In 1967, Jefferson Airplane blew me away

Last Monday morning I learned Marty Balin, the male lead singer and founder of the rock band Jefferson Airplane, had died.

Word of Balin’s death gave me pause but then quickly morphed into a flood of happy memories from one wonderful evening during that fabulous Summer of Love. You see, I remember June 9, 1967 very well because that night I attended my first real rock and roll concert — Jefferson Airplane — at, believe it not, the Wonderland Roller Skating Rink in Fresno. This was only a week before the famous Monterey Pop Festival, just a few short days before California replaced England as the center of the rock and roll universe.

Now, my brother Jerry claims he helped the band unload their equipment from an old Econoline van near a side door of the venue before the show, a tale I can neither confirm nor deny.

In hindsight, I had missed some historic Fresno concerts I should have attended — The Rolling Stones and the Byrds at Ratcliffe Stadium in 1965 (a concert at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning didn’t make much sense to me back then) and The Beau Brummels and the Dave Clark 5 shows at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium.

The band’s first album (before Grace Slick with singer Signe Toly Anderson), “Jefferson Airplane Takes Off,” created a modest buzz with its mostly folk-rock sound. But the band’s second album, “Surrealistic Pillow,” with Slick’s vocals, launched two monster hits — “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit” (followed quickly by a third album, “After Bathing At Baxter’s”).

I’d been fascinated and dumbstruck by the sight and sound of Rickenbacker guitars ever since I saw John Lennon and George Harrison playing them, and Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane also played a Rickenbacker 12-string. This show marked the first time I’d seen or heard one in person. My love affair with those guitars continues to this day.

My mind was blown. I’d never seen a light show before, the banks of strobe lights and overhead projectors. I’d never heard a sound like this, the muse rising triumphantly on some new musical horizon. I’d never seen a gang of people who looked like this — long hair, tie-dye, love beads, spangly bracelets and headbands. Why, I’d never imagined anything that resembled this experience in the slightest — completely uncharted territory as the Haight-Ashbury counter-culture scene dropped in full, mind-bending, psychedelic force on a couple of hundred unsuspecting Central Valley kids.

And this band could play, too. Kantner and lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen were brilliant, bass player Jack Casady, already known as one of the best in the business, didn’t disappoint, Spencer Dryden had replaced the troubled Skip Spence on drums and Balin and Slick offered soaring, harmonious vocals.

Somebody tell me, who could have been more mysterious or attractive to a 17-year-old wannabe than a 20-something Slick prancing back and forth across the stage as she fronted this thundering and monstrous band?

Frankly, I always respected Balin for his songwriting and vocal abilities, his drugs-aren’t-for-me-stance and especially because he jumped off the stage into the crowd during the Airplane’s appearance at the Rolling Stones’ concert at Altamont when the Hell’s Angels were beating up a fan. Most of us probably wouldn’t do that. The Angels promptly knocked Balin out. And don’t forget, Jefferson Airplane played Woodstock, too.

The next year or so would bring many great bands to Fresno — Buffalo Springfield, Cream, Big Brother and the Holding Company, The Doors, The Animals, Santana, The Grateful Dead, etc. — but I will never forget that sweaty June evening in a little roller rink on Blackstone Avenue where I sat on a dirty hardwood floor and encountered soon-to-be rock and roll royalty for the very first time. Ah, yes. This is where it all began.

Thank you, Marty.