“Outlaw Blues is a story of the American counter-culture — the artists who created an American Avant-garde that pushed the culture forward into what we now call modernity. Though much of the book is centered on a group of musicians and filmmakers that Taplin worked with from 1965-1995, it is also the story of the roots of that era. The book examines rebel artists of America’s past — H.D. Thoreau, Mark Twain, Louis Armstrong, Orson Welles, Billie Holiday, Allen Ginsberg — the “mad ones” who made us who we are as a culture”. From the book launch at the Annenberg Innovation Lab, Oct. 11, 2011
Just finished reading the Outlaw Blues by Jonathan TapIin. I recently reconnected with Jonathan, an amazing man and the director of the Anneberg Innovation Lab at USC. We probably had not seen each other for over tweleve years. We found each other on Facebook. Since I am now living in LA part of the year, I reached out to him and he invited me to meet him at his lab. I also found out that he had written a book called, Outlaw-Blues last year. The book had a powerful effect on me which I will explain later. It is an experimental e-book that I bought on iTunes and read on my iPad. Actually, I expected more from the “experimental” part than just short embedded videos even thought they were very effective. Outlaw Blues is the name of a Bob Dylan’s song and also a movie staring Peter Fonda.
This post is not a book review but I will say a few things about the book. First of all, I strongly recommend it to anyone that is interested in the history of popular music and in particular, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones and/or the history of independent film makers like Martin Scorsese (Taplin produced his first film, Mean Streets). Or if you are interested in people like Jonathan that have found their own unconventional way through life and has impacted the development of today’s media industry. The book is a combination Jonathan’s recollections and experience from the mid 60s to the end of the 90s. Intersperse are stories of key figures that had profound effects on the evolution of media and culture.
I first meet Jonathan in 1997 or 1998, I think. In 1996, Intel and Creative Artist Agency created a lab to educate talent about the coming possibilities of broadband residential Internet and personal computers to create a new medium. I drove this project from the Intel side after meeting with Michael Ovtiz who was the founder and principle owner of CAA. I knew that we were creating a new medium that would effect every aspect of our lives from commerce and education to communications and entertainment. In my position as Vice President of Business Development, and my additional role as “Czar” of Intel’s broadband development activities and a leading investor in early stage companies dealing with the consumer market. I wanted to accelerate the development of these “applications”. I was particularly concerned with how entertainment content would finds its way to this new world. I was pretty sure that the folks in Silcon Valley would not be able to create compelling and entertaining content with the exception of computer games. So I thought, lets get the people that make todays entertainment excited about the opportunity. We set up the lab within CAA with state of the art computing technology. CAA’s clients and others would come by the lab for demonstrations. They key person on my side was Sriram Viswanathan. In addition, we decided to invest in early stage companies dealing with entertainment and to do this together with CAA. This activity was lead by Matthew Cowan from the Intel side and Hassan Miah from the CCA side. We had some hits like Launch Media which was founded by Dave Goldberg. Launch was selling enhanced CD’s. I required that they move to the Internet as part of our investment. Launch was eventually sold to Yahoo where Dave ran the Yahoo music business. Lucky for him, he meet Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook , soon to be one of the richest women in the world….and a lovely person by the way. We also invested in Mark Cuban’s Broadcast.com which went public and then was bought by Yahoo for more than five billion dollars. Of course they were not all successful and we invested in some duds like American Cybercast.
During this period we learned of Intertainer, founded by Jonathan Taplin. While I was aware that Jonathan had a background as a movie producer, I did not know anything about his extensive history in the music industry. Intertainer was one of the first companies to make deals with the movie industry and provide download-able movies. Remember this was 1997/98. There were not that many consumers that had broadband in their homes. Intertainer did very well until the movie industry, lead by Sony, created an alternative called Movielink. The result was that studios cut off access to movies by Intertainer; bringing that company to its knees. Intertainer sued a number of companies for Anti-Trust Violations in 2002. In 2006, the suits were settled out of court.
As I began to read the book, I was shocked to learn that Jonathan and I had a lot of overlap in our early days. Jonathan, at 65 is two years younger than I am. He grew up, went to school and lived on the East Coast during the 60s. If he had been living in San Francisco, we would have surely known each other. Jonathan became Bob Dylan’s road manager. In the early 60s, I was surrounded by the San Francisco music scene but in a very peripheral way. Bob Dylan showed up sometimes at the Blue Unicorn where I hung out. I met Janis Joplin while she was rehearsing with the Big Brother and Holding Company (she was not a very nice person I thought but when she sang it would bring tears to my eyes). I hung out at the home of the Jefferson Airplane and went to a few parties at Gerry Garcia’s home. But I was not into rock. I had studied classical music, composition and arranging. I preferred Jazz (and life long addition) and so I spent my time listening to Jazz players when they came to San Francisco. My engagement with first the “beatniks” and later the “hippies” was more extensive. I would listen to Allen Gingsburg read poetry in North Beach even though I was just a kid. I spent lots of time at the City Lights Book Store. Later, I became friendly with Allen and was invited to his apartment a few times. Outlaw Blues deals a lot with these people. I was also drawn to Jewish Mysticism and was for a while a follower of Shlomo Carelbach and very politically active in the anti war and civil rights movements.
In reading Outlaw Blues, I realized how easily my life could have gone in a different direction. Maybe, if I liked the music better, I would have become part of the rock music scene. My management and leadership skills might have taken me on a path similar to Jonathan and eventually my creative side might have emerged as it did for him. I had a similar experience reading Holy Beggars by Aryae Coopersmith whom I recently met. In reading Aryae’s book, I realized that I could have easily continued to explore the spiritual side of myself and may have ended up in Israel as a Rabbi. But I fell in love with technology. By 1966, I was working at the Langley Porter Institute, UCSF Medical School, designing equipment for brainwave bio feedback. From that point on, I had a continuing connection to technology. Now I am back to studying music. Jonathan is a Professor at USC.
At this point in my life, it is interesting to speculate on the different paths I could have taken. Life is so strange and random… or is it?
Some relevant links:
Outlaw Blues, the song
Outlaw Blues, the film
WSJ on the book
Intel/CAA Media Lab