Brushes With Greatness

Bathed in a neon-orange glow, the painting of Jimi Hendrix torching his guitar seems to give off, well, warmth. The man who painted it puts viewers front-row-center at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival, a vantage point from which fans no doubt felt the heat.

"I was right in the front there and saw the show," says Marty Balin, founder and guitarist of Jefferson Airplane. Balin and his band had already performed at the festival outside of San Francisco, and he joined the front-row crowd to get the best view of Hendrix. But he had no idea at the time that he'd later recapture the moment on canvas.

As a kid Balin had a knack for painting but gave it up when he got serious about music. He resumed painting three years ago. "I just wanted to see if the old hand was there with the eye," he explains by phone from his home in Tampa, where he's lived for the past eight years. "And I just paint what I know."

Balin knows rock stars, and his 40-odd paintings on view in the show "Legends of Rock and Roll" at Poppy Art in Boca Raton almost exclusively feature performers with whom he's rubbed elbows. Poppy Art was opened in September by a friend of Balin's, Jess Cohn, Jr., who plans to exhibit works by famous musicians. A stockbroker who moved to Boca from Tampa six months ago, Cohn met Balin shortly after the musician moved to Florida. "My ex-wife and his current wife, Karen, went to Catholic school together," Cohn explains.

After seeing a show of Balin's work at Tampa's Nuance Galleries in January, Cohn was inspired to open his own gallery. Cohn is also an amateur musician, and in Poppy Art a battered Rhodes keyboard sits in one corner, a well-used acoustic guitar in another. The couch and coffee table are strewn with art magazines. Visitors might need to make use of the couch when they see the prices of Balin's works, which range from $2000 to $20,000.

Balin's acrylic paintings with neon overtones are stylized, semicartoonish portraits of musicians either performing on stage or striking characteristic poses. Balin says the neon paint casts the performers in a stage-light aura, which is the way he remembers them. Janis Joplin appears on canvas in her trademark feather boa; Elton John is depicted in a white suit and huge sunglasses; Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, and John Lennon are seen in separate pieces strumming guitars.

"I knew Paul [McCartney] better than I knew John," Balin lets on. He's painted all four Beatles but chose to paint Lennon alone as a sort of memorial to the late singer.

Another deceased singer Balin has painted, Jim Morrison of the Doors, he knew much more intimately. "We played together, shared the same stage a lot," Balin recalls. "Hell, we even went to Disneyland together one time."

Morrison died mysteriously in a Paris hotel bathtub in 1971, and Jim Morrison, Paris Morning is how Balin imagines the scene. Morrison is seen reclining in the tub, his long, dark hair blending with the black background. His face is pale, except for a five o'clock shadow. A drop of blood is about to drip out of his left nostril.

"We had a lot of wild times," Balin says of his relationship with Morrison. "We used to go down to the studio after an all-night session of doing whatever. We'd drink and smoke joints, and he'd spout his stuff and [a producer would] record it." The "stuff" Morrison spouted was poetry later featured on the album An American Prayer.

"Plus," Balin says, "we'd sit around and talk the literary merits of the blues -- who were the best singers, great blues songs to learn."

A painting of blues legend Robert Johnson, in fact, is one of the few pieces in the Poppy Art show that features someone Balin never met. "He's just such a big influence," explains Balin. But he most enjoys painting his contemporaries. "It gives me a chance to look back," he says, "and remember those moments and those people."

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John Ferri