There is a lot to envy surrounding writer and film producer Jonathan Taplin. He’s made a lot of money, been in love and loved in return, hung out with cool people like Bob Dylan, Martin Scorsese, and George Harrison, and been a part of numerous significant cultural events. His memoir, The Magic Years: Scenes from a Rock-and-Roll Life, highlights the high points in his life during the 1960s and ’70s in America
Taplin came from a self-described upper-class WASP household. He became involved in the nascent Civil Rights Movement while a prep school student and as a result was able to attend the Newport Folk Festival backstage (the one where Dylan went electric, and the crowd booed). Taplin documents what he saw and heard. He offers no revelations as much as he simply bears witness. Dylan fans see this moment as the musical equivalent of a holy relic, so he was compelled to tell the tale, but in this case and in most of the others he narrates, he’s not telling rock and film historians anything they don’t already know. He’s just presenting additional evidence.
Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman hired Taplin. He goes through a series of management positions that puts him in San Francisco during the Summer of Love, right in the heart of Woodstock, the town and the festival, and more. Taplin offers his versions of personal encounters with everyone from Janis Joplin, Mick Jagger, and Jackie Onasis, as a way of highlighting their better qualities and minimizing his own importance. That’s cool, but he does tend to sugarcoat people’s faults (such as Eric Clapton’s heroin addiction) and perhaps overpraise what’s good (such as Wim Wenders’ directorial talent). As for Taplin himself, there are many times when one is not sure what, exactly, he does. Is it logistics, budgeting, counseling, or some version of all three? More detail would be informative.
As the times change from the culturally radical ’60s to the more self-centered ’70s, Taplin’s career goes from the music to the film industry, although the two are often tied together. For example, He was behind the Band’s concert / record / film The Last Waltz (Scorsese, 1978). The same was true for George Harrison’s The Concert for Bangle Desh (Saul Swimmer, 1972). Indeed, he’s been part of an incredible number of projects with an impressive array of artists such that it almost seems comical, like Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump, whose image is superimposed into impossible historical moments. Who hasn’t Taplin worked with?
Taplin discusses his own life and relationships in context to what was going on socially and politically in the world. As his work becomes big business, he fears becoming one of the “hollow men” that his hippie wife worries he’ll turn into. Later, they get divorced. He admits that her criticisms were accurate, but the times were changing, and it was important to change with them if one wanted to stay relevant.
Taplin offers a wealth of tales in The Magic Years, from the hiring of Robert Frank to design the Rolling Stone’s 1972 Exile on Main Street album cover, to producing a film (Roger Spottiswoode’s 1982 Under Fire) about a war correspondent in Latin America going to Paris with Joni Mitchell (the trip that inspired her hit song, “Free Man in Paris”). The main element these stories have in common is that somehow, Taplin was at the center of the action even when there seemingly was no action. There’s no refuting that he’s led a rich life. He examines his role as a participant and counts his blessings. This is what he calls “magic”.
The entertainment business became increasingly profitable during the 1980s. This attracted investors who were much more interested in making money, such as Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky, than caring about the arts. (Both these men ended up going to prison for their underhanded dealings.) Taplin offers stories about big corporate deals, such as the one involving the Disney corporation when it looked like it would be broken up and sold in pieces.
According to Tapling, the enormous changes in technology and social media have had a negative impact on society. He cites Facebook’s role in undermining democracy by not fact-checking sources and spreading propaganda as just one important example of this. Jonathan Taplin remembers his life in rock ‘n’ roll, the movies, and big business with the aim of analyzing what it all means today.
His story is told in mostly chronologic order and the last chapter ends in 1996, although there are a sprinkling of anachronistic anti-Trump and Facebook references in the later chapters. The past may have been magic, but he’s worried about the present and future of American life.