Jonathan Taplin wasn’t present at the creation, but in rock & roll terms, he came close enough. He witnessed Bob Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival, saw Jimi Hendrix and many others at Monterey Pop, flew into Woodstock while working for the Band, helped coordinate George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, and was aboard the famous Festival Express, during which the Band, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and others rode a train around Canada, playing concerts along the way.
But those days were just the beginning of Taplin’s unique journey. Starting with Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets in 1973, he took a stab at movie production, a stint that also resulted in films like The Last Waltz, Until the End of the World, and To Die For; moved into the financial world as a media mergers and acquisitions exec on Wall Street; jump-started an early attempt at video on demand; and taught at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. In the latter job, he says, “Students would always say, ‘How did you have, like, six careers?’ And I said, ‘Well, you just have to stay open when something wonderful comes along. You have to be willing to say, oh, I’ll take a chance on that.’ ”
In 2017, Taplin became an author with Move Fast and Break Things: How Google, Facebook and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy, which examined the destructive role of social media. His new book, The Magic Years: Scenes from a Rock-and-Roll Life (out May 4th) glances back through his whole career. Currently retired but serving on several boards (including the Americana Music Association), Taplin, 73, spoke with RS about his path from music to movies to monetary matters.
Given that you’ve been out of the rock world in a full-time sense since the Seventies, why write this book now?
I came from a very aspirational, positive period of “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” and “We Shall Overcome,” where the individual had the power to change things. That view of the role of youth and the role of pop culture was very uplifting to me. And I thought it might be helpful to remind people that culture does sometimes precede politics. Quite honestly, the culture is kind of quiet. Musicians are not as much culture figures as LeBron James is. Who is the one out there saying, “Vote,” or, “Take the ballgame game out of Georgia”? The activism is coming from sports stars more than musicians today. That seems a little strange to me.
But some would argue that leading hip-hop figures like Kendrick Lamar are speaking out.
Maybe, but what did Jay-Z do this year? Made a deal for $300 million to sell his champagne label, while LeBron was out there every day trying to force the NBA to make voting easier.
In the Black Lives Matter movement, do you see similarities with what you witnessed during the civil-rights era of your youth?
Very much so. The ability of black and white and brown all to march together and feel a kind of collective unity reminds me very much of 1963 into 1965. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time an awful lot of times. And I have a lot of hope. I’m not down on the culture. I believe young people are going to change things a lot.
In your book, you write about how you started working for manager Albert Grossman after you met him backstage at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, when you were still a college student. Which in turn led you to meet Dylan and so many others. It sounds so casual.
It was casual. My brother was friends with [folk singer] Paul Clayton, who got me a pass, and there, Paul introduced me to Geoff Muldaur, one of the singers in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. Geoff and Maria [Muldaur] said, “We need a road manager to schlep instruments from stage to stage.” So I did that, and then they introduced me to Grossman, their manager. Albert had just signed Paul Butterfield. Alan Lomax was running a country-blues workshop on one end of this field. And on the other end of this field was the Butterfield Blues Band, and Lomax went just batshit because you could hear the electric music over the acoustic music. He tried to unplug them. Albert kind of wrestled with him, and Lomax went away.
Which is when you saw Dylan go electric, in a sense.
I walked with Albert and Muldaur back to the artists’ tent after that. Muldaur told all the Grossman artists in the tent how Albert had defended Butterfield and kept Lomax from unplugging them! And I saw Dylan just kind of smile at that. I actually believe he decided, “Well, I’ll play electric too,” just on the spur of the moment.
I promise you, there was no plan. They did a lame-ass rehearsal one night in somebody’s house in which evidently nobody did anything but smoke a lot of pot and laugh. I was there for the soundcheck on Sunday in the afternoon, and I could tell it wasn’t together at all. And then at night it was that famous story of just chaos.
What do many people get wrong about that night?
That, quite honestly, it wasn’t very good. The Butterfield rhythm section didn’t know what was going on. A tune like “Maggie’s Farm” was so far from 12-bar blues to be like Stravinsky. It goes on between two chords for like three minutes. [Bassist] Jerome Arnold was always watching Mike Bloomfield’s chording hand, because he was just lost and these weren’t shuffle blues tunes. [Drummer] Sam Lay was a little off his game too. And then Bloomfield just kept turning his guitar up louder. So out in the audience, all you could hear was his guitar, which was drowning out everything. If [Dylan] was going to do that, you probably ought to have rehearsed and done it better.
So were people booing or not? That’s another debate.
It wasn’t loud at first, but by the second and third tune, they were definitely booing.
You later moved to Woodstock, where Grossman was based, and started working with the Band as they made their second album in late 1968; then you tour-managed them for a few years. Robbie Robertson often talks about how difficult those years were. How did you see it?
Well, the first year was not very troublesome. Everybody was pretty well behaved from, say, June of ‘69 until June of ’70. Richard [Manuel] wasn’t drinking that much. Levon [Helm] liked sleeping pills, but it didn’t get to the bad spot. Rick [Danko] would snort anything that was put in front of him, but quite frankly, cocaine was not an issue in the late Sixties, and neither was heroin. There was a lot of pot being smoked. Richard always liked to drink, but at that point, he was only drinking at night. So the tours were pretty great, and the Band was fabulous live. By late ’70, early ’71, it began to get a little harder and I hired somebody whose sole job was to get Levon out of bed because I didn’t want to do that anymore.
How hard was that to do?
He pulled a Bowie knife on me once: “I don’t wanna get up!”
“Lee, we got to go to Chicago.”
And then Richard began to crash his car on a regular basis. Whenever people who’ve been dirt poor most of their life suddenly get a lot of money, they don’t think there are any limits.
By the spring of ’71, it was really beginning to be a problem for me. Fortunately, George Harrison showed up in Woodstock and was staying at my house one night and said, “Look, Ravi Shankar thinks we need to do a benefit for Bangladesh to make people aware of what’s going on there. Do you want to help me do it?” And I said, “Absolutely.” I spent the spring and summer of ’71 working on the Concert for Bangladesh with George. George was just so easy to be with compared to the kind of craziness that Levon or Richard were going through. George meditated for an hour every day, no matter what was going on. He was just calm. And being a Beatle, he lived on a level that most of us don’t understand.
We were once driving [in England]. He had the fastest Mercedes-Benz sedan ever with a V12 engine and he wanted to show me how fast it could go. We were on the M4 or one of those roads out towards Henley, and he took it up to like a 180 kilometers per hour or something absolutely insane. Then we see a cop and the flashing lights and we pull over. “Oh, Mr. Harrison. You have to be more careful.” He got a pass. There was no ticket issued. It’s like how they would have treated Prince Charles.
In planning the Concert for Bangladesh, you write about how you had to cope with Eric Clapton’s heroin addiction.
I had not really had any experience with heroin. At that point, none of the Band had done it. Robbie called Eric a “chicken junkie” because Eric snorted it. He didn’t shoot it in his veins. But he was definitely at loose ends in a way that I hadn’t seen. Garth used to tell me these stories of jazz musicians fighting those beasts, but I’d never seen it in person. And it was not pretty. During “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which George sang beautifully, Eric made a horrible mistake. He was so out of his mind that he picked up this big hollow-body Gretsch, which is not the guitar you want to use to play that solo. But he just blew it through so beautifully. It’s the most original solo.
Bob [Dylan] kept George guessing to the very last minute. He kept saying, “I got to go to Jersey to do something.” George was like, “No, you’re not — this is too important.” He appealed to Bob’s better angels and Bob hung in there.
You write that you were offered the job of tour-managing the Rolling Stones’ 1972 tour and passed. Any regrets?
No. I had just dealt with Eric, and just the nervousness of trying to get somebody onstage who was wrestling with heroin didn’t seem like it was worth it. Life was too short. I reached that point where I thought, maybe there’s a way to make a living where you don’t have to worry about a call at 3 a.m. because Richard has driven his car into a tree. The only person they call is the tour manager, right?
What was your first impression of Robert De Niro when you met him for Mean Streets?
He was a very low-key, very sweet kid. He’s only been at that point in two Brian De Palma movies, so he was not well known at all. During the movie, he adopted this attitude of staying in character offscreen, and he used to play mind games with his antagonist in the movie, Richard Romanus. He really never let up with Richard, who was just a nervous wreck all the time. But it shows onscreen. You can see out how much Richard’s character is intimidated by Johnny Boy, and so it worked. But he wouldn’t come out of character.
It’s not in your book, but in 1975, it was reported that you were considering making a movie out of Dylan’s “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.”
I was friends with a really wonderful director named Phil Kaufman, and we went to Bob and said, “We want to try and do a movie about this.” And Bob said, “OK, fine.” Bob was going to write some original music, plus we’d use the original tune it derived from. Phil wrote a long treatment that told the story. But the idea of a Western with music somehow just didn’t jibe with the studio system at that time. Bob liked the idea, but we never could get it financed.
After working on Mean Streets, what made you say, “I want to get out of rock & roll and keep doing producing movies”?
You put in all this effort with a bunch of strangers for a certain period of time, and then it’s done and everybody goes their own way. And you have something that sits in cans of film and exists for all time. It’s not a band where it’s ongoing and you’re always dealing with the egos. I’ve talked to [Don] Henley about this. I’ve talked to Bono about it. The idea of keeping a band together is one of the hardest things in the world. Imagine someone saying to Picasso, “You’re going to be in a band and there are going to be four other people who will have a say about what this painting looks like.”
With the Band, Robbie wanted out. Just trying to keep those other poor guys together was impossible. And history proved that it was impossible. It didn’t take long for them to start dropping dead.
Where in the Winterland Ballroom were you during the filming of The Last Waltz?
Off the side of the stage, right next to Marty. That movie really holds up. I’ve watched it again recently and I particularly like Van Morrison’s performance and Robbie and Eric doing the cutting contest on “Further On Up the Road.” I think all of The Last Waltz should go in a time capsule. Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Van, the Band, Dylan — it’s as good an indication of that period of music as it gets.
How was the mood given that it was the Band’s farewell?
It was sadness, but also joy, in that all those people had come out to say how important the Band was to their life. We didn’t pay anybody. Nobody came because we were dangling the Benjamins. Those people showed up to say, “Look, this is the Band, and I want to be there to say goodbye to them.”
In his memoir, Levon was very critical of The Last Waltz, down to saying Robertson was singing into a dead mic. How do you respond to that?
Here’s the deal. If you were a musician in 1969, it would not be obvious to you that the only people who are going to make money in 2001 would be songwriters. If you look at the royalty account for the Band — how much per album was going to the Band, split evenly, and how much per album was going to the songwriters — the royalties for the Band were three and a half times as much as the songwriters’.
But Robbie listened to Dylan, who said songwriting is like a bond — it keeps paying you money. And by the third album, Stage Fright, Robbie was doing it all. He was getting up at 9 a.m. and going into his studio at the piano or the guitar and writing songs because he needed 11 or 12 songs to make an album. And nobody was saying, “I want some of that song.”
So this is all revisionist history for people to say, “Levon should have publishing rights on all that music because he helped make the songs in the studio.” Not true. Robbie brought in the songs fully baked. Did Levon change the beat? Fine. But that’s not a songwriting credit. So by 2001, 2002, when Levon got sick and Napster eliminated royalty income from the old catalog, Levon was pissed because Robbie had money and he didn’t. And he looked back and thought the whole thing was a big scam, including The Last Waltz.
Look, Levon got movie jobs off The Last Waltz too. Phil Kaufman told me he saw Levon telling those stories and thought he could be an actor, so Levon was in [Kaufman’s] The Right Stuff. So I don’t have any tolerance for people who say Robbie’s a thief or something like that. It’s just not right.
How did you end up in the finance world in the Eighties?
I had no intention of going to Wall Street, but I happened to be making a movie at Walt Disney in 1984, and the studio seemed incredibly badly managed to me. A guy named Saul Steinberg started a corporate raid on Disney, and Disney management just went bananas and didn’t know what to do.
Two years before, I had bought from Robert Altman a studio called Lion’s Gate, and I had gone down to see the [billionaire investors] Bass brothers in Texas to get them to invest in this little tiny studio. So in the middle of the Disney situation, Sid Bass and [investor] Richard Rainwater called me and said, “We’re ready to save the Mouse.” We made this deal and the Basses paid me as their investment adviser. I made more money in two weeks than I had made in seven years, and I thought, “Whoa, this is great.” They said, “Will you go to work for our investment banker, Merrill Lynch?” I just had a young family. The movie business is really hit or miss. So I thought, “OK, a little security would be nice.”
How did friends in the rock world react?
Everybody was still kind of scrappy in those days. Nobody was super rich. Not even Bob was that rich in those days. So the fact that all of a sudden I was making ridiculous amounts of money was something they thought was kind of cool.
Were there similarities between your previous worlds and that financial one?
My boss at Merrill Lynch had been the head of SDS at Harvard in the Sixties. So the fact that major players on Wall Street or at Warner Brothers movies had been in SDS was kind of bizarre. They knew how to organize people, and that’s what they did in the Sixties. And by the Eighties, that was over, and they organized people in a different way. They organized deals.
In the Nineties, one of your post-rock ventures was Intertainer, a video-on-demand company that now sounds like the precursor to streaming services. Were you too early?
Yeah, a little bit. We needed more ubiquitous broadband than was available at the time. At one point we had 7,000 movies on the service that you could buy for $2.95 each. But broadband never came as fast as the telephone and cable companies said it would. But we pioneered a lot of stuff. We had to kind of invent video codec — with the help of Microsoft, which was an investor — to compress video better and make it look good. And that helped everybody, including Netflix. But it is what it is. You try your best and if your timing is wrong, you can go on to the next thing. It didn’t help that the major studios ganged up on us and cut off the oxygen [by withdrawing some of their movies]. We won the antitrust suit, so at least we got some satisfaction.
It’s now been four years since you published Move Fast and Break Things. How has your theory about social media played out since?
It’s played out exactly as I thought it would. When the book first came out, the English publisher said, “Oh, you have to take this phrase ‘undermine democracy’ off the subtitle. What’s the proof?” And I said, “Just hang in here with me and you’ll see.” And within three months, Cambridge Analytica was out in London.
The tech industry still has way too much power and is still undermining democracy. But the role of misinformation and propaganda in the last election was worse than I had imagined. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have a safe harbor they exist under, where you can’t sue them for anything on their platform. You’ve got to get rid of the liability shield and section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. And then they have to behave like even horrible people like Fox News have to behave, to at least correct the truth [when the network amended its initial coverage of the Dominion voting machines]. Biden has appointed some incredibly smart people to help him think through tech policy, and they are going to bring these companies to heel. I’m pretty confident about that.
Do you have a renewed sense of hope with Biden in there?
Yeah, I do. I think we’re headed into a very ebullient time financially, hopefully culturally. We’re at the end of an era and we’re heading into a new one. A lot can get done. If you look at the Federal Reserve’s personal savings chart, it’s through the roof. People have been saving their money because they haven’t been spending it on restaurants and cruises and travel. And now they’re going to come back into the world in the fall and people are going to want to go to concerts and want to go travel.
Plus, we have a secretary of state, Antony Blinken, who’s a Dylan fan.
I didn’t know that!
Jonathan Taplin’s new book, ‘The Magic Years: Scenes from a Rock-and-Roll Life,’ is out May 4th