Jonathan Taplin: ‘The Magic Years’

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Author, John Taplin. Photo by Maggie Smith

On a special digital exclusive episode of The Treatment, Elvis welcomes Jonathan Taplin, author of the new memoir “The Magic Years” and Director Emeritus of the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. The book details Taplin’s years as a manager of Bob Dylan and The Band and as a film producer in the 1970s. Taplin is also the author of “Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Amazon, and Google Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy.” Taplin tells The Treatment about the commercialization of the hippie and folk rock movement in the 1960s. He tells the epic story of how The Rolling Stones’ iconic cover of “Exile on Main Street” came to be. And he talks about his steep learning curve as a young film producer, trying to get a studio to buy Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets.”

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. Ask yourself: is it possible there could be a sequel to the book "Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy?" Yes will be my answer. And it's the most personal, interesting memoir I've read in a long time. The book is "The Magic Years.” Its author is producer, tour manager and Director Emeritus of the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab, Jonathan Taplin. The thing that both of these books tackle is: can there be an intersection between art, commerce and politics? 

Jonathan Taplin: Well, I certainly think I grew up in a time when they were clashing in a kind of brilliant way. You know, I'm older than most of your listeners, but in the summer of 1962, and 1963, Bob Dylan was singing, "Blowing in the Wind," "The Times: They are A-changin’," and the civil rights movement was driven by music. When Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech on the Washington mall in front of 300,000 people, it was music--Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and the freedom singers--that provided the kind of energy to the event. And so for me, at that point, there was a perfect alignment between politics and culture. It didn't last that long because the events of the late 60s kind of tore it apart. But for a while it was incredibly powerful.

KCRW: You've talked about the excitement and then really the discordant moment of seeing Dylan go electric and how the crowd didn't know what to make of it and just being really at ground zero for so many of these events, and how epochal and world shattering they were.

Taplin: What happened in Newport in 1965, was a real break point, in the sense that the folk movement, which was very tied into this kind of protest song feeling, felt that Bob had sold them out by going electric, and that he was no longer singing "The Times they are A-changin’." He was singing: how does it feel to be on your own like a rolling stone? And so it was much more personal music.  I think it was a misreading on the part of the folkies to do that, but on the other hand, there were other things that became to my mind even more kind of seminal. 

I described in 1969, I'd left Princeton, got my degree and went to Woodstock, where Bob and The Band were living, and I began working full time for The Band. On the Saturday before we were performing I called down to Michael Lang, who was the producer and said, well, The New York Times says it's a complete mess. There's no food; there's no sanitation. And he said, no it's groovy, man. It's the hog farms feeding everybody and it's all okay, but there's only one problem: you can't get here by car. We're sending a helicopter to get you because the Woodstock Festival was not in Woodstock. It was like 100 miles out. So when we got in that helicopter, and we flew over this ridge, and down below, you saw 300,000 kids dancing to Sly and the Family Stone. It was like a Cecile B. DeMille movie. It was biblical. And I saw that, but I also think that Madison Avenue saw that. When you talk about the commercialization, the notion that the Woodstock nation was only just a kind of offshoot of the Pepsi generation was not too far fetched. I mean, Volkswagen started selling the Beetle van, the van with hippies, and that became kind of: give your friend a Coke. 

KCRW: You write about in the early parts of "The Magic Years" your own dynamic with your dad, who was a lawyer and expected you to become a certain kind of lawyer and behave in a certain kind of way. And in this weird way, it's like you go from one family to another, where there are battles taking place.

Taplin: Look, everyone has to make their own kind of personal decisions. And I assume we all have the weight of our families' expectations, weighing upon us. But I was lucky enough to just get introduced to this scene in 1965 that was so dynamic and so powerful, that I didn't see any way that I could not stay with it, if I could possibly find a way to earn a living in the music business. It was so much more exciting than the idea of going to Harvard Law School, that there wasn't any comparison. And my father, at this time, was dying of cancer. And I just decided that I wasn't going to tell him that I wasn't going to be the lawyer and go to Harvard Law School and do what he had imagined me doing. So then, I was kind of let off the hook, and I could do what I wanted to do.

 Lucky enough, a guy named Albert Grossman, who was Bob Dylan's manager and The Band's manager and Janis Joplin’s and Paul Butterfield’s, really was an incredibly powerful man. He took a liking to me and took me under his wing. And I moved up from the Jim Kweskin Jug Band to The Band to Dylan and I found a way to survive in the most exciting time that you could imagine in the music business.

KCRW: You are really good at noticing how quickly institutions develop in places where you wouldn't think there would be institutional behavior like a progressive labor party and the folk movement. All these places that become rigid that should be open to change and open to ideas.

Taplin: Yeah, and I think there's a certain kind of rigidity coming now into the left in the sense of not being as open to listening to other voices and trying to understand stuff. Richard Rorty basically says, Look, if you think that there's no difference between the Harvard faculty and the military industrial complex, if they've all sold you out, and they're all corrupt, then you have to make a revolution. That's your choice; you've decided that the whole thing has to be burned to the ground. And the problem for me is that kind of absolutism leads to a kind of dystopian view of the world.

If you think about the aspirational lift of those songs that I talked about at the beginning and you compare that to the kind of culture that comes post-9-11. Let's just say, for example, television. There's "The Sopranos" and "Mad Men," and "Breaking Bad" and "Game of Thrones" in succession. What unites all of those are this sense that a corrupt person, an antihero is living in a corrupt world and is seeking to keep power within that world. So the sense that it's all corrupt, and it's all screwed, and you're never going to get anywhere. 

The famous line at the end of "Chinatown”--“forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown”--kind of pervades the culture right now. And I think it pervades hip hop, too, in some ways. To me, that's a sad change, in the sense that the culture is not being hopeful, not pointing you towards a way out, but rather just reinforcing your view that if the whole world's corrupt, why don't we get a really corrupt guy to run the country? In 2016 that's what a lot of people decided. 

KCRW: One of my favorite pieces in this is the Robert Frank-Rolling Stone story where, in effect, Mick Jagger gives Robert Frank his career back, and you are a big part of that. I wasn't aware of all the machinations of it, including having to track him down, until I read your book.

Taplin: I had gone to the south of France, after I did the Concert for Bangladesh to audition for the tour manager job for a tour that would support "Exile on Main Street." And I had just gone through real hell, trying to get Eric Clapton on stage when he was much more interested in snorting smack. It immediately struck me that Keith Richards had the same problem. And it was hard enough getting Eric on stage for one concert, the idea of doing it night after night, I thought this is the “life is too short” club, and so I turned down the job even before they offered it to me and I went back to LA. 

About three months later, Mick's secretary called me and said, Could you come up to Mick's house? He's trying to think of what to do for an album cover, and he likes the album covers you and Robbie [Robertson] did for The Band's albums. As I was going out of the house, I grabbed this book called The Americans, which is by a Swiss photographer named Robert Frank, who went across the country in 1955. And it's full of these iconic images of a cowboy next to a jukebox that's glowing, or a Black preacher next to the Mississippi River, praying, and it felt like the album. 

And so I went over to his house, and we had dinner, and I gave him the book. I said, Mick, everyone knows what the Rolling Stones look like, why don't you just put one of these pictures on the cover? It's such an American album anyway. So we're going through it and he's saying, these are fantastic. I love this. I love it. He says, John, let's get this guy to take our picture. And I said, That's not the idea, and besides, these were taken in 1955. I don't even know if Robert Frank is still alive. And he says, Well, if he's still alive, put the word out that the Rolling Stones will pay him $20,000 to take their picture, and he'll show up, I promise you.

So I went back home and, the next morning, I called around and I found that he’s moved. He had been on welfare in New York, and he's moved to Mabou Nova Scotia, to live in his daughter's house. 

I managed to get him on the phone and then eventually, he made his way to Los Angeles, and the Stones put him up at the Beverly Hills Hotel in a bungalow. We went up to Mick's house, and Robert started regaling Mick with stories of Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg and he had this little Super 8 movie camera that every 10 seconds he'd pull up through his eye and just shoot like 10 seconds of these little snippets. One evening after dinner I saw him going through the trash bin in Mick's study and pulling stuff out and putting it in his pockets. And eventually, Marshall Chess, who was their manager, went bat---- and said, he has to take a picture today or I'm sending him home. So I said, Robert, we've got to go take a picture. He said, Well, you have to give me a camera. I haven't had a camera for years. And so I rented him a camera and we went downtown. He insisted that we go to the Grand Central Market.

Needless to say, for Keith to show up on time, in the late afternoon, at the Grand Central Market was a struggle. By the time Keith actually made it, the light was fading. Everything was just horrible. And Robert got maybe three snaps, and then Marshall Chess went crazy again, said he's going home tomorrow. And Mick said, Okay, but pay him the $20,000. And Marshall just said, Are you crazy? And Mick said he deserves the $20,000. And so, I took him to the airport and gave him a check for $20,000. And I thought, Well, that was interesting. 

Two weeks later, the entire double album cover for "Exile on Main Street" shows up in the mail. It's like a Rauschenberg collage made up of these little film strips, the scraps of paper that Mick had written lyrics on, old Robert Frank pictures, all this stuff, all put together in one thing. It was amazing, and it won the Grammy for Best album cover. And Mick was, of course, completely holding it over Marshall Chess to the level that he said, I want him to come on the road with us. 

KCRW: One of the things that people need to be reminded of is your involvement with getting “Mean Streets” to the screen and something that Quentin Tarantino once told me, which is that most of those actors in the movie came from an acting class Jon Voight was teaching.

Taplin: Yes, it's true. Jon Voight wasn't always the Jon Voight we know now. In those days, he was a good Hollywood liberal against the war in Vietnam. He'd done "Coming Home” with Jane Fonda, and he had an acting class. Marty [Scorsese] and I went one day to watch them do improv, and it was classic Hollywood acting class improv, and we were knocked out. Not only did they all look like they could be Italian American, but they also carried themselves with a certain panache that was perfect. Marty had already cast Harvey Keitel, who had been in his student film, and Bobby [DeNiro], at the recommendation of Brian De Palma, and so that filled out the cast.

KCRW: You seem to have an affinity, be it, Peter Kaminsky or Grossman or the Stones, to find people who were really passionate and didn't want to listen to what other people were saying.

Taplin: Absolutely. That's what drew me to Marty. I mean, look, it was totally naive and insane to think I could just come from the rock and roll business and become a movie producer. No one had ever used the word OPM to me: other people's money. So I didn't understand you weren't supposed to spend your own money, and I also didn't understand anything about the distribution system. 

It wasn't until after we had finished the movie that my lawyer told me, well, you know, there are only six places in the country that will buy this film. And they're all the majors because there was no Miramax in those days. There was no Fox Searchlight or companies looking for indie films; it was either the majors or nothing. 

The first screening we had with Universal, they told us well, this is not a movie for a major studio. And all of a sudden it just hit me. Oh, my God, I may have lost myself and my friends $500,000. I may not ever get this money back. But fortunately we went over to Warner Brothers, and John Calley, who was this force of nature, sat down beside me in this little screening room and said, this is the best movie I've seen all year. When the movie was over, he said, we're buying it. Don't sell it to anybody else. And it was that kind of thing in those days. He didn't have to ask anybody. There was no committee. He did the same thing for Terry Malick. 



Rebecca Mooney