
After the Starship had recorded but not yet mixed the album, they hit the road in April ’75 to tour secondary markets and colleges. Balin still held back, camouflaging nervousness with reticence; he still let the others carry the harmonies in the material he was unfamiliar with. Papa John was a consistent crowd pleaser with his funky fiddle boogie. The tour ended Memorial Day weekend with a free gig in Golden Gate Park. On the overcast Friday afternoon, Balin showed up unshaven and surly. “I almost didn’t make it. But I’m here,” he said, swigging on a pint of rye, “me and the Jefferson Starshit.”
Balin’s ill humor came in part from Grace’s indisposure. Her predilection for alcohol and stimulants had kept her up all night, and behind sunglasses her eyes crackled with don’t-fuck-with-me antagonism. As she often does when she feels insecure (like the pre-Dragon Fly tour), Grace had come in costume, a lurid rust-and-turquoise-embroidered jacket with a matching cowboy hat. She weighed 150 pounds and the bright colors did nothing to deemphasize them, creating an overall effect of an upholstered matron inflated to the bursting point. However, the strong energy evoked by these traditional dates in the park for the people propelled the band high enough to earn good reviews.
The album was released June 26th and began its climb to the top. No decision had been made about a single but airplay indicated a cut-down version of “Miracles” was the choice. To almost everyone’s surprise, the song rocketed to the Top Five. Suddenly Jefferson Starship had a hit single, a song that made it not only on the pop charts but also into the Easy Listening listings and Continental Airlines’ in-flight programming. The album has sold close to 1.5 million copies and has pulled Dragon Fly back into the Top 100. “It’s scary,” said Barbata.
Another surprise was Papa John Creach’s departure before the next tour. The deft violinist had been straining to keep up both a group and solo career. “It got to the point,” Kantner said, “that we’d get off a tour and he’d go right out. You know, leave halfway through the last gig for his first. He never got time to come and practice with us. Before a tour he’d come in for three days and just fill in.”