Saturday, May 7, 2016

Profile: Dr. Steven Ballinger

Ballinger (right) poses with former bandmate Eugene Robinson in 2016

In Dr. Steven Ballinger's favorite room the walls are lined with electric guitars. An amp sits in the corner opposite the door. The atmosphere is a couple candles away from a flat out music shrine. Most of the guitars are handmade by Ballinger, and the room is the culmination of hours of hard work.

Guitars aren’t his only specialty, the dining room table is his craftsmanship too. Paintings hang on the wall in the same room, courtesy of Ballinger. And guess who designed the elaborate fence lining the Japanese garden that the Ballinger family calls a backyard?

Standing well above six-feet, with a build of an ex-Stanford football player (which he was), “medical professional” isn’t the first label that pops into your head.

Maybe we shouldn’t be putting a label on him.

In 1981 you could find Ballinger sporting a gnarly mohawk while touring across America as lead guitarist of the punk band “Whipping Boy.” The first song on their debut album was called “America Must Die”; an onstage fist fight with “The Misfits” might be their most infamous moment.

So, not the background of your average M.D.

Today, Ballinger’s average work day consists of either performing surgery or consulting with patients. He’s an orthopedic surgeon at Good Samaritan Hospital. He’s been a surgeon, or at least a surgeon in training, since 1985 after leaving Whipping Boy to go to medical school.

The move was prompted partly by a negative shift in the San Francisco scene, "Everyone wanted you to conform politically, to be anti-government to be anti-everything... there was no good person in the government. And it began to be more codified. Like, you have to be for Greenpeace but agaisnt Earth Now. It was like church." he said.

Maturity had a much bigger impact than the increasingly polarizing culture, however.  After growing older and having a child, Ballinger no longer felt comfortable with some of the thematic elements that were seen as necessary in the punk subculture. The angst, the blind anger, and the overt calls for revolution didn't motivate him. 

He remembers thinking, "These people, the passionate communists and anarchists, they were really out of touch with the rest of the world. They might not be doing so great but most of the world was actually doing really well at the time, and when things are prosperous there isn't going to be much of a revolution. It means you're going to get maybe 200 guys to show up with slingshots and thats not a revolution."

The last album Whipping Boy would release with Ballinger on guitar, "Third Secret of Fatima", addressed all these issues. It was a bit of a dissertation on the toxicity and regression of San Francisco punk.

He cites a song from Whipping Boy's first album "The Sound of No Hands Clapping" where the lyrics are focused hating your parents on wanting them to be dead; it's called  Parent Trouble. "That''s just embarrassing now, I wanted my music to evolve with me," he said. 

Not everyone thought these changes were for the better; one of the biggest detractors of the new direction was Jello Biafra, front man of the Dead Kennedys.

 Remembering a conversation he had with Biafra shortly after the release Ballinger says, "I talked to Jello and walked him though it, and he said 'I hate this, these songs are shit what are these songs about? You guys used to write anti-government stuff.'" 

Ballinger's response? "It got kind of boring, man." 

"I would love to have a long term music career but I don't want to be a 55 year old guy standing on stage screaming America Must Die," he said. 

This love of music never really left, even if Ballinger left the scene. There’s a guitar in his office. Sometimes, in the couple minutes between seeing patients he’ll take it out and play a couple chords, parts of favorite songs.

It’s not just the music that’s stuck with Ballinger, but the attitude as well, the positive parts of the radical San Francisco counterculture changed his life outlook profoundly.

“I’d always been very self conscious and very concerned...I wanted to do the right thing, but It was very important to me that I didn’t offend anybody, that no one say, ‘Oh, Ballinger’s an asshole or he’s a jerk’,” he said.

Luckily, this wasn’t the case for long.

“After being in a punk band and looking how I did and doing the things I did, I didn’t care very much anymore,” said Ballinger.

This new attitude is evident in the life Ballinger now leads, a life he loves.

“I don’t think I could just do a job where I just moved a paper from one side of a desk to the other. I need to know that I’m making an impact on the world,” said Ballinger.

This philosophy goes wider than just his work; Ballinger is a consummate family man as well. He currently lives with his wife and step-son, with another step-son who recently moved out to Oregon State University. He’s made such a huge impact on their lives that the oldest step-son, formerly Ryan Lynch, recently changed his name to Ryan Ballinger.

“I wanted to honor the man that helped me turn into the great person I've become,” said Ryan.

According to Ballinger, one of the biggest perks of the “punk” mindset Ballinger has carried with him from the 80's has been the amount of time freed up by not feeling pressure to conform to the people around him.

He says his decision, the choice to only do things that he wanted to do, was one of the biggest turning points in his life.

“It was life changing for me. And it’s not that I don't do unpleasant things, I do them all the time, but I do unpleasant things that I want to do,” said Ballinger. “But if I think ‘Okay, this does not do anything for me or my world or the world or anything that I care about then I’m not gonna do it.’ And that freed up a lot of time for me.”

He uses this time engaging in an incredible amount of hobbies, things like woodworking or painting that he learned from his father. The latest project is building a bed frame; the wood, a very specific mahogany-type, from Africa.

You can count Taylor Johnson, an artist at LBCC, as one of the people Ballinger has influenced.

“[Ballinger is] the most well-rounded person I’ve ever met really. I mean he once made an old-style musical instrument out of a gourd. He’s a surgeon, he’s really smart, his artistic talents with crafting, and painting, his skills are all just really good,” said Johnson.

At the end of the day, Ballinger loves his job, loves his family, loves his life, and probably doesn’t give a shit about what you think of him. What’s more punk than that?


-Ballinger credits his woodworking, welding, and painting skills to his father, who is an engineer.

-Eugene Robinson, lead singer of Whipping Boy, now is frontman of the avant garde rock band, Oxbow.

-Ballinger got his Medical Degree at the University of California, Irvine and has been practicing orthopedic surgery either privately or for Good Samaritan hospital for over 20 years.

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