For Rick, with love
An Interview with Jonathan Taplin
by Carol CaffinBandBites, Volume I, No. 9, September 1, 2007.
Copyright © 2007 by Carol Caffin. All Rights Reserved.
When I decided that I wanted to interview Jonathan Taplin, I prepared myself for an encounter with an old-school, Old Guard Band elitist. You know the type: those Chosen Few who were “there” at “the beginning,” who were part of the scene “as it unfolded,” who were right there, in the goddamned basement with Dylan and The Band “when it all happened.” The ones who firmly believe that, if one wasn’t breathing the marijuana-infused air in West Saugerties in 1967 and 68, one has no basis to comment on—let alone question—anything Band-related.
What I encountered was a friendly, straightforward, knowledgeable, and obviously brilliant guy who was happy and willing to share his memories, stopping short of, in his words, “telling tales out of school.” Jon told me that he hasn’t seen any of the Band members—except Robbie, whom he sees with some frequency—in years, noting a mid-90s performance in L.A. with which he was less than enthralled. Still, his voice took on a warm and even tender tone when he spoke of his old friends—a phenomenon I’ve encountered hundreds of times over the years, even from hard-nosed business cronies, when reminiscing about The Band. We even touched on the sad sentiment among some Band fans that it seems impossible to be a fan of both Levon and Robbie at the same time. “It’s not necessary,” Taplin said, “it’s really not.” Despite the fact that he and Robbie are close friends, he also seemed genuinely happy with Levon’s Ramble success, expressing a real interest in attending one, as well as the news of his forthcoming CD, of which he was not yet aware.
I found Jon easy to talk to and very accommodating. Yes, he’s definitely a card-carrying member of the Old Guard—he was there when it all unfolded, and played a significant part in helping it unfold the way it did. But old school? Hardly. In fact, unlike some other significant music “insiders” from the Golden Era (and the golden area) who refused to move forward when it ended, or whose acid trips are still going strong, Taplin not only moved forward, he has forged a pretty amazing decades-long career that has included not only music, but films, teaching, and high-end business consulting. Today, he is a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, where he teaches undergrad and graduate courses on the digital revolution and entertainment.
CC: Jon, I think it’s almost an understatement to say that you’ve had some of the ultimate dream jobs. How did you get started working with Bob Dylan and The Band?
JT: I had worked for Albert Grossman, who was their manager, earlier, with some of his other groups. I had worked for the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and I had done a little work for Paul Butterfield.
CC: In what capacity?
JT: As a road manager. And I was touring with Judy Collins [who was managed by] Harold Leventhal, who was another big manager at the time. He asked me to produce the staging for a tribute to Woody Guthrie. And Bob and The Band came down to play at that tribute, which was at Carnegie Hall. That was in ’67 or ’68. I can’t remember exactly, but it was before any of the, you know…
CC: The records.
JT: Yeah. They played three songs and it was really great, and I got to meet Robbie and spend some time with them, and then I visited with Robbie up in Woodstock a couple of times while they were thinking about…they were still doing some of the Basement stuff with Bob. Then when they decided after Big Pink to go to California, Albert called me and said ‘The boys want to go out to the West Coast’ and ‘Would you go and set up a studio for them?’ and after that they were gonna go on tour. I was in my senior year at Princeton, and that was perfect timing for me.
CC: You were an English major at Princeton. How did you get involved in music, and in this other incredible world?
JT: Well, I had met Bob Dylan briefly at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. That’s when I was first working for the Kweskin Band. So, you know, I was just like any kid at that point. I was entranced by what was going on and I loved it. And it was far more interesting than anything else I could think of doing, so you know, it was just the perfect job. When I was in college, I would do it [road manage] for Kweskin or Judy Collins or Paul Butterfield or whoever.
CC: So you were on the road with these guys, and then you were called to do the stage for the Guthrie tribute. And that was all through Albert Grossman?
JT: Yeah, I’d known Albert because he was the Kweskin Jug Band’s manager. So I had gotten to know him and he knew I knew what I was doing, and The Band wanted a permanent team to take them out on the road.
CC: What did your job entail? ‘Road manager’ seems self-explanatory, but exactly what is involved with managing a band on the road?
JT: Well, with a large organization like The Band, the tour manager, which is the job I had, is more involved in coordinating the booking of the concerts, obviously making sure the money is collected, working with the individual promoters, and then supervising the crew, which was three or four guys who drove the trucks and handled the instruments and set up the stage.
CC: So you were in charge of the roadies and the techs and all that, right?
JT: Yeah. I did that from the spring of ’69 through ’71.
CC: There were some memorable gigs during that time.
JT: We went with Bob to the Isle of Wight, we did Woodstock, we toured through Europe, we toured through the United States—everywhere. We pretty much hit every town that there was! [laughs]
CC: What was your relationship with them like?
JT: Great. I mean, it was fabulous. That isn’t to say that there weren’t some…you know, any time musicians [pauses] are forced to get up early in the morning, it’s not always easy. But, uh [laughs]…other than that, it was pretty good!
CC: That was very diplomatic Jon! [laughs] Because I don’t recall Rick being up in the morning very often, unless he had been up all night the night before.
JT: Yeah, well they were better behaved in the early days. [laughs]
CC: Well, that’s not what I heard…[laughs] but anyway, what was the dynamic like between them back then?
JT: At the outset from, say, Big Pink on, it was very close. Everybody was incredibly supportive. People would worry about Richard drinking a little too much, or Rick driving too fast, but in general, The Band was incredibly tight, and the thing that I loved the most was that everybody was writing songs, too. Rick was writing and Richard was writing, so there was a more even distribution of the weight, so to speak. Later on, Rick and Richard stopped writing so much, and Robbie ended up having to carry the weight of writing the music. That, to me, was not as satisfying, in a sense.
CC: Satisfying how? Do you mean musically, for them? Or….
JT: You know, if you listen to the first two albums, there’s more…different moods. And I think that comes from the fact that other people were writing songs. And I don’t think Robbie wanted to be the only songwriter either, but he ended up just dealing with it because nobody else was doing it.
CC: So obviously you know all about the ‘feud’ stuff…
JT: Yeah. I think some of that’s unfair, you know?
CC: Which part?
JT: Well, in the sense that, you know, Robbie didn’t say ‘Hey, we’re only gonna do my songs.’ I mean I worked for George Harrison after The Band. I did the Concert for Bangladesh. With the Beatles, George Harrison got one song an album. He could do that, because Lennon and McCartney wrote all the songs! He got one or two, and eventually it pissed George off enough to want to go on his own, you know? But that wasn’t the way it was with The Band. I mean, if Levon had written some songs, everybody would have been happy to do them. But Levon didn’t think of himself as a songwriter. He thought of himself as a drummer and a singer.
CC: How about the other guys?
JT: Well Richard’s gift was pretty strong in the beginning. I mean, this [interview] is for fans, and everyone knows that Richard drank too much. And he got lazy. And as for Rick, Rick had some talents in that sphere, but he didn’t work at it, either.
CC: What interests me and I think lots of other people is, behind the enigma, what were these guys like day to day? Who hung with whom the most? Ronnie said that Levon and Robbie were so tight he called them ‘Simon and Garfuckle.’ Was it really like that?
JT: Yeah. They all were very close. I mean, Garth is Garth, so Garth was kind of off in his own world a lot. I mean, he was not really a hangout artist. But when they would get together and rehearse, everybody would get together and show up on time and sit around and talk and laugh. It was a pretty marvelous…I mean, those two years…I don’t have a single complaint.
CC: Was there one point where it obviously changed? Or was it gradual?
JT: Quite honestly, by the time I left to go to California, it was still very together.
CC: When was that and why was that?
JT: Seventy-one. Just because they weren’t touring very much, and I needed to make more of a living, and so I went out to start producing movies. But quite honestly, I don’t think problems started until ’73 or ’74 with other types of drugs coming into the situation and just other things happening. I promise you, it was very innocent in the beginning.
CC: In terms of drugs or in terms of just everything?
JT: There was smoking pot. But it was all just very innocent.
In ’68, ’69, and ’70, it was all very fun and happy. Everybody was in fabulous physical shape. Even Richard, for the fact that he drank, I mean he never drank before a concert.
CC: So there was still a lot of discipline, which I guess went back to the days with Ronnie.
JT: There was incredible discipline. On the road, we did four days a week and, you know, we’d get up at 9:00 in the morning and get on some damn airplane and go to another town. It was disciplined, I promise you! [laughs]
CC: What about family life? I know they were still very young…
JT: Everybody had a fairly together family, you know? That was another part of it. I mean Woodstock was a very kind of easygoing country town. And it was very much a family deal. Everybody had kids, young kids, and, you know, it was really remarkable.
CC: So it was all as idyllic as it looked, huh?
JT: It was completely idyllic. It was like an Elliott Landy picture.
CC: You left in ’71, and then what happened?
JT: I came back and started Tour ’74 with Bob, but just to get it going, and then I left it to Lindsey Holland afterwards.
CC: Just setting up the logistics?
JT: Yeah. I did all the preparations for the first three shows. The first one was Chicago.
CC: So what did you do after that, and specifically, while Tour ’74 was happening?
JT: I was making movies.
CC: I know you did Mean Streets, which is one of my favorite films. How did you get into the movie business? Was it a natural segue?
JT: You know, I just came to California, and the name Martin Scorsese had been given to me by a reporter named Jay Cocks, who had written a cover story on The Band for Time Magazine, and he said ‘When you’re in L.A., look him up.’ So I did. And he was a film editor at the time and wanted to make movies, and I didn’t know enough not to put my own money into [movies], and that’s how it got started [laughs].
CC: What year was that?
CC: So you didn’t know Scorsese then from Woodstock? Didn’t he work on the film?
JT: I didn’t know him from Woodstock. We didn’t really have that much connection with the film crew while we were performing at Woodstock.
CC: Sometimes we think that everybody knows everybody in a situation like that, but it’s really not that way, is it? It’s actually compartmentalized.
JT: Uh-huh, it is.
CC: So you met him in ’73…
JT: Late ’73, yeah. We were making the movie [Mean Streets], and that’s why I could only do a little part of it [Tour ’74.] I came back again for The Last Waltz and produced The Last Waltz.
CC: How did you get from The Band to making Mean Streets though?
JT: I don’t know, just…youth. When you’re young, you think you can do anything. I’d produced probably a hundred concerts, so I figured I could produce movies. One has the sense that if you’re in the music business, and things don’t work out, you’re screwed. In other words, if the production falls apart and you have 5,000 or 10,000 people sitting in the seats, you’re really screwed. In a movie, at least, if things fall apart, you can put it off until the next day.
CC: That’s a good way to look at it. What exactly is involved in producing a movie?
JT: You get the money together, you hire all the people, you find a distributor. You do everything that the director doesn’t do.
CC: You veered between music and movies during that time?
JT: Yes. Basically I did The Last Waltz with Scorsese. And then I worked with T-Bone Burnett and the Alpha Band in the music business, and then I went back and did a movie called Under Fire, so I just bounced back and forth between both things.
CC: You were the executive producer of The Last Waltz. How is that different than producer?
JT: It’s just a title.
CC: Were you involved in the concert and the film?
JT: Yes, both.
CC: Can you tell me about it? What was it like?
JT: It was very rushed. You know, Marty was doing a film that he was making for United Artists called New York, New York and we were planning it at night time while he was doing the film. Obviously, the concert took place over Thanksgiving evening, so we went away for the weekend to San Francisco and shot it. It was all very kind of secret, because Marty wasn’t supposed to be doing that. And, you know, it came off beautifully. It was just a perfect, exact—what you see on film is what happened. It was an absolute perfect situation. Then, after that, we decided to shoot some more, and shoot some interviews, and shoot some other pieces around it, and that took a lot longer.
CC: You said Scorsese wasn’t supposed to be doing that. Do you mean because he was committed to the other project?
JT: Yeah. He was ‘exclusive.’
CC: So The Last Waltz was because he loved the music?. . .
JT: . . . And I knew him and I introduced him to Robbie and they liked each other. And he just said ‘I have to do this.’ So, you know, he really didn’t care if he wasn’t ‘supposed’ to do it.
CC: Tell me about the songs that weren’t in the concert, but were in the film—‘The Weight,’ ‘Evangeline.’
JT: Robbie thought and Marty thought that there were two people who couldn’t make it for the concert—one was Emmylou Harris and one was the Staple Singers—and he still wanted them in. So it was an attempt to keep those other two audiences involved in it, you know, the country audience and the R&B audience.
CC: How long after the actual concert were those performances?
JT: A couple months later.
CC: And how about the interviews?
JT: Those were all shot during the course of a couple months, too.
CC: How was the rapport between the guys during the filming, and the whole vibe? Was it really that bad?
JT: I don’t think it was that bad at all. You know, there’s hindsight. But Levon was very cooperative….I mean, look, nobody is used to having cameras around them a lot. That’s not a natural situation to be in. But in general, I think everybody behaved themselves as well as they could. The interviews speak for themselves. I think anybody who pretends that there was a lot of anger at that time is wrong. That all came later.
CC: What do you think caused it?
JT: You know, I can’t opine on that. I really don’t understand it. That’s got more to do with the structural fallacies of the music business than anything else—the fact that songwriters get paid better.
CC: What happened after The Last Waltz? Did you see them over the years?
JT: Robbie and I see each other. We just saw each other last week. I mean, we see each other all the time. I haven’t seen Garth much. I went to see one concert that the rest of the guys did at the House of Blues much later and I was sad.
JT: Well, I just didn’t understand what the point was. It just seemed like, you know, they had already done it. And it was not the same thing. It was like one of those fifties revival tours. And obviously, everybody was not in as good shape as they had been before.
CC: Have you seen Levon or Garth since then?
JT: I haven’t seen Levon for a long time. I’d like to see him and probably will see him, hopefully. I’m gonna go see one of the Midnight Rambles sometime [soon].
CC: You know, besides the Rambles, Levon’s got this new CD, Dirt Farmer, coming out in the fall that everyone’s excited about.
JT: That’s great! And Garth—I don’t know anything about Garth. I’ve heard from friends who’ve seen him, but I don’t know what’s up with him.
CC: If you wanted to sum up what you feel or think The Band’s place in musical history is, what would you say?
JT: Wow. I think they were the most authentic expression of a certain kind of continuity—of rockabilly, and a combination of what they got from Bob Dylan and what they brought to music from the roots. At the time, in 1969, when they debuted at Winterland and everything, they were absolutely unique in the world. I think it was at a time when there was a lot of bad music going on—it wasn’t really in the great traditions. And they just brought it back to what was core, what was important. And what’s great is that so many other people saw that, whether it was Eric Clapton or George Harrison that said ‘This is what’s important,’ not Jefferson Airplane, you know, or anything else. They were part of that continuity that many people were waiting for—something that’s just authentic and beautiful and simple in the long tradition. You know, there’s nothing new in the world in the sense that music is all about good players, good singers, and good songwriters. And they had all three. And you can’t ask for anything more than that. They were brilliant. They were just great at what they did. And they were original. They weren’t trying to pretend, they weren’t ripping off anybody else. They were amazing.