Jonathan Taplin, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker who produced Martin Scorcese’s first film, Mean Streets, and has written books including The End of Reality: How Four Billionaires Are Selling a Fantasy Future of the Metaverse, Mars and Crypto, served as tour manager for The Band from 1969 through 1976’s The Last Waltz. Taplin remained close with Robertson through the guitarist’s death Wednesday at 81. Reached by phone at his home in Los Angeles, below he discusses Robertson’s career and legacy.
I was producing a tribute to Woody Guthrie in New York for Harold Leventhal, who had been Woody’s manager, with Judy Collins and Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez. Harold managed to get to Bob Dylan directly, going around Albert Grossman, who was Bob’s manager at the time. Bob said, “Yeah, I’ll do it, but I’m going to bring my band, Levon and the Hawks, with me.” They came down and I was the production guy. And I met them all and we did a soundcheck.
When it was all over — and they did an amazing job, they played three songs and it was really the best thing in the whole thing — Robbie said, “We’re going to go out on the road to support this album Music from Big Pink, would you want to be our tour manager?” I said, “Absolutely.” I was still at Princeton [University] at the time, and that didn’t stop me. Then [The Band’s] Rick Danko drove his car off the road into a ditch and broke his neck, so that tour never happened.
About six months later, Albert called me and said, “The Band is going to go to California to record their second album and Robbie would like you to be their tour manager, and after that they’re going to go on the road.” We moved all the stuff out to Sammy Davis Jr.’s house on Sunset Plaza and set up a recording studio in his poolhouse, and that was known as the brown album, or the second album. That was a huge breakthrough record for them.
Then we went and played Winterland [in San Francisco]. That’s the famous incident where [Robertson] was running a 104 [degree] temperature the day of the concert and Albert didn’t want to cancel and [promoter] Bill Graham got a hypnotist to come in and hypnotize Robbie to convince him he wasn’t sick. Somehow, we managed to get him on stage, and Robbie played, and we played two more nights at Winterland, and it was incredible. And we went to the Fillmore East and played there. Nobody had seen these guys. They were like a huge mystery because they hadn’t gone on the road to support Music From Big Pink. It was like, “Who are these people, these mountain men?” They wore suits onstage and they didn’t look like psychedelic rock stars.
I was their tour manager for three more years. I graduated from Princeton, went on the road with them, and George Harrison asked me to produce The Concert for Bangladesh, so I left The Band, did that and came to California. The Band had stopped touring for a while and Bob didn’t want to tour and George Harrison didn’t want to tour. I came out here and met a young film director named Martin Scorsese and we made a film called Mean Streets.
Robbie moved out to California and the rest of The Band followed. When Robbie decided to call it a day and have The Last Waltz [The Band’s final concert], he said, “I’d like you to produce this with me” and “Who should direct it?” I said, “Marty would love to direct it, but there’s one problem: He’s doing a movie called New York, New York, and I’m sure he can’t do it.” Robbie said, “Let’s go talk to him about it.” Marty said, “Nobody’s going to do this but me.”
The concert was scheduled for Thanksgiving Day. … We were able to get away and fly Marty up to San Francisco and did the concert and the rest is history.
Other than the famous Neil Young cocaine incident, nobody was out of control at all. In fact, I would say everybody realized they had to be on their best behavior. If you look at that solo guitar battle between Robbie and Eric Clapton on “Further on Down the Road,” that’s the highest level of guitar-playing that you’ll ever see. There was some partying afterwards, but, man, when the thing was going on, everyone who wasn’t on stage was in the wings watching what was on stage, because it was so damn amazing.
Robbie was kind of a very contained person. He got up early in the morning and went to work, like you would do — in the sense of, like, a newspaperman. He would start writing at 9 in the morning in his little studio. The leadership position evolved. Remember, The Band originally was called Levon and the Hawks. Then Levon [Helm] quit the Dylan tours because he was tired of getting booed all the time. When Levon came back — because Albert got Robbie and the rest of the guys a record deal — something had shifted. It was now more Robbie’s deal, and Robbie was the one who dealt with Albert Grossman a lot. He was more business-oriented than the rest of the guys.
Over time, Robbie ended up being the only songwriter. That was just default. By Stage Fright, Richard [Manuel] and Rick [Danko] had stopped writing. [Manuel co-wrote two songs on that 1970 album.] So it wasn’t that Robbie wanted to be the only songwriter. It was kind of nobody else was showing up at the party. You become a kind of natural leader. To bring the songs into the studio, you play them for the other guys to figure out their part and then you record them.
I see Robbie as a friend all the time. I was involved with that film they did [in 2019], Once Were Brothers. We were going to get together two weeks ago. He’s been sick for a while, but I didn’t know he was that sick.
He was a genuine original. Not only in his guitar playing but in his songwriting. Here we are confronting this notion that a computer can write a song, and that’s not true. Great music comes from the heart of a genius, and there aren’t a lot of them around, and they aren’t going to come from artificial intelligence. He was one of those geniuses. “The Weight” will stand, and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” will stand. The Latin [quote] said, “Art is long and life is short.”