The grand counterculture narrative of the 1960s is beyond shopworn, beyond cliché. It is a story intoned so often, and with such solemnity and fundamentalist zeal, that is has earned a place of singular derision in today’s smart and snarky cultural discourse. Rockism, they call it: a set of values and myths in which rock and roll is considered normative and the litmus of authenticity, in which (generally white, generally well-off)) kids armed with guitars and amps (generally Fenders and generally Marshalls) spark fashion trends while ending wars and liberating planets. Its adherents are the wrinkled Peter Pans and Tinker Bells called Boomers, the most maligned generation of…this generation.
And yet the fascination with the era, its Beat and folk antecedents, and its downstream commercial legacy continues, though some would say not without the financial backing and tireless rebranding of all those hippies become hedge fund managers. Don’t worry though, kids. They’ll be coming for your punk sanctimony next, and for Madonna and materialist pop theory after that, with plenty of myths to burn and blindsides to expose all around.
What differentiates Jonathan Taplin’s excellent new book The Magic Years: Scenes from a Rock and Roll Life is not simply that Taplin lived the sixties with an almost Gump-like ubiquity as witness and agent—backstage when Dylan went electric, on board the Transcontinental Pop Festival train with Janis, Jerry and the Band. He integrated his elite boarding school as a teenager, found himself in the thick of it at the Haight, at Cambridge Square, in Woodstock and in Hollywood, and always exactly when it mattered most. The photos back him up, and he is not terribly boastful anyway. He seems as genuinely befuddled by his heat-seeking sense of historic relevance as we are.
The freshness of Taplin’s memoir springs from the fact that it is barely a memoir at all, or at least much more than one. Its surprises come in Taplin’s willingness to interrogate his generation’s values through multiple critical lenses. He tells a nuanced and intellectually reflective story in which personal and cultural awakenings converge and conflict. Most Magic Bus memoirs don’t waste a lot of time quoting Barzun or postulating Viconian cycles of cultural birth, stagnation, collapse and rebirth. This one does.
Further, Taplin is a vital cat who went on to do surprising, weighty things in the eighties and nineties, and in the new millennium, much of which falls within the purview of this book. His story does not end with the supposed commodification of counterculture values late in the ‘60s (some say much earlier) or with the loss of innocence at Altamont.
After working for the better part of a decade as tour manager for Dylan and the Band, Taplin became a major film producer, with credits including Mean Streets and The Last Waltz. He created the Internet’s first video-on-demand service. He savagely interrogated the myths and values of another buzzworthy left coast time and place — Silicon Valley — in his lauded previous book, Move Fast and Break Things. He is Director Emeritus of the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California. All of which is to say, historical breadth and critical depth are kind of his jam.
Make no mistake, though. As critical and fine-toothed as he can be, Taplin emerges from the telling exactly as he began it: a true believer, wisened but unjaded and optimistic. “That’s my story, said George Harrison of ‘All You Need is Love,’ “and I’m sticking to it.” If Taplin has a blindspot, and I am reluctant to call it that, it may an infatuation with the “great man” theory of history, an apparent reluctance to recognize the pattern of socio-economic advantage that connects his characters, a parade of heroes, scholars, tricksters and doomed geniuses who were, one after another, born on third base.
Still, it would be hard to imagine a more sober, vivid and ultimately earned expression and substantiation of core counterculture values. If you want to refute Christianity, that’s fine, but you better be able to hang with Aquinas and C.S. Lewis. If you want to debunk the rockist (or folkist) revolution, have at it, college kid, but you better be up to an intellectual cage match with Jonathan Taplin.
The Golden Notebook Bookstore in Woodstock presents Jonathan Taplin in conversation with national and local treasure Happy Traum on Monday, May 3 at 6 p.m. Visit https://goldennotebook.indielite.org/ for the Zoom link. The Magic Years comes out May 4 on Heyday Books.