Rick Berlin, “The Big Balloon (A Love Story)”

One night in Boston in December of 1973 (if I’ve got the right year), my life changed. I was staying for a few weeks in the Back Bay of Boston with Ben Brown, a friend from college who knew a plenty about music. For some reason, I felt like hell. But Ben urged me to come with him on a trip to deliver some stage lights he was loaning to a band that was playing at Jack’s, a club near Harvard Square. I remember driving down Mass. Ave. in his van, not sure why I had agreed to get vertical.

When I walked into the storefront bar, I knew why. I was instantly healed of whatever was ailing me. The clouds lifted. The colors in the air changed. On stage (I guess the lights were running late!) was this unwieldy, unusual-looking band. The female singer, Lisa Kinscherf, was singing a beautiful, heartfelt version of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.”

The band was Orchestra Luna. I would become, to say the least, transfixed by the band’s wild combination of theatrics and rock, of poetry and jazz, of gut-punching music. Their style was avant-garde and Broadway throwback all at once. They were led by keyboardist Rick Kinscherf (Lisa’s sister), whose song-stories ranged from Genesis-level epic to Elton John precious. I was transfixed by the inscrutable guitar player Randy Roos, whose flying figures cranked on a giant Gibson. The rhythm section of Scott Chambers and Don Mulvaney was mighty. And solid. Poet Peter Barrett commandeered the moment as needed, and Liz Gallagher joined Lisa Kinscherf (“The Lunettes”) with back-up singing and the occasional lead vocal.

In the summer of 1974, I started following Orchestra Luna in earnest—to Nantucket, to the North Shore, to western Massachusetts, New Hampshire, or to The Rat in Kenmore Square. The band put out an album on Epic Records. They played CBGB’s. They were a less-tame Tubes or a harbinger of The Flaming Lips. They were either an acquired taste or you were instantly blown away. They could be messy, but they were always moving. Check out this clip from CBGB’s for a taste. Many of the faithful believed they would become a well-known national act.

Orchestra Luna: Version 1

It didn’t happen.

I was there as the band lineup changed—Karla DeVito taking Lisa Kinscherf’s place in The Lunettes, rocker Steve Perry taking over guitar, Chet Cahill stepping in on bass, Bob Brandon adding a fresh layer on keyboards, and a series of drummers starting with Ace Holleran. My friendship with several of the band members, including Karla and her then boyfriend, got me an invitation to rent a room in the band house in Newton, one of the wildest and most music-filled years in my life. But OL2 also failed to take off, even with DeVito’s magnetic on-stage charm. (She went on to tour with Meatloaf, among many other career accomplishments.)

Orchestra Luna: Version 2

By the time I moved to L.A. in 1978, the band had morphed yet again and had stripped-down to a five-piece, now known simply as Luna. A few originals, mostly covers. Much more commercial. When Luna3 folded, Rick Kinscherf changed his name to Rick Berlin—and has kept producing music and being creative ever since.

And now here comes The Big Balloon (A Love Story), 640-plus pages of Rick Berlin riffing on the stuff in his life and reminiscing on key moments and relationships throughout his career. “The Big Balloon is super personal,” he writes in the prologue. “Most art, at least the art I love best, is personal. From another’s truth one extrapolates one’s own echo, wisdom, embarrassment and laughter. That’s what I’ll hope for you, dear reader. That you’d laugh or at least find something self-relevant in these independent passages of my peculiar life.”

So the writing prompts range from a lock box bought at True Value, to an Adirondack chair; from an ode to a fire extinguisher to junk drawer trinkets; from yard-sale art to … medicine jars? Most “chapters” run a page. There is precious little through-line, other than watching Berlin’s brain percolate around the subject at hand. There are no set rules. One “rabbit hole” might be fairly expository—the simple provenance and backstory of a found object, while the next spelunking descent might spark a sharp memory or emotional story. The book is divided into bigger sections marked “Foyer,” “Back Porch,” “Pantry,” and so on but these are very loose as headers go.

“I’ve had a great time of it, this weird-assed trip of mine,” he writes in a chapter called ‘Pandemic Portions,’ about his refrigerator and staying at home. “Wounds and bruises, but all-in-all I’ve loved every second. I’ve had a good run. I’ll be okay if I buy the farm as long as it doesn’t hurt, as long as hospice drugs float me sweetly into painless pink cloud oblivion.” 

Berlin is the responsible one, we learn in ‘The Tally,’ about his bill-paying ethics. We learn he’s a huge Red Sox fan. “Me, the fan who knows the least about sports, but who, like all of New England went crazy in ’04 and the three parades after that.”

And finally we get an eight-page chapter (“Ridgemont Street”) and we start to get into Orchestra Luna memories and flashes of how songs came together and the bandmates assembled. Then there’s a quick tribute to Rick’s sister Lisa (“By Hand”) and some heartfelt memories of the late Chet Cahill and his girlfriend (later, wife) Billie Best, who came in with OL2 to manage the band. Same with “Peter Barrett & Moosup The Musical,” where Rick offers a few scenes of his repressed adolescence that might be worthy of Jim Carroll’s frankness about sexuality and drugs in The Basketball Diaries or Patti Smith’s art and music recollections in Just Kids. (I could have used a whole lot more about people and OL memories—but that’s just me, because I left so early on—and less about the objects and objets-d-art.)

Throughout, Berlin touches on boyfriends and relationships—and fights and break-ups, too. Anyone who knew Kinscherf/Berlin knows he’s got a big heart. Now in his mid-70’s, he’s lived his life on the stage. And if he’s tempted to focus on the “would-haves” and “could-haves” that might have kicked up OL1 or OL2 up to the next level, it only comes through in Big Balloon in micro-doses of regret. He says he’s learned “how not to keep score.” 

Berlin can write. Here’s a moment about Peter Barrett:

“At the end of OL (Pete had been in both versions), he took off for San Francisco, the homo heartbeat of the U.S.A., and formed No Sisters with his two brothers and a fourth. It was the truly the end of an era, the end of the most liberated art epidemic I’ve known. A profusion of unrestrained ideas and liberties taken. Peter was the shining caboose on the end of that train. None of it would have been half as interesting or groundbreaking without him. I can still picture him in an empty Orpheum writing up the OL setlist in his trademark handwriting, as we took for granted how easy it was to be opening up for Roxy Music, the Boomtown Rats, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the Pointer Sisters, Splitz Enz—riding high without the constraints of real-world Icarus vertigo.” 

The Big Balloon is sprawling, rich, personal, and, at times, quite frank. And thoughtful. There are some beautiful nuggets within:

“The guru we’ve been seeking, whom we think will make our journey a snap with an easy ET touch to the forehead, is, in fact, within, already a part of our being, ready to awaken. An undiscovered, done-deal Dharma path.”

Based on how all he’s contributed to art and music, I think Rick Berlin has understood that fact all the way along.   

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Related review of How I Made A Huge Mess of My Life by Billie Best, who managed OL2.

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