When Outlaws are Innovators: An Interview with Jonathan Taplin (Part One)

My new USC colleague, Jonathan Taplin, is like the cool older cousin that everyone of my generation always wished they had. He was at Woodstock and was hanging out with Bob Dylan and his mob at the Newport Folk Festival the day Dylan went electric. He organized The Concert for Bangladesh and produced Mean Streets. He went on tour with The Band and he was behind the scenes helping to negotiate the deal which saved the Disney Corporation. Now, he’s best buddies with T. Bone Barnett and he’s the founder of the Annenberg Innovation Lab.

And he lived to tell the tale. In fact, his new book, Outlaw Blues: Adventures in the Counter-Culture Wars, recounts these and many other events which changed popular culture (especially popular music). His memory is vivid, his attention to detail is sharp, and his writing is compelling.

But, Outlaw Blues is more than simply Taplin’s memoirs, fascinating though it is to read these stories. Taplin sees the big picture, and he uses the book to document what he calls the “American Vanguard”, which he traces back to Emerson, Thoreau, and Twain (suggesting that these “dead white guys” were as lively and controversial in their own times as Eric Clapton was in his.) He writes about Louis Armstrong, Upton Sinclair, Orson Welles, Jackson Pollack and Edward R. Murrow, with the same vivid attention to details and personality as he describes what happened when Jimi Hendrix took the stage at Woodstock or discusses a young Martin Scorsese’s uncomfortable reactions tof Hollywood hedonism.

His account connects these phenomenal artistic accomplishments to issues of technological innovation, shifting business models, and above all, the dramatic social, political, and cultural debates of the period. Before everything is said and done, Outlaw Blues ends up being the hidden history of America from the mid-19th into the early 21st century, one full of lessons for those who are trying to make sense of the media changes that are helping to define our present moment.

But, Outlaw Blues is still more than that, because it is the first publication of a new Annenberg Innovation Lab initiative which is seeking to re-imagine the affordances of the book. Most existing ebooks slavishly and mechanically reproduce printed books and utterly fail to take advantage of the properties of this emerging platform. So, when they made the Kindle version of Convergence Culture, my publishers had trouble reproducing the sidebars, which are a central feature of the book, and were designed to approximate the juxtapositions we associate with the web. But the Annenberg Innovation Lab believes that ebooks can be media rich and interactive, even participatory, experiences. But, they can achieve that goal only if they are “born digital,” only if they are designed for this platform from the get-go.

Outlaw Blues, thus, included hundreds of clips, allowing us to see parts of the musical performances the book describes, and thanks to Taplin’s behind-the-scene’s perspectives, watch them with new eyes, because we have a clearer sense of what the people on stage are thinking. And the musical bits exist alongside bits of interviews, documentaries, and other key media texts of the period. Here’s where you go to learn more about this “innovative” project.

In this interview, I asked Taplin to focus on some of the larger themes — about the nature of creativity and popular culture, about art and politics, about technological change and personal expression — which run through the book.

Throughout Outlaw Blues, you describe the “American Vanguard.” What do you see as the characteristics of this tradition? What roles did it play in shaping American Arts and Letters?

I guess I prefer the term “vanguard” to French “Avant Garde”, but I think they have the same intent. Webster’s defines it as “An intelligentsia that develops new or experimental concepts”. Emerson returned from Europe in 1837 and said that we had had quit our “extreme Eurocentrism” and celebrate a unique American culture. Almost from the beginning, that literature found itself in cultural and political opposition to the establishment. Whether it was Emerson’s break with Protestant theology or Thoreau’s On Civil Disobedience, where he took on both slavery and imperialism; the Vanguard was ahead of even the most progressive politician in America. And I think this tradition continued up through Mark Twain, Scott Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Pete Seeger—all the way to Bob Dylan’s famous song “Oxford Town”, with these lyrics:

Oxford Town in the afternoon/ Ev’rybody singin’ a sorrowful tune/

Two men died ‘neath the Mississippi moon/Somebody better investigate soon

But beyond the political, I think the more important element was their role in experimentation. Two trumpet players, Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong basically invented the idea of improvisation and the solo in jazz. Jackson Pollack helped invent the language of abstract expressionism. Orson Welles reinvented both the radio drama (with War of the Worlds) and the motion picture (with Citizen Kane). So somehow the combination of experimentation and willingness to stand in opposition to the conventional wisdom are the defining characteristics of the American Vanguard.

You often define the “American Vanguard” is opposition to the commercial culture of the same period, yet many of those you discuss — from Louis Armstrong to Dylan, the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Elvis — are among the most popular artists of all time. So, what relationship are you positing between being an “outlaw” artists and the commercial marketplace?

The funny thing is that when Bob Dylan started making records, Frankie Avalon and Fabian were on top of the hit parade. When Elvis first started making records, Frank Sinatra, who was the king of pop music in 1955 said that rock and roll, “is sung, played and written by cretinous goons.” The difference between what we think of as mainstream culture and what the kids were liking has of course been with us for a long time.

When Mezz Mesrow and Eddie Condon, two white kids from the suburbs went down to a black club in Chicago in 1935 to see Louis Armstrong, they were both pissing off their parents and potentially the patrons of the club. The fact is that youth culture did not became the dominant commercial culture until the mid 1960’s. Mitch Miller and his Orchestra were the largest selling act for Columbia Records in 1963. So in a sense the Vanguard musical artists changed the nature of commercial culture. As Andy Warhol pointed out, what was weird about the 1960’s was not that artists became more commercial, but rather that commercial culture became more artistic.

What motivated you to write Outlaw Blues through a combination of memoir and historical perspectives? What relationship are you positing in this way between what happened in the late 20th century and the broader history of popular culture?

I had been studying what the Austrian economist Schumpeter called “Long Waves”—the notion that history and economics move in 60 year cycles. This was all part of his theory of creative destruction. So I definitely felt like I had been lucky enough to live and work in one of those periods of creative revolution from 1963-1982 and so I was curious about those other periods when Vanguard artists were really altering the cultural dialogue.

So I started with the Transcendentalists in the 1830’s and then sixty years later there was Twain, the invention of cinema and radio, the phonograph record, Buddy Bolden, jazz. And then sixty years later were the beats and bebop, leading to the sixties cultural explosion. I’m not saying the Long Wave is a perfect way to look at cultural history, but these upheavals do tend to come in waves.

So from that basis I tried to put the book together. I didn’t want it to be a memoir, per se, but I knew my own personal experiences with some of the important artists of the late 20th century could add to the story.

In that sense, Dylan is really carrying on a poetic tradition from T.S.Eliot and Ezra Pound, who so radically changed the nature of narrative poetry in the early part of the Century. I had studied poetry at Princeton with Walton Litz, a truly inspirational teacher and he gave me such an appreciation for Auden and Eliot that I felt that somehow I could carry my own students back to an appreciation of that work. After all, the poetic tradition of hip hop has roots that could even be traced back to Gertrude Stein and Dada. It’s just that a lot of kids don’t have much sense of where their culture came from. It’s like Jay Z and Tupac are in a “folk” tradition, just like Robert Johnson was. They are just taking from the past and reinterpreting it.

Your chapters are structured around a series of moments or scenes where a number of artists, often working in different media, seemed to thrive. What do these scenes have in common? What factors contribute to the emergence of these kinds of creative moments?

This is such a fascinating topic. Jacques Barzun has a wonderful theory about the Renaissance. You had all of these amazing artists living literally down the street from each other in Florence. They went to each other’s studios and probably drank together in the evenings. So they were both rivals and friends and that rivalry pushed them to experiment more. The physical proximity—the scene—was critical.

I certainly witnessed the same thing with The Band, Dylan, Clapton and Van Morrison. They hung out together and they pushed each other to really excel. My reading tells me the same thing was going on in Paris in the 1920’s and certainly in New York in the 1940’s when both Abstract Expressionism and Bebop were being birthed in very close quarters. In fact I could name the bars, Mintons for the jazz scene and the Cedar Tavern for the artists. This leads me to wonder if all these notions of virtual communities can have the same creative juice as the physical presence of jamming at 2 AM in Harlem.

So if the first factor is the competitive scene, then the second factor is a general sense that the “canon” of the moment is moribund. The only reason Marty Scorsese, Terry Malick, George Lucas and Bob Rafaelson got to make their first films in the early 1970’s was that the Hollywood system, that had been turning out failing movies like Hello Dolly and The Molly McGuires, was bankrupt. The studios had no money, so they were open to this new generation of film school brats that were willing to work for peanuts and make films for $500,000.

I think a lot of what you write about and study—the rise of Transmedia—comes out of this same kind of Interregnum. As Gramsci said, “The old is dying and the new cannot be born.” Much of the underpinning of the music, TV and Film businesses are being destroyed by the digital revolution. The DVD sell through business that created 55% of movie revenues is dying. The album, which allowed music companies to sell you 12 songs when you only wanted one, has been unbundled. TiVo completely is undercutting the advertising revenue of TV.

What we need to see is if new scenes will arise to reinvent these businesses. I guess that is part of our task at the Annenberg Innovation Lab.

Jonathan Taplin is a Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. Taplin is Director of the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab . Taplin’s areas of specialization are in international communication management and the field of digital media entertainment. Taplin began his entertainment career in 1969 as Tour Manager for Bob Dylan and The Band. In 1973 he produced Martin Scorsese’s first feature film, Mean Streets which was selected for the Cannes Film Festival. Between 1974 and 1996, Taplin produced 26 hours of television documentaries (including The Prize and Cadillac Desert for PBS) and 12 feature films including The Last Waltz, Until The End of the World, Under Fire and To Die For. His films were nominated for Oscar and Golden Globe awards and chosen for The Cannes Film Festival seven times.

In 1984 Taplin acted as the investment advisor to the Bass Brothers in their successful attempt to save Walt Disney Studios from a corporate raid. This experience brought him to Merrill Lynch, where he served as vice president of media mergers and acquisitions. In this role, he helped re-engineer the media landscape on transactions such as the leveraged buyout of Viacom. Taplin was a founder of Intertainer and has served as its Chairman and CEO since June 1996. Intertainer was the pioneer video-on-demand company for both cable and broadband Internet markets. Taplin holds two patents for video on demand technologies. Professor Taplin has provided consulting services on Broadband technology to the President of Portugal and the Parliament of the Spanish state of Catalonia. In May of 2010 he was appointed Managing Director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab.

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