Author Jonathan Taplin discusses autobiography Thursday at La Grua
Jonathan Taplin was standing on the stage wing when Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. He was at Monterrey Pop when Otis, then Janis and THEN Jimi individually and collectively blew up the possibilities of what a live concert experience could be. Woodstock? Larkin flew there in a helicopter, the better to ensure The Band made it the stage on time.
Indeed, Taplin, who was an English major at Princeton through most of these experiences, began serving a sort of unplanned apprenticeship with the iconic music manager Albert Grossman after a chance introduction to the man at the Newport fest. Ultimately, somehow, Taplin earned his Ivy League degree despite traveling nationwide with some of the premier rock and folk acts of the sixties.
Post degree, Taplin assumed all sorts of increasingly prestigious and important gigs in the music business, working and/or becoming friends with Dylan, The Band, Joplin, the Kweskin Jug Band, Judy Collins, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Jerry Garcia, the Rolling Stones, and on and on.
Over the years, Taplin's involvement in the arts segued into film — as a producer, owner of Lions Gate Films and creative partner with folks like Wim Wenders, Martin Scorcese, Bernardo Bertolucci and Gus Van Sant. Taplin's segue into an account of his life in movies is just as amazing and thought-provoking as the music section.
It should be added that Taplin also wrote "Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, And Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy," named by Financial Times one of the "Best Business Books" of 2017. Oh, and in 1996, Taplin invented Intertainer, the first streaming video-on-demand platform.
Taplin's latest book is "The Magic Years: Scenes from a Rock-and-Roll Life," and he appears Thursday for a talk/discussion at the La Grua Arts Center in Stonington as part of their "Good Stories Well Told" authors series.
"The Magic Years" is a fantastic and compelling memoir that goes far beyond quick-take, "What's (fill in rocker's name) REALLY like?" tease and into a comprehensive analysis of the mathematical twists between culture, art, history and politics. Yes, there are in fact plenty of delicious eyewitness anecdotes about Music and Rock Stars, but never in a gratuitous fashion. Taplin also smoothly nuances the high-wire delicacy between his own admitted "fanboy" astonishment and the objective reporting of a committed journalist who understands the importance of impartiality in the bigger picture of society.
Taplin doesn't stop his narrative with the glory years of rock but instead follows his own instincts and career path(s) in the fashion of an activist who believes in the power of art to change society — in spite of cultural and political developments the dewy-eyed Woodstock generation could never have anticipated.
"The Magic Years" is consistently entertaining and provocative. Readers will find themselves thinking about the wistful nostalgia for an era whose soundscape becomes more impressive with each subsequent musical generation, but will also learn the importance of connections going back to the dawn of American music. Too, Taplin speculates on the present and future of arts and culture and politics.
Earlier this week, Taplin spoke by phone from his home in southern California. He's a cheery, enthusiastic conversationalist whose erudite thoughts are delivered as though at a dinner party of close pals. He's also quick to point out a fondness for Connecticut and familial connections in West Hartford and Westport, adding he's never been to Stonington and is looking forward to the visit based on the community's storied reputation.
Here are excerpts from the conversation, edited for clarity and space.
Q: In the 1960s, your generation and its idealistic musicians, artists, activists and politicians genuinely believed you could change the country and the world — and generated signficant momentum. What happened?
A: It was really bad, quite honestly. We blew it. To be clear, there was an opportunity presented. Culture and politics were moving in the right direction. Nineteen-sixty-eight changed a lot. To have Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy killed within three months was a great blow to our generation. It taught me that, if you get into politics, it breaks your heart.
What do you do (instead)? (I got) involved with rock. The movement that started with Dylan was still advancing culturally but abandoned politics, which was a mistake because Nixon was elected president and the Boomer generation abandoned our ideals. Maybe we tried to recover in 2008 for Obama, but even that didn't turn out like we hoped.
Q: For a variety of reasons including technology, social media and endless sources of information and quick entertainment, people have a very limited attention span. What effect does this have on the power of music and the arts?
A: The artists have become as nihilistic and cynical as the Trumpers. Music is no longer the key force in culture. Starting with 9/11, when we became truly scared of terrorists, that mindset became television. And if you look at the programs that entranced us — "The Sopranos," "Breaking Bad," "Obsession" — they're all anti-heroic. They focus on essentially bad, corrupt people battling for power in a corrupt world. They're all doing horrible (things) because you can excuse killing people to be a good dad (Tony Soprano) or selling meth because you have cancer (Walter White).
Q: Art reflects society instead of changing it?
A: The world is corrupt. Culture is corrupt. (As one character says to Jack Nicholson's Jake Gittes in an immortal film moment) "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." If that's the way we think, why not have Tony Soprano as our president? And so we got Donald Trump. That's the saddest thing culturally to me. No one's singing "The time's they are a-changing" or "We shall overcome." And we're stuck in it until we start thinking positive. There are a few signs. "Ted Lasso" is popular; it's a positive show when everything else is dystopian.
Q: You do tell some amazing stories in the book that are a feast for music fans. But there's so much more. You COULD have just done a celeb tell-all project; clearly that wasn't anywhere near the point.
A: I had no interest in just telling dirt on people I worked with. I was more interested in helping myself and others understand the meaning of the '60s and '70s and what they might mean for my children and grandchildren — how you might you perceive a time when artists took a lead in trying to enable us all to lead a better life. Then, culture took the lead ahead of politics.
Bob Dylan was in Mississippi in 1963 singing for voters' rights, and two years later, LBJ initiated his civil rights campaign. It was the same with the Vietnam War. Politics would catch up with culture. But it's hard for us to learn lessons from history. My thought with the book was that looking at the cultural history of that time would be instructive.
Q: "The Magic Years" is passionate but articulate and well-reasoned. At the same time, your love affair with music shines through. I assume that's intentional.
A: A lot of the writing (of the book) was done listening to the music of that time, and my God, that was some good music! And one of my interests in writing the book was bringing people to that music and other music that's out there that's isn't as well know but is great just the same. One of the amazing things about our country is that we have such a rich cultural history. It's made of so many elements coming together. Fox News says immigrants are overrunning our culture. You listen to country music? Fiddle music came from Scotland, you numbskull!
I remember being on the road with the Band and we were in San Antonio and saw Doug Sahm and the Sir Douglas Quintet and their Tex-Mex rock 'n' roll. Then we went to Austin and saw Willie and Waylon and what they were doing to and with country music. On to New Orleans and Dr. John and Allan Toussaint — and we ended up in Memphis with Steve Cropper and Stax Records and completely different soul music. It was all supported locally by radio stations and the culture of the towns. Now? Well, Clear Channel bought all the radio stations, and there's one programmer with no clue, and they just eviscerated the whole thing.
But look, I was a college professor. I've tried to get people to pay attention. You were right about the core problem of our short attention spans today. But it's all out there if you want to find it. Louis Armstrong, Sir Douglas, Son House and Muddy Waters. You have to want to find it.
Who: Jonathan Taplin
What: Author discusses his memoir "The Magic Years: Scenes from a Rock-and-Roll Life" for the La Grua Center's "Good Stories Well Told" series
When: 6 p.m. Thursday
Where: La Grua Center, 32 Water St., Stonington
How much: Free, registration recommended
Good to know: Copies of the book will be available for purchase and signing
For more information: lagruacenter.org, (860) 535-2300