Jonathan Taplin on the Band, the Rolling Stones, and 'The Magic Years'
This week, I had Jonathan Taplin on the podcast to discuss how politics is downstream from culture—and whether the Band would be canceled today for the song, 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.'
This week, I talked with Jonathan Taplin about his new memoir, The Magic Years: Scenes From a Rock-and-Roll Life. Taplin’s life has put him at the crest of every major cultural wave in the past half century: he was tour manager for Bob Dylan and the Band in the ‘60s, producer of Mean Streets in the 70s, an executive at Merrill Lynch in the ‘80s, creator of the Internet’s first Video-on-Demand service in the ‘90s, and is now a cultural critic and author writing about technology in the new millennium.
The following excerpt has been edited for length and clarity:
Matt: Do you think the 1960s experiment of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll was destined for failure, or do you think it was brought down by external forces?
Jonathan: I actually believe that if Bobby Kennedy had survived, he would have been elected. He would have beaten Richard Nixon badly. And you think about the world history going forward, that alternative history of someone saying, “Okay, we're getting out of the war now, we're going to make justice the premier thing, and we're gonna make racial reconciliation the most important thing”—all the things that Bobby's said on the primary trail… It would have been a very different world in 1970. There would have been no Watergate. The war wouldn't have dragged on for another four years. All of that would have changed… which is not to say that there were huge mistakes made…
Matt: There's this idea that I think Daniel Patrick Moynihan, probably first identified, Andrew Breitbart popularized, and you also believe in, and it's the idea that “politics is downstream from culture.” It's an idea you mentioned several times in your memoir, but talk about it, what that means to you.
Jonathan: Let me just give you something that's much more contemporary. When I try and parse in my mind how the Trumpist dialogue arose of this sense of what Angus [Deaton and Anne] Case called “deaths of despair,” you know, people taking bad drugs, killing themselves, drinking themselves to death, all that, I try and think, “Where did that all get started?” And I look back to 9/11. And then I look at what happened culturally, right after 9/11. If we look at television dramas, you get The Wire, you get Sopranos, you get Madman, you get Breaking Bad, you get Succession, True Detective, Game of Thrones. What do they all have in common? They have an antihero. In other words, the bad guy is the person we're rooting for. And he may be a meth dealer, he may be a mafia chieftain, but he's nobody that you would actually want to hang out with. I mean, I don't think you want to live with the family of Succession, they would make you crazy. So what does that do? If you think that everything is fixed, and only the cheaters win, then that induces a certain kind of political turn of mind, which then leads to “Well, why not put Donald Trump in there, let him kick some butt, and that'll fix it?” And of course, it didn't. But that was the kind of ideological shift. That's an example of culture leading politics.
Matt: I completely agree. That's why I think violent video games actually could be one contributing factor to violence. And that's why I think that there is a responsibility for artists and people in entertainment. Isn't that basically making the argument that, in fact, works of art actually have consequences?
Jonathan: Absolutely. I mean, the songs of the early ‘60s were the songs we sang during demonstrations. They were ways of building solidarity. They were positive, though. The times they are a changin’… So I believe art does have a responsibility. And I think we're in a particularly neolithic age. Now, we may be escaping that. It may be that Biden will bring some other point and, and you know, I make the point in the book that in the early ‘50s, there was the same thing. It was called Film Noir. And all those movies, the bad guy always wins. In [the 1944 film] Double Indemnity, it’s let's kill your husband, and we'll cheat the insurance company, and we'll have a double win. Any Humphrey Bogart character from those early periods—they're all cynical, and corruption is everywhere. And that's the belief we have politically right now, and the culture put it there. And the culture has a responsibility to get it out of there. And, you know, to me, culturally, the only positive thing I really see happening is LeBron James and basketball players saying “vote,” you know. I'm looking more to them for cultural leadership than I am to Kanye West or or Jay-Z.
Matt: So I'm watching The Last Waltz [documentary about the Band] and I'm listening to The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and the line, “like my father before me, I took a rebel stand.” And then, there's a scene where they're doing an interview with Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson, and there's a confederate flag behind them. And I'm wondering if the Band would be canceled if they wrote that song today.
Jonathan: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, to me, is a great song. You could say, “Look, [William] Faulkner wrote about a lot of weird stuff.” It didn't mean that Faulkner was that kind of bad person. I think what Robbie tried to do was put himself in the place of an ordinary sharecropping dirt farmer and [explore] what the notion of pride is—when you feel you don't have anything to be proud about. And he was trying to negotiate that tricky thing. I think it's a very good song. I would be sad if it was a victim of cancel culture, but I don't think it has anything to do with that. And I mean, for me, a lot of what I have trouble with is people thinking about things that were made in 1936, or 1945, and judging them by contemporary mores. You know, Muddy Waters, singing, I'm a Man, you know, he'd get thrown out of the bar today, if he said, some of those things. You know, Louis Armstrong, all these people that I really admire, they were pushing some boundaries there. And I mean, you could even apply that to people criticizing Ernest Hemingway for being misogynist, but he lived in a different time.
Matt: As a liberal, who's a creative person, does it trouble you that a lot of modern progressives don't give an allowance for that same artistic license? What they would say is, “Culture does matter. And this song is normalizing the idea of the last cause. And that we shouldn’t have any tolerance for these traitors.” Does that bother you about progressives?
Jonathan: Yeah, it does. But, I mean, look, I would say I'm conservative in the sense that I like to conserve things. I think that America has this extraordinarily rich culture that it has created since the birth of the phonograph. And you can go through that culture and find lots of things that from the woke standard of 2021 that sound objectionable. And if you feel you need to protect yourself from hearing that stuff, I think you're missing a lot. You're missing Bessie Smith, you're missing Robert Johnson, you're missing Muddy Waters, and Sonny Boy Williamson, and Billie Holiday, and people just sing in stuff that by contemporary standards of how men and women negotiate with each other, are all off. They're all crazy, you know. And yet, it's great art.