Book Review – Jonathan Taplin “The Magic Years: Scenes From a Rock-and-Roll Life”

Heyday Books, 2021

A book that asserts music’s power to bring change.

Former A-list road manager, movie producer, investment banker, professor, technological inventor, and writer, Jonathan Taplin’s memoir tells you more about his life and times than about the icons he has met.

Jonathan Taplin has led what sounds like an infuriatingly charmed life. His new memoir, focusing on his life in music and film from 1965 to the present with forays into banking, tech companies, and teaching, makes him seem almost like a mythological Zelig figure who always just happened to be in the right place at the right historically significant time. 

The momentum begins with him as an 18-year-old, politically engaged, affluent American prep school student who had the chance to attend the famous Newport Folk Festival, where Bob Dylan controversially debuted his music with electric instruments. This concert led to Taplin working for Dylan manager Albert Grossman and road managing The Jim Kweskin Jug Band and The Band. The constant backdrop to the important events he witnessed – the Summer of Love in San Francisco, Woodstock, the first Isle of Wight Festival, the trans-Canadian Festival Express, the blossoming of The Hawks into The Band and their collaboration with Dylan, making ‘Mean Streets’ and ‘The Last Waltz,’ – is the social and political climate of the time.

As Taplin writes:

“The most important concept to grasp here is that culture leads politics. It is not that the art causes the political reform but rather that it opens the collective mind to the idea that rebellion is healthy. And it also sketches out the forms that rebellion might take”.

This is not a hedonistic sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll memoir, although those things are mentioned, but rather a thoughtful appraisal of the influence of ‘60s counterculture on mainstream culture and the development of Taplin’s own moral philosophy. He has the benefits of being an intelligent, resourceful, well-connected hard worker, whose life wasn’t hijacked by drugs and alcohol, unlike many of the people around him.

Taplin is refreshingly open about topics that are too frequently skirted around or avoided entirely by insiders, such as the Mafia influence on the American music business and the film industry and the splintering of the student-led progressive political movements after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s and Robert Kennedy’s assassinations. 

The narrative itself, unfortunately, drags at times, and quotes from Immanuel Kant and Epicurus don’t help. One gets the impression that Taplin is often holding out on us when it comes to stories about the many music icons he has known. Perhaps the fact that many of his friends, like Robbie Robertson and Bob Dylan, are still alive, partially explains this reticence. But there are not many anecdotes about Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and other female artists whose paths Taplin has crossed. Similarly, for someone who, as a liberal Episcopalian, was so devoted to the civil rights movement, there are also surprisingly few stories about black artists. The few Taplin mentions are padded out with second-hand stories about long-gone legends like Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong. However, the 47-track playlist at the end of the book goes from ‘Maggie’s Farm’ to, appropriately, ‘This is America’ by Childish Gambino.

The book’s unflinching assessment of how our culture became so cynical and nihilistic, despite the promises of the ‘60s, is definitely thought-provoking. He doesn’t pull any punches about the shadiness of the financial world’s fringes, anarchic corporate raiders, Hollywood, and intrusive Big Tech. Luckily he does leave us with an immediate feeling of hope for the continuing power of artists to create meaningful change in the world.

‘The Magic Years: Scenes from a Rock-and-Roll Life’ by Jonathan Taplin was published by Heyday Books in May 2021.

About Kimberly Bright 16 Articles
Freelance writer specializing in music and art, British, Canadian, and American music and cultural history, flyover states, session musicians, overlooked and unsung artists. Author of 'Chris Spedding: Reluctant Guitar Hero.'

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