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Jonathan Taplin may not be a household name, but he has been behind the scenes of some of the most influential moments in 20th century American music. As the description of Taplin’s latest book notes, the University of Southern California professor emeritus has made waves in every one of the past several decades: “he was tour manager for Bob Dylan and the Band in the ’60s, producer of major films 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 a cultural critic and author writing about technology in the new millennium.” Taplin joins Robert Scheer on this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence” to discuss his fascinating career as well as his friendships and encounters with Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Martin Scorsese, Eric Clapton, and many others, all of which is captured in his new memoir, “The Magic Years: Scenes From a Rock-and-Roll Life.”
In a wide-ranging conversation, Scheer and Taplin share personal stories about the ‘60s and ‘70s and break down how money corrupted the revolutionary music that emerged from that era. They specifically note the case of Bob Dylan, who started his career when music was not a lucrative industry and he and his music–partly inspired by the countercultural ideas the Beats had begun to explore before him–played a significant role in the political movements of his time.
“We have to worry about who [are] going to be the leaders of the culture,” says Taplin. “If I can think about the role that Sam Cooke or Bob Dylan played in the early sixties in terms of thinking about supporting the Civil Rights Movement, or even the amount of money that Louis Armstrong gave to Martin Luther King, which was a lot, and then I’d look to what happened this last fall–quite honestly, I was more impressed with what LeBron James was doing in terms of trying to get people to vote and forcing the NBA to open up all its stadiums so that people could vote in those stadiums, than I was with what, you know, Kanye West or Jay-Z was doing.
“Musicians are more thinking about selling their champagne company to Louis Vuitton than they are thinking about getting people to vote. So maybe now the sports stars are more the cultural heroes than the rock stars. That’s a kind of strange change and I don’t really know why that is.”
The “Magic Years” author also warns against the nihilism that many cultural figures have fallen prey to in recent decades. In response, Scheer, who also played an active role in the activist movements of the ‘60s, points to what he sees as the main culprit behind what Taplin labels nihilism.
“It seems that the ability of the [capitalist] system [is to get us] all to [sell out],” Scheer posits, “This is something that comes up in these podcasts all the time: don’t sell out, don’t sell out, don’t sell out. Suddenly–and Bob Dylan played a role in this–selling out became fashionable. And to resist selling out, that became being kind of out of it.”
Taplin, who joined Scheer previously on the show to discuss his book “Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy,” also outlines how the arguments of his previous book were illustrated vividly by the attacks on the Capitol on January 6. Listen to the latest conversation between Taplin and Scheer as they also discuss the intersectionality of class and race in American society, as well as examine how the revolving door between Wall Street and D.C. has helped establish and promote a type of capitalism that is destroying main street while making the 1 percent richer than anyone thought imaginable.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. And not just intelligence, vast experience in this case–Jonathan Taplin. Full disclosure, we both were on the faculty–I still am, I think you’re an emeritus now, of the Innovation Lab. So I know him as an academic, and trying to address the problems of the internet and the new media. And he wrote a terrific book [called] Move Fast and Break Things; we did a podcast on it. And he was really one of the first to say, OK, the internet may be in many ways the best of all worlds, but it’s also the worst of all worlds. He was an early alarmist about the internet; I think the concerns expressed in that book have unfortunately turned out to be true, and largely center around the indifference of the big tech giants for the well-being of civilization. So what else is new? What’s new is we thought the new technology would bring more enlightened capitalists; that has not generally been the case. We can discuss that. But I really wanted–I’m very excited about his new book, The Magic Years. And what is its subtitle? You can tell me–
JT: Scenes from a–
RS: Scenes from a Rock-and-Roll Life.
RS: And then you mention all these famous people: Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and so forth. And this guy did something which was really quite common in the sixties. He was on his way to becoming a rich lawyer on Wall Street, like the sort of activity his father had done; he’d gone to private school, exclusive and all that. And the trip was you go through the gentleman’s Ivy League of Princeton and then you go to Harvard Law School and then you get filthy rich, and you give a little money to charity, and you get to heaven because you’re an Episcopalian and that’s how you buy your way into eternal life, and so forth.
And in fact, like many young people in the mid-sixties, he said wait a minute, there’s another world going on here. And he managed to get through Princeton, but even right out of high school he started working with bands and so forth, and becoming a roadie. And then went on to–one of the, I think he exaggerates it a bit; I don’t think The Band and Bob Dylan represented the fulfillment of American music history. You have a sentence like that, and you end up with Springsteen and others who seem to me to have had a bigger or better impact. But we can discuss that. But this guy ends up in the middle of certainly one of the most interesting and misunderstood periods of American history, famously known as the sixties. And when he gets out of college in ’69, but even before, he’s working with these bands.
I’m going to let him tell that story. And that’s the bait to get you into this book. But really, what he has is a bird’s-eye view of the contradictions of capitalism. And again, the best and the worst; we don’t throw most artists in jail for their ideas, we reward them handsomely, they sell out, and then you go from idealism to nihilism. And he chases sort of the curve of the degeneration, the rise in degeneration of culture in America. I’m not going to put any more words in his mouth, so here you are, Jonathan Taplin.
And then, by the way, he ends up a very successful investment banker, movie-maker; there’s lots of stuff that he knows about. But at the end–and this is a Heyday book, you’ve got to get it and read it for yourself–it’s worth reading if you really want an insight into the pitfalls of modern capitalism. Not from somebody who got bankrupted and miserable–I mean, there are plenty of those–but from some guy who could really work within the system, but found it did not lead to the good life. And in fact, let me just quote your estranged, one of your–your ex-wife; I know your current wife, she took my picture once. But one of your previous wives called them–what did she say, they were without soul?–
JT: Hollow men.
RS: Hollow men. It is actually my favorite line in the book. And you disagree with her–no, I met a bunch of good guys at Merrill Lynch, and I met–and I kept thinking, no! You’ve been trafficking with hollow men. So take us through that journey briefly, take whatever time you want.
JT: Well, it started on my way to Princeton in 1965. My brother was a friend of a guy named Paul Clayton, who was an ethnomusicologist at the University of Virginia, and my brother had been involved in some sit-ins, and they got to be friends. And Paul Clayton was one of these great collectors of folk music. And so Paul Clayton got me into the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, and I met a young group called the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, which was a folk music group: Geoff Muldaur, Maria Muldaur. And they needed a road manager, and I volunteered. And their manager was a guy named Albert Grossman, and Albert Grossman was the power player in the music business in the mid-sixties. He managed Bob Dylan; Peter, Paul and Mary; Odetta; Dave Van Ronk; Paul Butterfield; you name it and he managed them.
And so I got introduced into this circle of Grossman’s artists, and it just so happened that at that festival, Bob Dylan made the decision–I think on kind of the spur of the moment–to go electric, and that is play rock-and-roll at the Newport Folk Festival. And this caused a kind of backlash where the folkies got very mad and started booing him, and he eventually walked off the stage really early. And it was a kind of breakpoint, where rock-and-roll and the poetry of folk music merged. And so I continued, while I was at Princeton, to work on the weekends for Grossman, first for the Jug Band, then for Janis Joplin, then eventually for The Band and Bob Dylan. And you know, I was fortunate enough to go to Woodstock with The Band, and take Bob Dylan and The Band to England to play the Isle of Wight, and got to meet the Beatles.
And so I was just this 18-year-old kid, eventually 21-year-old kid, in the midst of this kind of cultural revolution. And to me, in some sense, I always felt that at least in the early sixties, that the culture preceded the politics. That Bob Dylan was singing at the March on Washington with Joan Baez and the Chambers Brothers, and that was three years before, you know, Lyndon Johnson put forth the voting rights bill. And so in some sense, the artists were leaders of that change. And of course, as the years went on, the revolution took on a more cultural, as opposed to a political, sphere. And you know, Woodstock was clearly a breakpoint also, in terms of that. I continued on to work with The Band, and then I worked with George Harrison to do the Concert for Bangladesh, which was the very first–
RS: You know, you’re making this sound quite anemic. You took drugs with The Band. There were wild scenes. You saw what all the other people wanted to see. So you were in the middle of it, and you’ve got the photographs in the book to prove it. So let’s not make this too cut-and-dried; you were there during a period that people have evoked as the most exciting–right, where was that damn place at the hot springs–Esalen. You were there when everybody was running around naked, and free love, and so forth–
JT: Right–no, no, look–
RS: Yeah, go ahead.
JT: No, you’re right. You’re right, it was a crazy time. You know, you would finish a concert, and you know, pretty regularly there would be some kind of orgy in the hotel afterwards. [Laughs] Ah, you know, we went to Esalen for the Big Sur Folk Festival, and everybody dropped acid. And, ah, so in some sense–but there was always a tension between–I mean, Esalen–the Big Sur Folk Festival was really interesting, because David Harris, who you well knew, had married Joan Baez, and he was trying to get everybody, you know, to resist the draft and everything, and other people were dropping acid. And so there was a tension between the political and the cultural.
And, look, I don’t want to sugar-coat any of this. I saw people I cared for, like Janis Joplin, die because of stupidity. I mean, Janis didn’t want to kill herself, but she just made a mistake with some heroin. But you know–Jimi Hendrix died, Otis Redding died. I mean, all the people I saw at the Monterey Pop Festival that really knocked me out, all were dead within two-and-a-half years. So I mean, this is not to say that this was an era of peace, love, and understanding. It was an era where a lot of people were pushing the edge. And some of that turned out well, and some of it didn’t turn out so well.
RS: Let me just set the record, help you set the record a bit. Because you came in a little bit after I had some experience with this. But one of the good things–it’s a really important book, by the way. Let me repeat it, The Magic Years. And I’m unabashedly saying that; I think it’s a really invaluable part of the history. And not just because it doesn’t mince words, and it shows the downside and upside, but you raise very fundamental questions.
And you point out that this sort of hippie music scene didn’t come from nowhere. There had been something called the Beat revolution before. And the book is particularly effective at connecting the music, the cultural revolution of the sixties, with a period that preceded you. I mean, it goes back to Kerouac in 1951 or so, it was all the rebellion against the fifties, against the arrogance of something that you play with in the whole book, about the notion of American exceptionalism. Something your father believed in very deeply, something that was in the culture of Shaker Heights, Ohio, where you grew up. This whole idea that America somehow represented the future of humanity, the best hope of humanity. And your book, like a dog with a bone, keeps playing with that idea and challenging it.
So, too, did the musicians. And one of the things that got them going–and one thing you do point out about Bob Dylan is that he had respect for history that preceded him, both musically, culturally. And so you talk about Kerouac, you talk about On the Road, you even got one fact wrong I think–I don’t think Ferlinghetti was part of the Columbia crowd around Ginsberg and so forth; he was an older figure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet who recently died at 102 I think, 101. But just nit-picking here. But the connection between the hippies and the music scene and the cultural scene, and what had come before–the door was opened by the Beats, challenging the arrogance of American culture. Now, you may not agree with that, but that’s what I got out of the first part of the book.
JT: I totally agree with it. I mean, I think not only the Beats, but I also think that the bebop generation of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, which preceded, you know, came in the late forties, kind of opened the door as well to a kind of first version of a counterculture. And you know, you’re a bit older than me, and you probably had more of a sense of the oppressiveness of American conformity, McCarthyism in the fifties. And you know, I mean, to be Kerouac or Ginsberg or any of those people in the fifties was a really radical move. I mean, by 1965, long hair was not that unusual, but in 1950, it was pretty, it was pretty radical to do that.
Now, I also think, though, one of the things that interested me was that in the early fifties, there was a film genre which we called film noir. And film noir was a very cynical kind of sense of, well, the fix is in; you know, the detective always believes that everyone is corrupt, and double indemnity, we’re going to go screw the insurance company, and do that. And I see a parallel between that, and of course that came right after dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and everything. And I see a parallel with that with the post-9/11 culture of The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Succession, all of this TV that to me is equally nihilistic, equally dystopian, equally feeling that the fix is in, and that the bad guy is always going to win. And to me, when culture does that, it becomes a problem, quite honestly.
RS: Well, let’s talk about culture as a problem. Beyond culture being the problem, it’s the money behind culture. And the real, I mean the importance of your book, is that you dealt also on the money end. You end up at Merrill Lynch; you end up dealing with the big players at Disney; you know, Harvey Weinstein grabs you by the shirt and drags you across a restaurant, right?
RS: Yeah. I didn’t make that up, right–
RS: –that was in the chapter, you know. [Laughs] So, I mean, you’re also the guy who, yeah, you dropped acid with the players, but you also had to make sure they got to the concert, and you had to make sure the equipment worked, and you had to make sure they had a good deal, and they weren’t screwed by the industry. And so you are really–I didn’t appreciate this when we were both at the University of Southern California, or I would have spent more time talking to you, frankly. But having now read your two books since that time, I regret that I didn’t spend more. Because you are actually one of the, you know, most significant observers of that time. Because you could see both sides of it.
And I know something about that. I was a friend of Bill Graham. You know, I was involved with him with the Mime Troupe–he shows up in your book–I was involved with him with the Mime Troupe when they put on the first concert with Jefferson Airplane and so forth. And he turned to me on his little motor scooter and I was on the back, we’d just gotten a chopped liver sandwich at David’s Delicatessen, you know, two guys from New York. And he says, “This is the business of the future.” We saw this line going around and around the block, and he got the Fillmore the next day. Well, you discuss, you know, The Band playing at the [Winterland] that Graham was running.
So there’s a lot of points–and I happened to be working at City Lights Books, where Lawrence Ferlinghetti was the owner, when Bob Dylan came in, in a scene described in your book. So I know the accuracy of your vision here, ’64 and he comes in, he wants to actually–he tells me–he wants to thank Lawrence Ferlinghetti for being the one guy at the Gate of Horns who liked his music or his lyrics or something. Ferlinghetti said, I didn’t like it, I thought his sound was all off and he was on drugs, you know. [Laughter] But I happened to be there when he came in. So a lot in the book that I know about, even preceding your presence, going back to the early sixties with people like Judy Collins, who’s been a friend, and others. You know, it is an accurate, as far as I know, really accurate portrayal on the good, the bad, the ugly and everything.
I want the readers to understand something, the significance–one reason to read this book. You really provide an explanation of the mess that we’re in now. And the book, you know, now here comes the Princeton scholar–you’re a bright guy, you know, clearly, managed to get through Princeton even though you were running rock-and-roll bands and everything. And you know, and I know you as a faculty member at the Annenberg School; it’s a great school, and you did a great program, the Innovation Lab, and I read your other book.
But there’s a really important question raised in this book that everyone has to address, and that is the corrupting power of our culture. We all know about the corrupting powers of theocracies and totalitarian governments and Marxist–that’s all clear out there, you know. But what we really, really address is the corrupting power of our own culture, and particularly our market system. And why don’t you talk about that a little bit? Because that’s kind of the big theme of the book. And it’s interesting; you talk very favorably about Martin Luther King. You actually quote his remarks the night before he was killed. Well, we now know there’s a lot of evidence that–he had a fear of death; that fear of death in part was planted by our own FBI.
And ironically, and let me just get to my punchline I was going to get to at the end, your other hero from that period–and you were not alone–was Bobby Kennedy. And I happened to be interviewing Bobby Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel, and he said stay here, I’ll come back, and he went down to give his remarks, when he was shot. And so I knew Bobby Kennedy at that point, that he had idealism, that he had the concern about what was happening in the world. But I also know–and there’s actually some recent movies, a very good movie Sam Pollard make about the death of King–that Bobby Kennedy, his attorney general went along with Lyndon Johnson allowing J. Edgar Hoover to blackmail King and actually force him to consider suicide and so forth. And they had him under surveillance, so you know, how did he get killed if they had him under 24/7 observation, as we know.
And so it’s very interesting. And when you try to understand the contradictions of the system, it seems to me the theme that runs through your book is the corruption of money and the market. That you can just distort all purpose. And you had a model from your philosophy classes about the examined life and the questioning life and the ideal life. And that model ends up crashing with the reality of commercial music and politics and life. Maybe you could state it in your own words more effectively that I can.
JT: Absolutely. I mean, I think where it really, these contradictions really raised their head for me was in the mid-eighties. I had been producing movies at Walt Disney when a corporate raid was started by a guy named Saul Steinberg, with the help of Mike Milken. And these were two guys that kind of had cornered a market in what was called junk bonds. And their intent was to break up Walt Disney and sell off the studio, sell off the theme park, sell off the consumer product company, and make billions of dollars. And you know, this guy Milken singlehandedly then went on to finance Rupert Murdoch’s Fox networks, went on to finance Clear Channel so that they could finance Rush Limbaugh. And he had a very clear vision that what America needed was less regulation and more debt. And so he was able to raise money for a lot of corporate raiders that kind of changed the whole nature of what capitalism was. And of course now, the money is so big that these companies can’t take any chances. I mean, if you think about a movie like Mean Streets, that Warner Brothers bought for $700,000–
RS: Which you produced with Martin Scorsese–
JT: I produced.
RS: –yeah, really one of the more important movies made in America.
JT: Yeah. But this is a little movie that a guy named [unclear] fell in love with and said, well, we’re going to buy it and we’re going to put it out. Now, that wouldn’t happen today. You know, these companies, Disney is into making Marvel movies, and Warner is into making Superman movies. And in general, the kind of more artistic films that we were trying to make are having a very hard time getting seen at all. You know, strangely enough, Netflix makes some of them.
But I do think that the other thing we have to worry about is who is going to be the leaders of the culture. So I mean, if I can think about the role that Sam Cooke or Bob Dylan played in the early sixties in terms of thinking about supporting the Civil Rights Movement, or even the amount of money that Louis Armstrong gave to Martin Luther King, which was a lot, and then I’d look to what happened this last fall–you know, quite honestly, I was more impressed with what LeBron James was doing in terms of trying to get people to vote and forcing the NBA to open up all its stadiums so that people could vote in those stadiums, than I was with what, you know, Kanye West or Jay-Z was doing. Musicians are more thinking about selling their champagne company to Louis Vuitton than they are thinking about getting people to vote. And so maybe now the sports stars are more the cultural heroes than the rock stars. And that’s a kind of strange change. And I don’t really know why that is, you know.
There’s a really good book about this movie Chinatown, which you and I have discussed a couple of times before. And Chinatown is like those film noirs I talked about, in which–“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” Right? In other words, the fix is in, and you’re never going to fix this city, and everything.
RS: We should explain for people–because I know, teaching, that a lot of people haven’t seen it. It’s about the theft of water in the building of L.A., the invention of L.A., and the Mulholland plan and so forth, yeah.
JT: Exactly. And that these powers that control things are beyond the power of any individual to control them. And the writer Sam Wasson says some really interesting things. He says, unlike Gatsby’s green light, or even Ahab’s whale, which were aspirational symbols, there’s nothing in Chinatown like that. It’s all like–the fix is in, it’s nihilistic. And that’s my worry. My worry is that our culture has become so much a culture of the antihero, that there isn’t a hero. If you think about “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” or “We Shall Overcome,” or “Blowin’ In the Wind,” those were aspirational, hopeful songs. But I don’t hear those kind of songs today. And that worries me. And whether that’s a factor of money or not, I don’t know.
RS: Of course it’s a factor of money. I mean, it’s very interesting. The Dylan that I met [Laughs] the first time when he came to San Francisco, was a guy–it was before the Columbia record was coming out. I knew some friends of his that introduced me and so forth. And this was not a way to make a lot of money, dragging your guitar around. And in fact the people, as you point out in your book, who made up The Band had the white experience of poverty and small town and desperation–that, by the way, fuels a lot of the Trump base now. I mean, reading your book about where that band came from and what they had been doing when they were the Hawks, right, is a real insight into the quiet desperation of much of white America, which allows them to go for a Trump, or leads them to go for it.
But I think–and I must say, while I think this is a wonderful book, you throw out a hand grenade there, but you don’t let it–it doesn’t sort of explode the way it should. And that is the power of entrenched wealth. Entrenched wealth in America. And you tasted it a little bit when you went to the, not quite Groton, but the next in line, Brooks I think, school, which trained people, private school system. And we’ve had this–and even in your praise of Jefferson. You begin and end the book, Jefferson was great. But we also have had a reawakening about Jefferson, and his idealism; we know he was a racist, we know he was a slaveowner, we know he was given to corruption, taking advantage of his slaves. And I’m saying this not to tear down America, but to describe its reality.
And the big question about America now is, is it an empire out of control? Or is it a struggling democracy trying to deal with the complexity of technology and so forth? And I think it has been, ever since the genocide against Native Americans and the reliance on slavery for its prosperity and so forth, it has been an empire. And empires by their nature, as you quote John Quincy Adams, by their nature–I mean, your book is full of great wisdom; I’m not presenting an alternative view. But you know, John Quincy Adams was what, the sixth president–
RS: Warned us that–
JT, RS: If we become an empire–
RS: –we destroy any hope of democracy. This was a–
RS: Right? Tell us about it. Go ahead, I’m sorry.
JT: America does not go in search of monsters, he said. In other words, our job is not to go patrol the world.
RS: Or “should” not go in search of monsters. He warned if you do, you will end up destroying any hope of democracy. And you know, look where we are now. We’ve just gone through a pandemic, and the richest have gotten filthy–I mean, rich, you can’t even describe it. You can’t describe–I mean, the money you made, which I’m a little bit envious of here, I’m working at age 85, I don’t have what you say is your security. But the fact of the matter is, you made chump change, successful as you were. You got people now, the billionaire class, right?
RS: And they just, what, doubled their money in the pandemic while the rest of us are suffering. I mean, it’s incredible.
JT: Well, look, in the final chapter I–
RS: That’s your next book, has to be on capitalism.
JT: I agree. I mean, in the final chapter, I said that in my lifetime, I cannot remember a single time when we were not at war with somebody. You know, in other words, I grew up in an era when the CIA would try and overthrow the regime in Guatemala or Iran, and then we got into Vietnam, and then we got out of Vietnam and then we got into, you know, wars in Iran, Iraq, the Middle East. And we have never not been at some small-level conflict somewhere in the world, my whole life. And that, to me, is this tragedy of our belief that for some reason America has the right to tell everybody else what to do. That’s the basis of American exceptionalism. Somehow we see clearer, we see farther than anyone else, and we have the right to go around and do that.
So I mean, I do believe that it’s a tragedy. But I also believe that we can’t–you know, I talk in the middle about what happened, and this is something that I think you experienced as well. That when some of the best and the brightest in the Students for a Democratic Society broke off and formed the Weathermen, there was a sense again of a certain kind of nihilism. And in the same sense that when Stokely Carmichael told the white kids to get out of SNCC–we can make mistakes too by overcompensating in that sense. And you know, I quote Richard Rohr, who said if you think there is no difference between the military-industrial complex and the Harvard faculty, then you have no choice but to commit revolution, right. I don’t happen to believe–I believe there’s a difference between the USC faculty and the guys who run Lockheed Martin, you know.
And so I think we have to be careful that we don’t think, ah, well, it’s all screwed and there’s no hope. Because partially the problem is, if people don’t have any hope, then they say well, screw it, I’m not going to be involved in politics. And that’s a problem.
RS: Yes, but let’s think back to when you were a younger man. Let’s talk about Bob Dylan, because he’s obviously a major figure in your life and in our culture. And I forget about whether he used electronic or he used just strings, I’m not going to go there–and you, by the way, reveal a great deal of knowledge about music in the book, some of which I had trouble following–you know, why they can do this riff. But as somebody who’s been at a lot of, particularly jazz clubs and things like that, it was really an eye-opener. The book is really a good–I just want to stress, we’re having our discussion here; that’s not an excuse or a reason not to read the book. Because the book is really rich in detail of a kind you want. So let’s just take one that you know really a lot about. And I don’t think the issue between the early Dylan and the later Dylan is one whether he used electronic music or not. There was a clarity. When Dylan says–and it’s quoted in your book–he says, who is he saying it to, if you want to have a message, go to Western Union.
RS: Who is he–
JT: He said that to Nat Hentoff.
RS: That’s right. Nat Hentoff was a great, by the way, jazz critic, I’m a great admirer. The fact is, Nat Hentoff believed you need messages, because that’s what truth is. And he thought even though jazz didn’t primarily have lyrics–it had lots of messages that were important messages of freedom and exuberance and so forth–there’s no question in my mind, and I don’t have your expertise, that the early Dylan that I responded to–I responded not because it was folk music, which you know, you can take it or leave it–but there was a clarity, there was an impact to his language, to his lines, you know.
RS: And you couldn’t–you had to decide: are the times changing? Are you going to sell out? Are you going to work on Maggie’s farm? You know, it was very specific. That message, I would say, gets muffled at around the time when there are a lot of other positive things about The Band, but when you get involved–[Laughs] I’m not saying you caused it–that message is getting muffled. And one thing you bring up in your book, suddenly–Judy Collins is somebody I very much admire, and actually consider a friend. When you mentioned oh, now she’s making $20,000 on a concert, OK. You mention, you talk about the Diggers–this book is so rich in detail, and we’re going to run out of time–again, you got to read the book. But you talk about these people, Peter Coyote, a guy I have tremendous respect for, an actor who was involved with Emmett–what was his name–
RS: Grogan. And they had the idea they could actually go to the Grateful Dead, they could go to The Band and so forth, and say hey, you know, give your music away free in Golden Gate Park and everything. And then you come in with the business side, and you say, no. You know, there’s a lot of money being paid for this, there’s a lot of money that we’re not going to leave on the table.
And I just want to get back to that point. It seems that the ability of the system–we all–and this is something that comes up in these podcasts all the time: don’t sell out, don’t sell out, don’t sell out. Suddenly–and Bob Dylan played a role in this–selling out became fashionable. And to resist selling out, that became being, you know, kind of out of it. Now, you have your exceptions in your book. You point out Bruce Springsteen, you point out John Lennon, you point out–you know, yes, and you’re pointing out LeBron James: that you can, yes, be successful and still do the right thing and keep your integrity. But it’s a real struggle.
JT: You know, I’ve been trying to think about why LeBron took such a lead in the fall. And I think that it’s, he’s almost untouchable. In other words, there’s nothing–nobody’s going to tell LeBron he can’t play, right? Whereas even, you know, a Jay-Z or a Kanye West or someone like that, could get put down. I mean, look what happened to Prince for a while. He had to go on strike because they wouldn’t let him release his music the way he wanted to do. In other words, there are very few people in the culture who are at such a level that nobody can criticize them. So they have the balls to get out there and wear a T-shirt that says “vote” every day before he goes, while he’s warming up for his basketball games, and get everybody else on his team to wear the same T-shirt, and get the NBA to pay for $10 million worth of ads to get people to go to vote. You know, I mean, that’s a rare situation.
RS: Let me offer a different explanation. Maybe it’s that–and I heard, remember Ernie Wilson, our dean at Annenberg, a Black guy, right. Family of three generations had gone to Harvard, he went to Harvard and everything. He came into my class and he once said, you know, yeah, I’ve been part of the establishment and so forth. But you know what? When my sons are walking around L.A. or going somewhere, they experience racism–if they’re stopped by the cops. I think that became the motivating factor for these athletes.
Now, this gets to the business end. What the system used to be able to do–the old system we talked about, and there is a system–they would say, yeah, but you’re going to hurt sales. And as long as they kept it as an individual, Colin Kaepernick speaking out, it worked. You don’t have a career. That’s a recent example. You don’t have a career. But once with these killings and this outrageous, you know lack of justice, and what we see, suddenly a large number of people say wait a minute, that could be my kid or my cousin or something.
And what I’m asking you about–because you were there. You were there. What was the smell of money and success? It must have been–I just want you to think about that for a minute, because you know this better than anyone. What was the intoxicating–because you point out, some escaped it, some still did the right thing, but very few. Mostly, it became a business.
JT: Well, look. I mean, I make a speculation in the book about Bob Dylan’s shift. I think he was shocked by John F. Kennedy’s assassination. I think he was really scared by it, in the sense that he had had people who were obsessed with him, who would try and get into his dressing room, who would try and get up on stage with him and everything. And he knew the power of the crazies, right. And so I think he got a little scared, quite frankly. As far as, you know, if you think about someone like Neil Young, who wrote “Ohio”–after Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young was quite successful they wrote some pretty radical songs; “four dead in Ohio,” you know, about the shooting at Kent State.
So I mean, I don’t think everybody sold out. I do believe that money has a lot to do with it, and you know, I think some musicians have sold out and don’t want to talk about politics. But at the end of the day, I think they also need to step up. That’s what the end of the book calls for, is that the artists have to get back involved in this.
RS: Well, I don’t think the choice is one of despair or optimism. But we don’t want false optimism. And I think if I combine both of your books, you’ve laid out a pretty depressing, dystopian future. Because a lot of us are invested in this new technology as liberating, including many of our colleagues when you’ve been in the academic world. You know, that you learn the right–create the right app, you learn this, you learn that, and you’ll be free, you’ll have access to information and so forth. And then we see how manipulative, we see how it’s used for surveillance, we see how it can intimidate people, manipulate them and so forth.
And yeah, there are positive signs, like you say, with some of these documentaries, particularly on Netflix and HBO; they’re good. But you know, how long does that last? And you have a situation now, as you point out, actually in both books. You point out that we don’t live in Adam Smith’s capitalism; we don’t have an invisible hand; we aren’t free. This very notion of “free”–we actually live in a society that can undermine our freedom in ways that we don’t notice. You know, at least– I mean, I actually happened to be in Moscow with Yoko Ono at some conference where there was a whole bunch of people, you know, from the music scene as well, under Gorbachev. You know, it was very clear that–you know, the newspapers in the old Soviet Union just lied. They told you what the government, the party, would want. There was no question.
The average person knows that; they know the game is rigged. And what is the specialty of mass culture in America is to deny that the game is rigged, and to leave you with the illusion of freedom. Your book questions, are we really free? That’s what your book raises. And there are moments when culture helps. By the way, your book ends kind of depressing in 1969-70, but you know, politics went on after that, right. And there were other people who picked it up, not necessarily the famous artists, a few of them. And there are, right now there are people raising issues, no question about it. But the fact is, there is something systemic about it, and you’ve been in the belly of the beast. You know what it means to wave a big check. You know what it can do. You do this, and no one you ever care about in your family will ever have to worry about going without, forever, if you do that one.
JT: But Bob, you talked about being in the Soviet Union, and how the propaganda from the government news agencies was so obvious. But think about today. You know, here we have a company like Facebook that has, you know, 200, 300 billion users, and makes no attempt whatsoever to try and tell you the truth. If anybody–you know, how was it possible for Donald Trump to convince 35% of America that the whole election was rigged, or that the voting machines switched votes from him to somebody else, or that Antifa was responsible for the attack, the insurrection in the Capitol? How is that possible? Well, it’s Facebook. I mean, let’s be honest. Fox News–if Tucker Carlson is lucky, he gets a million and a half people on any given night on his show. But then he puts it up on Facebook and he gets a hundred million people to watch a little clip of the nonsense that he spouts. And so to my mind, I’ve felt since the very beginning when I wrote Move Fast and Break Things, is that these companies, the social media companies, are totally undermining democracy. And until we fix that, I don’t think there’s much hope.
RS: OK, so let me–we’re going to stretch this just a few minutes. Because I think we’re at a really interesting point, perhaps of difference, but OK, so will you bear with me for a second?
RS: OK. I understand full well the dangers from Google and Facebook and so forth; I put out an internet publication, and I know right now you can’t find the readership that you would have been able to find three, four years ago. The game is rigged in that respect. And so we’ve lost–we talk endlessly about net neutrality–but we lost the most important definition of net neutrality, which was not that it’d be free, but that Google actually has to have its search engines searching what’s out there. They don’t do that anymore. So if you, you know, maybe if you’re well-established and you can get on the Apple News–most people are turning to their Apple page or their Google page and they’re finding out what’s important. And so what used to be the counterpress–Ramparts magazine for example, which I did in the sixties–doesn’t have a chance now. You don’t exist.
And when they came, when the Twitter feed cut off the President of the United States [Laughs]–you may agree with that or not, but the fact is these private, supposedly private companies can just say the President of the United States cannot talk to his Twitter people, or you know, can’t get out there, can’t get on your Facebook page–that’s interesting. Now, it doesn’t rise to a Constitutional assault, because we give all this power to the private sector. But as you and I know, these companies are very much connected with government. And they are doing things in part to curry favor, if not with the Republican Party with the Democratic Party; they’re very fearful of regulation and so forth. And you have a dangerous situation when Amazon is a major defense contractor, building the [cloud] for the intelligence agencies; they lost out to Microsoft on the Pentagon, but they are, you know, part of the military-industrial complex. Google came out of DARPA and so forth. I mean, they care about foreign policy decisions and what have you.
And what I came away from your book being reminded of–now, you can take issue with this–you were talking about the best and the brightest not being so wonderful. You know, after all, deregulation is a big thing in your book, that you need regulation. OK, well, who destroyed it? It was Bill Clinton. I mean, sure, the Republicans wanted it, but Bill Clinton pushed through the major deregulation–
JT: I agree.
RS: –on the Telecommunications Act, Financial Services Modernization Act, you know, all of these things. And you mentioned Harvard–OK, I’ll give ‘SC a pass; we’re Trojans. But how do you explain Lawrence Summers having been the head of Harvard when he was probably the main person who led deregulation, right, freeing the banks and all that?
JT: Because there is an establishment. And you and I both know that. I mean, I would even say that Barack Obama came in, and who did he appoint to fix the banking mess that had been created? The very people that created it. Larry Summers and, you know, Tim Geithner. They were the ones who were responsible for it, and so he hires them to fix it. Well, we all know how that worked out. So I mean, no, look, there is nothing that works correctly, because there is–I believe there is an establishment, and that they’re the American exceptionalists. And just as, you know, Allen Dulles believed that the business of America is business, and what Wall Street wants Wall Street should get, anywhere it wants, all over the world.
So, look, what worries me more is what I call digital repression. And that is the ability of governments to use these digital technologies to repress their citizens. You know, I had an interview this morning with a guy in India, and Modi’s party is using the internet to spread incredible lies against people that are running against them in a regional state election. I mean, just out-and-out falsehoods. And they’re using their power. And as you pointed out, Google used to be a neutral search engine; now it’s an advertising system that you have to buy your place on the search hierarchy in the thing. The first 10 links are all bought and paid for.
RS: Yeah. And the best thing on the internet–we can end on this, because I agree with you on this–Wikipedia, in my view, is the best thing to come out of the internet. I actually send, I don’t know, a small amount every month, so does my wife and everything. And yet, what has happened? Wikipedia is no longer–if I want to look up your name, which I did this morning, and see about you, it used to have a Wikipedia page. No more. It’s ads, ads, ads, and everything. And that’s gone unnoticed.
OK. The great thing about this book–I’m going to end this now–and by the way, buy both of them, or read both of them. Move Fast and Break Things is a book from 2016 by Jonathan Taplin, and this is The Magic Years–oh, I can’t even read my own handwriting, Scenes from the Rock-and-Roll Life–
JT: Scenes from the Rock-and-Roll Life, yeah. Comes out [May] 4th.
RS: And so what is wonderful about this book is it raises all these questions, and it’s really food for thought. And interestingly enough, the one on The Magic Years is not about–it’s not nostalgia. It really puts you front and center, where we are. And the key words, I will say, that come out of this, once again, examination of the sixties, is “not selling out.” You, sir, even though you managed to find your place in the rock-and-roll world, did not sell out. I want to thank you for your work.
And also, I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW for posting these. Our producer is Joshua Scheer. Natasha Hakimi Zapata does the introduction, and Lucy Berbeo does the transcription. And much thanks to the JWK Foundation in memory of Jean Stein. Her father is in your book. We’ll discuss that another time, Music Corporation of America. But Jean Stein was a terrific writer, wrote the book Edie and others, and we get a grant keeping her memory alive. So let’s end on that note. And we’ll be back next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.