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How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll Paperback – August 21, 2015
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The first three chapters, about each title character and their particular artistic genesis, are good cultural history and excellent pop music analysis (his explication of Dylan's rejection of modernity is one of the better summations available of this complicated figure). . . . The accounts provide fresh, rewarding perspectives on historical moments that have been theorized to death, if not outright mythologized. . . . Grasping at any threads that might bind high culture with low . . . this very polar tension generates the ultimately subtle magnetism of Maxwell's book.
About the Author
Grant Maxwell is the author of How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll. He has served as a professor of English at Baruch College in New York, he holds a PhD from the City University of New York's Graduate Center, he has written for American Songwriter magazine and the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, and he works at Vanderbilt University Press. He's also a musician, and he lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife and son.
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“Ultimately,” states Grant Maxwell in in How Does it Feel? Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll, “it appears that (rock'n'roll) constitutes a turn inward away from the narrowly rational, materialistic externality of modernity toward the internal, subjective, psychological meaningfulness of formal and final causation, though this inward turn, when followed deeply enough, seems to open out into the cosmos.” (Maxwell, 5319) In this sense the performative expressions of popular music function as archetypal universals or generally recognized states of emotional-spiritual intensity (as in rasa theory) as well as its unitive teleological end, the experiental space of community, interpersonal connection, and (as the principle of unity) love. “The primary focus of this mode of thought is something like the ‘archetypal feminine’ expressive of the return of embodied, intuitive modes of engagement with experience characteristic of earlier eras,” states Maxwell, “and the songs and images in collective experience have provided a focus and catalyst for the return of affective bodily knowledge, of formal and final causation, and of mythic enchantment to the world.” (Maxwell, L5327) Regarding the importance of bodily awareness in resonant relationship with one’s experiential and conscious perception of the world and events generally, Maxwell quotes Alfred North Whitehead, stating in Science and the Modern World (and echoing Dogen);
“In being aware of the bodily experience, we must thereby be aware of aspects of the whole spatio-temporal world as mirrored within the bodily life… My theory involves the entire abandonment of the notion that simple location is the primary way in which things are involved in space-time. In a certain sense, everything is everywhere at all times. For every location involves an aspect of itself in every other location. Thus every spatio-temporal standpoint mirrors the world.” (Whitehead, 718)
This self-reflective awareness depends on the extensiveness of the (individual) self into and throughout the (social) world as such, understanding through perspectival simultaneity among various forms, the implications of these processional relations and structural developments for the embodied individual. Paradoxically, because this freely mobile and transcendently forceful movement rooted in individual self-consciousness (bounded in visible terms by the physical body) escapes the oppositions, dualisms, and finitude previously (habitually) associated with embodiment, for its realization to emerge these associations and assumptions must be “unseated” in some sense, at least with regard to their precluding the flow of connectivity between the bounded terms of individual selfhood and the extensive, moving world of which they are a participant identity and an essentially related correlational microcosm. Echoing this point, Bob Dylan, an archetypal performer and figure in the initial emergence of the popular electrified music culture of 1960s America – still a dominant force whose essential impetus remains the transformative awakening of profoundly affective spiritual insight and concomitant modes of practice on a mass scale, oriented most conspicuously around interpersonal love – states in 1978, “In order to free himself, to be reborn, a person has to go outside oneself.” (Maxwell, 4833) “Rock and roll is an ideal vehicle for this self-transcending rebirth,” writes Maxwell regarding Dylan’s relationship to the aesthetic form, “which like a mirror, allows one to see oneself from the outside,” through the ecstatic affect occurrent in its right reception. “The sound and the rhythm are the answer,” Dylan remarks, “Get into the rhythm of it and you will lose yourself, and then you will lose your identity” (thus enabling its more perfected/situated creative emergence) (Maxwell, 4844)
In the popular medium of mass communication represented by rock ‘n’ roll and other electrified forms of music, the impetus toward affectivity as a means of collective involvement (with the transcendental social) is conveyed by the authentic practices of transfigured (transcendental) individuals. Writing of Bob Dylan’s experience of transfiguration through symbolic death and transformation in identity, Maxwell states, “Dylan appears to have been undergoing a kind of prolonged death and rebirth initiation throughout the mid-sixties, similar to those experienced by shamans, which seems to have allowed him to act as a catalyst for the transformation of his culture.” (Maxwell, 4904) Dylan, born Bobby Zimmerman, describes his transfiguration process which led him to pursue a career in music under the moniker “Bob Dylan,” as being connected significantly to the death of a Hell’s Angel’s motorcyclist also named Bobby Zimmerman. That this other Zimmerman died in a motorcycle wreck at the same temporal moment that Dylan began his new life as a musician “is a meaningful coincidence that symbolically mirrored and enacted the death of Dylan’s old identity” and “pre-iterates one of the primary images in Dylan mythology, his own motorcycle crash of 1966, suggesting to Dylan a kind of cosmic orchestration in which events are somehow pulled into his wake of significance.” (Maxwell, 4927) Regarding Dylan’s archetypal significance as a figurehead for this collectively present experience of transfiguration brought on en masse by popular media engagement oriented around affectivity, Maxwell compares Dylan’s position to that of Christ, where both individuals appropriately display an authenticity of praxis which is collectively resonant and similarly transformative in those rightly-tuned recipients of their communicative expressions (whether sermons, songs, or otherwise). This “suggests that the witnessing of the transfigured individual can mediate a similar transformation in those who believe in that transfiguration, acting as a mirror for the collective… the death and rebirth of Christ seems to be a kind of fractal reiteration of the archetypal death and rebirth of shamanic initiation that Dylan appears to have experienced… the literal and symbolic deaths of the two Bobby Zimmermans participate in a formal cause, the sacrificial death and rebirth of the individually embodied shamanic archetype on a mass scale apparently luring culture toward a final cause, a collective transfiguration.” (Maxwell 4956) The resonant affect emergent in collective transfiguration among many individuals highlights the important function played by media and communications technology, which are able to synesthetically represent the expressions of transfigured individuals, thereby conveying the germ of this essentially universally self-similar awareness. The affective draw toward engagement with such works and content functions on this fundamental similitude of identity, collectively articulated by various individuals throughout culture and history. While conceptual or intellectual awareness depends on a similarly transformative exceeding of categories of knowledge and stylistic spheres of its engagement, the affective, embodied corralationally equivalent mode of understanding conveyed in self-referential (relating to the profoundly affective conditions and relationships existent in one’s life), communally resonant (at the originary or essential level of teleological attraction towards unity) experiences – such as in those of music – represents the “third option” or triadic mode of awareness with respect to the religious and intellectual traditions whose fundamental goal of religious knowledge, or spiritually resonant knowledge of the world as such and one’s situatedness therein, is identical to the general cultural impetus towards the unitive resolution of (apparently) contrasting poises of perspectival experience.
Maxwell cites rock ‘n’ roll and its popularization through music of the Beatles in the early to late 1960s as another instance of “the heard’ or felt awareness implicit in the experiential reception of its essential message, which overcomes the skepticism of the intellect based on the resonant fulfillment of its aims regarding an adequate understanding. This understanding thus correlates to affective fulfillment, in some, discriminating and intellectually fulfilling manner, expressed by the Beatles’ twin concerns with romantic love (in their earlier albums to a greater degree) and universal (or religious) truth (evident in their later, psychedelic albums and their association with India and transcendental meditation with the Maharishi). The focus of these later albums, whose legacy is embedded in the countercultural movement of the 1960s psychedelic culture, highlights the realization of Love (in the sense of total fusion or unitive oneness in religious experience) as the teleological principle underlying the individual, existential/metaphysical search for ‘truth’ – and that its obtainment is guided primarily by this affective quality. Thus, the ethos of “free love” and the impetus toward enjoyment in interpersonal, relational terms (ideally) overcomes the skepticism of modernity while also fulfilling its search for universal truths, in a way that resonates individually and collectively (to the extent that this affective quality is sufficiently harmonized with intellectual forms of knowing). Maxwell cites Richard Tarnas’ statement at the beginning of Cosmos and Psyche; “Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect… the mind that seeks the deepest intellectual fulfillment does not give itself up to every passing idea, yet what is sometimes forgotten is the larger purpose of such a virtue. For in the end, chastity is something one preserves not for its own sake, which would be barren, but rather so that one may be fully ready for the moment of surrender to the beloved, the suitor whose aim is true.” “The youth of America,” Maxwell comments, “were ready for a passionate consummation of belief while the press initially remained skeptical in the face of the miraculous.” (Maxwell, 2420) For those youths, the music of the Beatles, and its essential message of love as individually and universally resonant truth of the cosmos – the reason for Being – was felt, like the Vedas, as “vibrating out of the Infinite to the inner audience of the individual who had previously made himself fit for the impersonal knowledge.” This “becoming fit” (Dogen’s arising of right faith) represents an intuitional awareness that precedes intellectual verification, but which also functions to rearrange or reorient the intellect’s trajectory, arising initially in contrast with or in response to previously existent intellectual-rational assertions or assumptions in a culture regarding humanity. “Intuition,” states Maxwell, “constituted primarily in attention to bodily feeling, seems to have functioned as something like a dialectical complement or antithesis to the original thesis posited, which is that humanity is defined purely by the rational mind as Descartes so starkly exhibited in his equation of thought with human being: “I think, therefore I am.” (Maxwell, 1875) Intuition is a pre-reflective or spontaneously arising (in a “way-seeking moment”) mode of engaged awareness which exhibits an attractive draw on personal and intellectual seeking, and it is only when the two resonate (in the bodily and conscious realms of perception) and confirm one another that a higher, spiritual or religious, awareness (that which is permeated and characterized by universal Love or Ananda) becomes manifest. “If knowledge is the widest power of the consciousness,” states Aurobindo, “and its function is to free and illumine, yet love is the deepest and most intense and its privilege is to be the key to the most profound and secret recesses of the Divine Mystery.” (Aurobindo, SY, 149) Music, by combining linguistic or conceptual ideas with somatic awareness and tactile interaction (through the medium of sound), is able to express this dual pursuit of right understanding and its authenticated “completion” through affectively experienced love (however manifest). As Maxwell notes, “True love, like good musicianship, is something that cannot be achieved primarily through intellectual analysis of the potential beloved’s attributes and accomplishments, but rather something that one must feel.” (Maxwell, 2119) What is felt in this experience is inherently impersonal, even while being (intensely) individually meaningful – precisely because of the expansion in awareness regarding individuality conveyed therein; going outside of itself and becoming open to the (beloved) other, an openness characteristic of religious knowledge at its essential level. Aurobindo affirms this point, stating; “All true love and all sacrifice are in their essence Nature’s contradiction of the primary egoism and its separative error; it is her attempt to turn from a necessary first fragmentation towards a recovered oneness. All unity between creatures is in its essence a self-finding, a fusion with that from which we have separated, a discovery of one’s self in others.” (Aurobindo, SY, 121)
That's how I felt for the most part of this book!
No matter how many times i checked the definition of "epistemology", which was about five times every ten pages,
i still could not not figure what the guy was gettin' at.
This is probably an erudite and very well written book with a deep metaphysical or teleological affect, and whatever other words i had to look up to make sense of mr Maxwell's writing,but it is not an easy read for true.
There is definitely passion and love in the writing,but buried with so much academical lexicology
that most of it just sailed right over me.
Challenging(frustrating??) but not for everyone i guess.
However, I have come to the opinion that, unless you like wading through the garbage can of Dylan’s personal life or reading second-rate music criticism, How Does it Feel is the best book on Bob Dylan since Christopher Rick’s Dylan’s Visions of Sin.
The book is not just about Dylan, although he gets more than 50% of the book’s discussion. How Does It Feel? the Philosophy of Rock and Roll is about rock and roll, the sound track of our lives. Using Elvis Presley, The Beatles and Bob Dylan as three artists who respectively created, and transformed rock and roll, Maxwell explores the philosophical aspects of rock and roll.
How does it feel?
The longish title says it all How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll. The key is the word “feel.” Maxwell postulates that our society, on the cusp of rock and roll in the early 50′s, was reaching the pinnacle of the age of reason or rationale modes.
Maxwell’s proposition is that Elvis joined the world of rational thought, with its emphasis on reaching logical conclusions at risk of common sense or feeling, with the affective mode of how it feels. Does it feel good? Does it move you?
My son says, in discussing the book, that other cultures never forgot to consider feeling. Western culture got lost somewhere from the age of reason to the over-rationalized decisions of the National Socialists to euthanize the mentally disabled, cripples, and then 6 million Jews and the communists conduct genocide against millions of Russians.
Euthanasia made logical sense to the highly educated Germans raised on Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. That is not to say logic is not twisted today to justify atrocities because similar arguments are still being used. Nor does mere feeling create wisdom or compassion.
Today we live in world where we have dual roles of being rational in our work and external lives while maintaining deep connections to our feelings and rock and roll is a conduit to those feelings. Keeping those two opposing forces balanced is the trick of a healthy mind.
Maxwell discusses religion and rock and roll. John Lennon said The Beatles were more popular than Jesus which was blasphemy for many but true. Most people are more motivated by what music they are listening to than to what is being said from pulpits, despite attending a church of one kind or another.
When I was 14, I found a new religion in music - rock and roll and folk music, to my mother’s life-long consternation. Brought up right-wing protestant, I dropped all interest in religion, which is not uncommon for teenagers. Despite a few forays back into other religions, music was and is the prime mover in my life and I think that reflects most people today, except people who seek solace in going back to the Bible or Koran.
Maxwell discusses novelty as a driver in the development of culture and rock and roll. Artists must re-invent themselves to maintain audience interest, which Dylan has tested over and over even to point of massive booing and condemnation from his old fans when he converted to electric.
The music that moves baby boomers is not the same as the music of Millennials. My youngest hate that I might like their music, which doesn’t happen often. We’re all stuck in learned modes.
How Does It Feel? rewards you if you put the time in but it’s not a light read like most books. It does not veer into the author’s interpretation on criticism of the artists lives or work, as Dylan wrote in Gates of Eden,
At dawn my lover comes to me
And tells me of her dreams
With no attempts to shovel the glimpse
Into the ditch of what each one means…
How Does It Feel? is obtuse, difficult and laced with too many references for easy reading. By the time I had struggled to the end in a somewhat enlightened mental state, I knew I had to read it again.
For Pete’s sake the book has a Flesch- Kincaid Grade Level of 17. We’re always told to write at a Grade 8 level so your readers can easily get the point. How Does It Feel? the Philosophy of Rock and Roll eschews readability for erudition.
After reading the book once, I tweeted the author Grant Maxwell @ “Since you’re the author you can say what you like, I still think its over done. There are simpler words to say the same thing.”
Grant Maxwell rejects that. “If that’s true, then the whole discipline of philosophy is redundant and pointless, a supposition with which I vigorously disagree.” @grantmaxwell
After decades of slumming with the English language, I put Kindle to the rescue and re-read How Does It Feel? the Philosophy of Rock and Roll on my Kindle.
Kindle was made for this book and regressive readers. By touching the word on the screen, I was immediately provided a dictionary and Wikipedia entry for words like “concomitant”.
However, what Kindle can’t make easy is the long sentences and complex thoughts in this book. If you’re willing to read for enlightenment then the book rewards beyond most of the books on rock and roll.