Tag Archives: Bob Dylan

The Top 15 Philosophical Songs

American Songwriter Magazine asked me to write this list of “The Top 15 Philosophical Songs.”

Here’s their description:

“Strap on your thinking caps and get ready to expand your mind. Grant Maxwell, the author of How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll, has compiled a heady list of the 15 greatest songs to incorporate philosophy. Are you ready? Good. Let’s begin.”


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“I Hope We Passed the Audition”: How The Beatles’ Encounter With Abbey Road Studios Changed the World

My friends over at Hey Dullblog, which they describe as a blog for “people who think about The Beatles maybe a little too much,” and which I describe as one of the best and smartest Beatles sites out there, have posted an excerpt from my book, How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll. It has sparked a great conversation in the comments as well.


Beatles Abbey Road

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What Really Happened When Bob Dylan ‘Went Electric’?

How Does It Feel

[The following is the Prologue to my new book, How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll]

Watching footage of Bob Dylan’s performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 when he “went electric,” the viewer is immediately struck, as Dylan and his band begin their set with “Maggie’s Farm,” by the insistence, intensity, and sheer volume of the repetitive three-note bass line. This pounding heartbeat, conspiring with the primal, cutting snarl of Mike Bloomfield’s lead guitar, must have been jolting for an audience expecting an acoustic folksinger. The sound is piercing and anxiety producing, urgent and fierce. Although Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary claims that “the volume of the blues band was kind of wild, you couldn’t get the words too clearly,”[i] judging from the recording, while “wild” is an accurate description of the volume, the words were perfectly audible, an observation reinforced by the fact that Paul Rothchild, who would go on to produce the Doors, was engineering the sound.

However, although the folk audience might have been startled by the sheer magnitude of the noise coming from their beloved troubadour, it could not have been mere loudness that produced such a negative reaction from the crowd, as both the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Chambers Brothers had played loud electric sets earlier in the day, which had both been well-received.[ii] While many in the audience were probably surprised by Dylan’s thwarting of their expectations (despite the fact that Dylan had released Bringing It All Back Home about four months previously and “Like a Rolling Stone” a week before), contrary to popular belief, it does not seem to be the bare fact of Dylan playing loud rock and roll that caused the audience to start booing.[iii]

Paying careful attention to the performance, as the band begins playing “Maggie’s Farm,” there is excited talking in the crowd, neither ecstatic nor critical, a clamor of expectant voices attempting to determine the value of this new music, shouting to be heard over the strident rhythm section and guitar. Dylan is visibly a bit nervous, but the first verse sounds fine, if slightly uncertain, his powerful voice cutting through the rhythmic potency of the band.[iv] This initial success appears to give Dylan courage, and he starts to smile as the song goes to the five at the end of the first verse on the word “bored,” the dominant chord that universally releases tension in the blues, allowing the song to resolve back to the one, the tonic or root chord. But the bass, which has been thunderously dominating the feel of the band, and rather effectively up to this point, does not go to the five, and thus the tension is not released.[v]

This deviation from the recorded version of the song on Bringing It All Back Home does not seem premeditated as the musicians appear confused for a brief moment, Dylan deliberately finishing the phrase, and then looking uncomfortably over at Bloomfield as two unseen men in the audience start to boo about a second after the singer steps back from the microphone. Another second later, Dylan looks down, apparently toward the booing men, with a half-wounded, half-disdainful expression as others join in the booing, the singer seeming to realize that he has lost his audience for this first live performance with a band (at least since high school).[vi] Although Dylan’s guitar is barely audible, and his left hand is not visible during this critical moment of the first verse, the bass refuses to move to the five again at the end of the second verse, while Dylan’s hand moves to what appears to be the A chord, the five for the key of D in which the song is played, which indicates that Dylan was performing the song as it was originally conceived, but that the sheer volume of the bass overruled his guitar.

While most commentators have implicitly assumed that Dylan meant the band to stay on the root chord as a planned assault on the audience, it seems far more likely, based on the subtle fluctuations in the band’s playing, as well as on the gestural and facial cues from Dylan and Bloomfield, that the bass player simply did not know the changes of the song very well, which merely demonstrates how little rehearsal had gone into the performance. As organ player Al Kooper charitably, though somewhat inaccurately, expressed it: “We didn’t especially play that good; the beat got turned around.”[vii] Similarly, musician Geoff Muldaur has said that “I don’t believe people were booing because the music was revolutionary. . . . It was just that Dylan wasn’t very good at it. He had no idea how to play the electric guitar, and he had very second-rate musicians with him, and they hadn’t rehearsed enough. It just didn’t work. The musicians didn’t play good. There’s no doubt in my mind, people were booing because it stank.”[viii] While many interpreters have differed from this assessment, based on the footage, it seems undeniable, though it also seems odd that, to my knowledge, it has never been mentioned in print that the specific musical problem was neither primarily the beat getting turned around nor Dylan’s electric guitar-playing, but the bass player missing a change.

One suspects that the fact that the bass player, Jerome Arnold, was one of two African Americans performing with Dylan may have had something to do with this collective amnesia, the product of a condescending proto-political correctness that may have been justified at the time, but that is perhaps unnecessary in the post-Obama era, especially when so many of our greatest musicians are black. However, the fact remains that, although the booing seems to have begun as a reaction to the music’s execution, it soon took on an entirely different significance, perhaps even by the end of that first song, but certainly by the time other audiences followed suit, culminating in the Manchester Free Trade Hall concert in 1966 when an audience member yelled “Judas!” before Dylan and the Hawks (later the Band) erupted into a volcanic performance of “Like a Rolling Stone.” In both concerts, bookending what is probably the most inspired and volatile ten months of Dylan’s performing career, high drama was played out on the stage of popular culture, requiring nearly as much conceit and suspension of disbelief as the theater for its effectiveness.[ix]

The unvarnished truth about Dylan’s performance at Newport in 1965 is that the young singer was accustomed to versatile session players and the ability to do multiple takes of songs in the studio, while this rhythm section, borrowed along with Bloomfield from the Butterfield Blues Band, was only prepared to play straight blues. But this was the leader of the band’s fault, not the rhythm section’s. Having worked with very few groups at that point, Dylan chose his musicians naively, thinking that they would be able to do his songs justice with very little rehearsal when this was just not the case. Playing alone, Dylan’s confidence in his performance was unshakable because he had the exceptional capacity to rise to any occasion. But playing with a band suddenly made it necessary for him to consider the other musicians, even just enough to elicit a good performance from them. Thus, it seems that the simple fact, generally overlooked, is that members of the audience started booing not primarily because they felt betrayed by Dylan’s embrace of rock and roll, but because Dylan was not yet a proficient band leader, so the bass player missed a change, which broke the momentum and made the performance feel wrong in a way that would have been difficult to define in the moment.

The myth that has grown up around this concert is that it was the symbolic enactment of an ideological schism between the folk purists and those favorably inclined toward rock and roll,[x] and it ultimately did come to symbolize this very thing for, according to folksinger Oscar Brand: “To the old left, Dylan was the second coming. . . . He was a kind of link to their own lost youth that validated them and gave them hope for their own resurgence.” However, if Dylan’s betrayal of this hopeful expectation was the source of the old guard’s disapproval, it does not seem to have been the primary concern for the larger audience. As singer, novelist, and close Dylan friend Richard Farina insisted:

We all grew up with . . . radio music—it was not traditional music. . . . Only when popular music was in its very worst period, when nothing was happening there, did we turn to folk music. [Rock and roll] was part of everybody’s music when they were growing up in America. It was part of high school in America. The first person that Dylan and I ever talked about when we hung out together was Buddy Holly.[xi]

Given their generation’s deep affection for rock and roll, with the benefit of recording technology and a careful ear, one gets the distinct impression that the myth might have been rather different had Dylan and his band sounded as tight as they did on his latest record.

However, as was almost always the case, Dylan managed to transform this near disaster into a triumph, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat when he was called back out to perform two acoustic songs. After singing “Mr. Tambourine Man,” he performed a weary, frustrated “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” that perfectly encapsulated the transitional quality of that moment, the performance of the death and rebirth of American popular music from one genre into another, from one way of being into another. Having already recorded the song that Rolling Stone magazine would appropriately nominate the “greatest song of all time,”[xii] “Like a Rolling Stone,” Dylan had not quite mastered live rock and roll. However, this was the moment when the reigning “King of Folk Music”[xiii] declared unequivocally that he was no longer exclusively, or even primarily, a folk musician.

Speaking in Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home about that first electric performance at Newport, Dylan recalls:

I was thinkin’ that someone was shouting, ‘Are you with us? Are you with us?’ And, uh, you know, I don’t know, what’s that supposed to mean? I had no idea why they were booing. I don’t think anybody was there having a negative response to those songs, though. Whatever it was about wasn’t about anything that they were hearing.[xiv]

However, knowing Dylan’s propensity for misdirection, and seeing the subtle signs in the performance footage, it seems likely that Dylan convinced himself in retrospect that the booing “wasn’t about anything that they were hearing,” perhaps choosing to believe, or even just claiming to believe the myth that his milieu had spontaneously created to cover up the fact that the man they had elected their prophet was all too human. Whatever Dylan’s intention, though, his audience and his generation apparently needed him to succeed, so rather than believe that Dylan could make a mistake as basic as not having sufficiently rehearsed, most of those involved seem to concur that Dylan made intentionally alienating music to declare his independence from the folk movement. While this supposition appears true to a limited extent, Dylan almost certainly did not intend for the bass player to miss the chord change, which sparked the booing and stalled the momentum of the performance.[xv]

Nevertheless, as Dylan’s friend Paul Nelson observed a decade later: “In the mid-Sixties Dylan’s talent evoked such an intense degree of personal participation from both his admirers and detractors that he could not be permitted so much as a random action. Hungry for a sign, the world used to follow him around, just waiting for him to drop a cigarette butt. When he did they’d sift through the remains, looking for significance. The scary part is they’d find it.” Although one might interpret this “hunger for a sign” in a less sinister light than Nelson does, it seems clear that the audience so intensely wanted Dylan to succeed that, by collectively creating a narrative near the factual truth, but not quite identical with it, they allowed Dylan to carry on with his trajectory toward greatness.

And this disjunction between the way the situation actually transpired and the belief of the collective could conceivably be taken as proof that everyone was participating in a mass delusion, as from a reductionist perspective, the concert was just a lot of people making a lot of noise and getting worked up about it. However, from a mythically and narratologically informed perspective, the very fact that the audience collectively and unconsciously saved Dylan from embarrassment, transmuting what was simply a bad performance into an epochal rupture, can be taken as evidence that Dylan really was, in some sense, destined for great things. The myth of this moment is far more significant than the way the music actually sounded whereas, by contrast, both the music and the event were equally significant at the “Judas” concert the following year, Dylan by then having drastically improved his approach to live rock and roll, not least by hiring one of his generation’s greatest bands, but also by forging a performative mode markedly different than his acoustic folk persona.[xvi]

Legend has it that Pete Seeger, the embodiment of the old guard of folk music at that moment, was threatening to cut the cables with an axe while Dylan was playing with the band at Newport. Seeger and the rest of the folk community ultimately acquiesced to Dylan’s revolution, though not without a great deal of resistance, a great deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth. However, if Seeger initially played the role of disapproving father, singer Maria Muldaur played the role of supportive sister. At a party later that night, Muldaur recalls seeing Dylan sitting by himself “looking really weird,” so encouraged by Richard Farina, as she recalls: “I go over by myself, and I say, ‘Hey, Bob, how you doing?’ His legs were wiggling like they always did, and he was just brooding in the corner with his legs wiggling. I put my hand on his shoulder and said, ‘Would you like to dance?’ And he looked up at me, and he said, ‘I would dance with you, Maria, but my hands are on fire.’ . . . Bob was looking like he was really down after his whole experience with that band. He didn’t look like a guy who thought he had very much to celebrate.”[xvii] As Muldaur told Scorsese, Dylan’s utterance may have been “cryptic,” but she “kinda knew exactly what he meant.” Muldaur apparently understood that Dylan’s hands were burning with an archetypal, Promethean flame, blazing with the magnitude of what he had just done, performing the necessary murder of the old order in an ugly, flawed, but ultimately effective—and era-defining—fifteen minutes of visceral intensity and sheer volume.

As Al Kooper, in his drolly humorous way, describes Dylan’s next show a month after the Newport performance:

When we played Forest Hills, “Like a Rolling Stone” was number one. And so when we played “Like a Rolling Stone,” they stopped booing and sang along. And then when we finished they started booing again. I thought that was great. I enjoyed that. But at the party after the show, Bob came runnin’ up to us and gave us big hugs. He said, “That was fabulous! It was great, it was like a carnival, it was fantastic.” He really enjoyed the show.

Based on Kooper’s observations, it seems clear that Dylan understood on a profound level that the booing was not really about him, that he was a catalyst for something profound occurring in his culture. In fact, Dylan seems at least temporarily to have attained a state approaching egoless consciousness such that he enjoyed the crowd booing him, at least for a time, not because he had a pathological need to be hated, but because he knew that he was playing a central role in the cultural drama. As Dylan recalls: “I had a perspective on the booing because you gotta realize you can kill somebody with kindness, too,” which seems to indicate that Dylan did perhaps, on some level, see himself as something like a messianic figure despite his frequent protestations to the contrary, not primarily for the glory, but because he knew that he could fulfill that vital cultural function.[xviii]

In fact, this kind of deep humility and sense of service to the greater good is precisely how one might expect a messiah to conceive his role. Dylan, in his “perspective” on the resistance leveled against him, was putting into action the French proverb, “to understand all is to forgive all,” for seemingly more than anyone else, he understood that the audiences were not booing because of who he was as a private individual, but because he was playing a necessary transformative role in the development of historical process.[xix] And having rejected folk music, he was not about to settle into his role as “Rock and Roll King”[xx] any more than he would accept the mantle of “Messiah.”[xxi] Dylan, always refusing to be pinned down, rejected the labels “folk rock” and “rock and roll” for his new style, preferring to call it “vision music,”[xxii] which seems as accurate a description as any. As ever, Dylan’s impulse was to transcend genre, identity, and even temporality to perform the “unceasing creation”[xxiii] characteristic of humanity’s greatest achievements, including the best of rock and roll.

[i] No Direction Home, Dir. Martin Scorsese (Paramount Pictures, 2005).

[ii] David Hajdu, Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez

Farina, and Richard Farina (New York: North Point Press, 2001) 260.

[iii] Hajdu 259-260. Several other theories have been posited to explain why the crowd was booing, including that the sound quality was poor (which does not appear to be the case based on the footage), that the set was too short (which is temporally impossible as the booing started near the beginning of the first song), and that the crowd was angry at Peter Yarrow for trying to cut Dylan’s set short (again temporally impossible). Some have even claimed that there was no booing, which is simply not true (Greil Marcus, Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, New York: PublicAffairs, 2005, 155-156).

[iv] Benjamin Hedin, ed. Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader (New York: Norton, 2004) 42. Hedin 42.

[v] Whereas the Newport 1965 version of “Maggie’s Farm” is played in the key of D, the studio recording of the song is played in the key of G. However, this transposition would not have affected the band’s ability to play the song with the same chord changes relative to the original key. On the record, the band plays an E minor transitional chord, a minor sixth for the key of G, before moving to the D, the fifth, but the minor sixth is merely a tonal shading inessential to the overall trajectory of the song, while the movement from the tonic to the dominant comprises the main action of the composition, and of the blues in general.

[vi] Marcus 156.

[vii] Robert Palmer, Rock & Roll: an unruly history (New York: Harmony Books, 1995) 105.

[viii] Hajdu 260.

[ix] Marcus 159.

[x] Hedin 40.

[xi] Hajdu 210, 227.

[xii] “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” Rolling Stone online (http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/the-500-greatest-songs-of-all-time-20110407).

[xiii] Daniel Mark Epstein, The Ballad of Bob Dylan (New York: Harper, 2011) 110-111.

[xiv] Scorsese.

[xv] Daniel Mark Epstein notes that Dylan’s memoir “never allows truth to get in the way of a good story, or history to interfere with the revelation of the most significant truths” (Epstein 81).

[xvi] Marcus 154-55.

[xvii] Hajdu 262-63.

[xviii] Scorsese

[xix] Or, in the slightly more prosaic phrasing of a friend from his days in Minneapolis: “he didn’t give a shit.” (Heylin 46).

[xx] Hajdu 276.

[xxi] Chronicles 124.

[xxii] Hajdu 281.

[xxiii] Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2005) 19.

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Bob Dylan’s Transfiguration

dylan motorcycle

Bob Dylan appears to have been undergoing a kind of prolonged death and rebirth initiation throughout the mid-sixties, similar to those experienced by shamans in numerous cultures around the world, which seems to have allowed him to act as a catalyst for the transformation of his culture. According to folksinger David Cohen: “his power, his mystique, just affected people in crazy ways,” many in his audience sensing that “this guy knows, this guy feels, and you want to be with him.” Or as Eric Andersen put it: “He’s got the heaviest vibes I’ve ever felt on anyone,” apparently a common perception by those who knew Dylan. By the mid-sixties, Dylan seems to have developed his intrinsic ability to embody the affective quality of the moment to such a high degree that he became the center of “a magnetic field” for people’s deepest desires and aspirations, similar to Elvis Presley’s role in his cultural moment, but at a more complex order of magnitude.[i]

Concluding the section about his self-naming in Chronicles, Dylan writes:

As far as Bobby Zimmerman goes, I’m going to give this to you right straight and you can check it out. One of the early presidents of the San Bernardino Angels was Bobby Zimmerman, and he was killed in 1964 on the Bass Lake run. The muffler fell off his bike, he made a U-turn to retrieve it in front of the pack and was instantly killed. That person is gone. That was the end of him. [ii]

What Dylan seems to be implying is that the fact that there was another man named Bobby Zimmerman who died in a motorcycle wreck in 1964 (actually 1961, though this discrepancy does not seem negatively to affect Dylan’s point) is a meaningful coincidence (the definition of Jungian synchronicity) that symbolically mirrored and enacted the death of Dylan’s old identity. This is an idea the validity of which it would be impossible for a purely materialist mode of thought to accept, at least outside of a novel or a film, but Dylan believes that the world does indeed work in mysterious ways. The name coincidence combined with the manner of the other Zimmerman’s death, which pre-iterates one of the primary images in Dylan’s mythology, the motorcycle crash of 1966, seems to suggest to Dylan a kind of cosmic orchestration in which events are somehow pulled into his wake of significance.

In his 2012 Rolling Stone interview, Dylan expands on the subject of the two Bobby Zimmermans, declaring: “You know what this is called? It’s called transfiguration. Have you ever heard of it?” “Yes,” the interviewer responds. “Well, you’re looking at somebody,” Dylan declares. “That . . . has been transfigured?” comes the hesitant rejoinder. “Yeah, absolutely,” Dylan asserts:

I’m not like you, am I? I’m not like him, either. I’m not like too many others. I’m only like another person who’s been transfigured. How many people like that or like me do you know? . . . Transfiguration: You can go and learn about it from the Catholic Church, you can learn about it in some old mystical books, but it’s a real concept. It’s happened throughout the ages. . . . It’s not like something you can dream up and think. It’s not like conjuring up a reality or like reincarnation – or like when you might think you’re somebody from the past but have no proof. It’s not anything to do with the past or the future. So when you ask some of your questions, you’re asking them to a person who’s long dead. You’re asking them to a person that doesn’t exist. But people make that mistake about me all the time. I’ve lived through a lot. . . . Transfiguration is what allows you to crawl out from under the chaos and fly above it. That’s how I can still do what I do and write the songs I sing and just keep on moving. . . . I couldn’t go back and find Bobby in a million years. Neither could you or anybody else on the face of the Earth. He’s gone. If I could, I would go back. I’d like to go back. At this point in time, I would love to go back and find him, put out my hand. And tell him he’s got a friend. But I can’t. He’s gone. He doesn’t exist. . . . I’d always been different than other people, but this book [about the other Bobby Zimmerman, written by Ralph Barger along with Keith and Kent Zimmerman (who bear no immediately apparent relation to either of the Bobby Zimmermans)] told me why. Like certain people are set apart. . . . I didn’t know who I was before I read the Barger book. [iii]

A 71-year-old Dylan, in a simultaneously more open and more cantankerous mood than usual, declares unequivocally that he was fundamentally transformed in his twenties, that he died and was reborn through something like the Christian process of Transfiguration, the recipient of which becomes spiritually exalted, taking on an aspect of divinity, a process that bears a striking similarity to the shamanic initiation elucidated by Mircea Eliade and others. The Transfiguration of Christ, which St. Thomas Aquinas referred to as “the greatest miracle,” is when Jesus shined radiantly upon a mountain (perhaps like the Beatles on the Cavern stage) and became mysteriously connected to the Hebrew prophets Elijah and Moses who appeared beside him. In the New Testament, Paul refers to the believers being “changed into the same image” through “beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord,”[iv] which 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. Ultimately, the Transfiguration appears to have been fulfilled in the death and rebirth of Christ, which seems to be a kind of fractal reiteration of the archetypal death and rebirth of the shamanic initiation that Dylan appears to have experienced.

As Dylan asserts, those few who are fundamentally transformed through this kind of process, by various accounts including primal shamans, ancient mythological heroes who traversed the underworld (Osiris, Dionysus, Heracles, Persephone, Orpheus, Psyche, Odysseus, Aeneas, Theseus, Gilgamesh, Odin, and others), figures from the Hebrew Bible (Jacob, Enoch, Elijah, Moses), the New Testament (Mary and Christ), and the Buddha, are reborn as new people, which separates them from the majority of humanity who have not undergone such a transformation. According to Dylan, this Transfiguration is not something that one can “dream up and think” in a hypothetical, conceptual way, but something that one either feels or does not. From Dylan’s perspective, which is very much like that articulated by William James, one cannot choose one’s destiny. Rather, one either knows that one has been transfigured or one does not, and the skepticism of those who have not experienced Transfiguration, either in themselves or in others, has no bearing on the reality of the phenomenon. As it is expressed in several places in the New Testament, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.”[v]

Thus, for Dylan, his young self, named Bobby Zimmerman, died during the mid-sixties, culminating in Dylan’s motorcycle crash, which was synchronistically presaged by the death of the other Bobby Zimmerman in a motorcycle crash a few years before, regardless of whether it was 1961 or 1964. However, after the 2012 interview, Rolling Stone was apparently able to determine that the biker Bobby Zimmerman died “within weeks” of Robert Shelton’s 1961 review of Dylan’s show at Gerde’s Folk City in the New York Times, which catapulted Dylan into the limelight, essentially marking the beginning of Dylan’s public career.[vi] In a roundabout way, this chronological mistake in the book from which Dylan took his information only serves to add credence to Dylan’s interpretation, for naratologically speaking, the 1961 date seems even more perfectly orchestrated to confirm Dylan’s conviction of his Transfiguration than 1964. Indeed, the five year period between September 1961 when Dylan was elevated by Shelton’s review and July 1966 when he crashed his motorcycle and went into seclusion is one of the most creative, epochally transformative half-decades that any artist has ever undergone.

Furthermore, by declaring that “it’s not anything to do with the past or the future,” Dylan seems to be evoking something like Bergsonian duration, implying that his Transfiguration is partially constituted in the shift from relating to time as quantitative to understanding that moments with similar archetypal qualities resonate in a qualitative way that seems to exceed linear temporality. Although the two Bobby Zimmermans were materially unconnected, the mode of thought Dylan enacts, which appears coextensive with the generally predominant mode of thought prior to the seventeenth century, sees a closer connection between the young man who would become Dylan and another young man with the same name who had died years before than between Bobby Zimmerman from Hibbing and the famous singer Bob Dylan. As Dylan asserts, he can never go back to being Bobby Zimmerman no matter how much he might want to revisit his former self, for this is apparently the price one must pay for Transfiguration: it is impossible to unknow something once it has been deeply experienced. Or as Heraclitus expressed it: “You cannot step into the same river twice.”

According to Dylan, this shift in perspective has been a primary factor in allowing him to do what he has done, “to crawl out from under the chaos and fly above it,” for in this mode of thought, the chaotic meaninglessness of pure materialism, consisting of atoms randomly colliding for no reason, can be overcome by embracing a view of life as filled with cosmic significance, though hopefully tempered by intellectual rigor. The material facts do not change in this mode of relation, though the results of approaching the world in this way constitute “that slightest change of tone which yet make all the difference,” as Whitehead puts it. In his narrative of the two Bobby Zimmermans, Dylan seems to imply that something like the order of the world sacrificed another man with the same name as him to literalize the death of one of the most transformative figures in history’s original identity. This type of meaningful coincidence occurs frequently in literature and film, but our culture usually assumes that these instances are merely plot devices invented by the author rather than occurrences containing extra-textual meaning. Although there is no mode of causation that has been broadly accepted in the main streams of late modernity which could explain such a phenomenon, the ancient and well-established principles of formal and final causation offer just such an explanatory mode. From this perspective as articulated by Dylan, both the symbolic and literal deaths of the two Bobby Zimmermans are expressions of a formal cause, the sacrificial death and rebirth of the individually embodied shamanic archetype on a mass scale apparently luring culture towards a final cause, a collective Transfiguration at that moment in the mid-sixties.

[This is a (slightly modified) excerpt from my book, How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll]

[i] Epstein 134.

[ii] Chronicles 79.

[iii] Rolling Stone 2012. The book Dylan is referring to is: Sonny Barger, Keith Zimmerman, and Kent Zimmerman, Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club (New York: William Morrow Paperbacks, 2001).

[iv] Holy Bible: King James Version (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 1979) 2 Corinthians 3:18.

[v] The King James Bible, Matthew 11:15.

[vi] “Bob Dylan: His Hells Angel Conversion,” The Guardian Music Blog, http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/sep/20/bob-dylan-hells-angel-conversion


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Elvis Presley, the Beats, Bebop, and the Privileging of Intellect

Elvis 1

The beat poets, as well as the bebop movement in jazz, have much in common with the countercultural phenomenon of rock and roll, largely defining the American cool, “hipster” aesthetic that Elvis Presley came to exemplify. In this indirect sense, the proto-beats and bebop musicians had a profound effect on the culture that produced Presley, though the beat movement is usually marked as beginning in earnest on October 7, 1955, the occasion of Allen Ginsberg’s first reading of “Howl,” more than a year after the release of Presley’s first single, “That’s All Right,” on July 19, 1954. Regardless, neither the beats nor bebop, which had begun in the forties, were on Presley’s radar, so to speak. While the work of Jack Kerouac or Miles Davis allowed high cultural access to the more intuitive and somatic modes that Presley embodied, there does not seem to be a direct link between the literary movement of the beats, the intellectual aesthetic performed musically by bebop, and the music of Elvis Presley. Thus, while acknowledging that the beats and bebop enacted a similar impulse to that of rock and roll, the analysis in my forthcoming book, How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll, is primarily concerned with the influences and cultural domains that Presley and his milieu themselves saw as their immediate precursors and contemporaries, namely, popular musicians and actors.


Certainly all of these figures—poets, actors, and different kinds of musicians—were part of a larger movement in culture away from the exclusive privileging of intellect towards intuitive and somatic modes, and these various countercultural expressions (though the term was not coined until Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counterculture in 1969) were ultimately reintegrated with intellect in complex ways, a point explored extensively in my book. However, whereas the beats essentially enacted the trajectory towards affect from the basis of a poetic genre that implicitly privileged verbal intellect even while it pushed against it, and bebop carried jazz, which had been the previously predominant musical incarnation of the repressed epistemologies, towards intellect, Presley and his contemporaries generally embodied a more pure expression of affectivity without immediate reference to intellectual domains. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the original rock and rollers were ultimately reacting to this privileging, and that the further permutations of the genre, particularly those of the Beatles, Dylan, and their contemporaries, would engage with rationality much more intimately than Presley’s milieu. Both the beats and bebop were explicitly in dialogue with the predominant rational mode whereas Presley and the majority of early rock and rollers were not in any significant way. Rather, the privileging of scientific rationality in modern discourse, exemplified in the Cartesian equation of thought with human existence in general, formed the background against which rock and roll was brought into being. Thus, although rock and roll did implicitly gain its significance by contrast to the predominant discursive modes, the genre’s relationship with the intellectually privileging main streams of culture was qualitatively different than the aesthetic modes employed by the beats and bebop.


[This is a (somewhat modified and expanded) excerpt from my book, How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll]


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Bob Dylan’s Archaic Mode of Thought

Dylan Shadow

Whereas the beats, exemplified by Jack Kerouac, seemed to Bob Dylan to be obsessed with liberating themselves from the constraints of the prevailing order, Dylan apparently found this liberation to be a necessary, but ultimately incomplete endeavor, a mere rejection of what modernity had become without offering a viable alternative. Rather, Dylan was drawn to old songs, stories, and modes of thought that preceded his immediate context, for Dylan saw the way out of the current stalemate that the beats decried not in a rejection of the past, but in a more complete embrace of tradition, an “archaic revival” of a history so deep and mysterious that it seemed radically novel in the current historical context. For Dylan, having immersed himself in profoundly different ways of seeing the world characteristic of earlier times, generally constellated around mythic “enchantment” (as opposed to the “disenchantment” characteristic of modernity posited by Weber), the folk songs that encapsulated these modes of experience really did seem to evoke a “parallel universe,” as he writes in Chronicles, “a reality of a more brilliant dimension.” Indeed, the “principles and values” that folk music portrayed were literally “archaic” because, in folk’s general focus on liminal figures from American frontiers, the “outlaw women, super thugs, demon lovers and gospel truths,” and the “Stagger Lees, Pretty Pollys and John Henrys,” Dylan found a window into predominantly premodern epistemologies, persisting well into modernity in the forgotten borderlands and rural routes of America.

It was a mythologically oriented “invisible world” whose “archetypes” seemed more real to Dylan than the scientific knowledge of distant cities and universities. Whereas for Dylan, the late modern subject was alienated from his (for it was always “he” that was referred to) labor, his culture, and even his body, the archetypal denizens of folk songs were “filled with natural knowing and inner wisdom,” precisely evocative of the epistemologies so effectively repressed by the predominance of rationality in postwar America. Indeed, while the individual in late modernity seemed small and peripheral, merely a commodified and insured sack of flesh and bone with a list of marketable skills and a net worth, the figures in folk songs seemed to Dylan to defy this reductive view of human nature by their participation in the “full spectrum” of “life magnified” through these other modes of being in the world, “each demanding a degree of respect.” Whereas in the late modern visions of the existentialists and the beats, the world seemed vacated of meaning, the folk tradition was the repository of a mode of thought in which the world was an epic place of profound significance inhabited by larger-than-life characters. Dylan, not just academically interested in this mode, seems to have lived his life in the light of the mysterious world view that he describes, though mitigated somewhat by the intellectual self-consciousness forged in modernity that had not yet been fully individuated in premodernity. As Dylan puts it: “I was beginning to feel like a character from within these songs, even beginning to think like one,” though always with the self-awareness of one who seeks out this premodern mode as a reaction to his culture rather than being born into it without access to mediating rationality.

But certainly, as Dylan notes, at that moment in the early sixties, “there wasn’t enough” of this archaic way of thinking available in the main streams of culture. The mode of consciousness exemplified in folk music had been buried so effectively, expunged from collective awareness by the predominance of pure reason in the central nodes of American culture’s discursive networks, that it was a titanic labor archaeologically to unearth the evidence of this repressed way of relating to experience. To be sure, the older mode was there to be found, but “it was out of date, had no proper connection to the actualities, the trends of the time,” for the American ideal had long been reconstellated around an entirely different center of gravity focused on paradoxically individualistic conformity, with scientific repeatability and the efficiency of the machine as the governing metaphors. The repressed modes were “a huge story” because, as William James and Alfred North Whitehead explicitly suggest, they had been the primary mediators of human experience prior to the seventeenth century, as the modes of thought characteristic of science had not yet been systematically differentiated from archetypal and teleological cognizance based on formal and final causation. However, it is a testament to the adaptability of the human mind that, only a few hundred years after the Enlightenment, the mode of constructing experience that had defined human culture for so long “was hard to come across.” Dylan discovered that these were modes of explanation that could account for the vital, animate, meaning-infused quality of human experience in the animal body. If these forms of consciousness had no connection to the “trends of the time,” at least those predominant in the main streams of culture, then Dylan would just have to start new trends and, in order to perform this epochal role, he found it necessary to cut himself off from the sovereign discursive milieu so that he “had little in common with anyone not like-minded.” Dylan’s intuitive revulsion at explaining himself to journalists and other gatekeepers of the principal cultural hierarchies seems to stem directly from this need to maintain consciously the new mode that was constituted in the integration of an archaic mode with the critical awareness more characteristic of his time. Ultimately, Dylan was an artist, not a philosopher, and he did not have the time or energy both to concretize his world-transforming visions and explain them to skeptics, which is probably one of the reasons why so many books have been written about him: The musical and mythological narrative he created is profound and can bear the weight of such explanation.

[This is a (slightly modified) excerpt from my book, How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll]


Bob Dylan, Chronicles (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005) 235-6, 240.


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Defining My Musical Aesthetic


My Last few posts have been on the heavier theoretical side, so I thought I’d lighten things up a bit and describe my musical aesthetic. I’ve just recently started singing, writing, and playing guitar with a band again after a two-year hiatus to finish my dissertation, and it’s great to be back in action. These last two years have allowed me a lot of time to reflect on the previous fifteen years I spent consistently playing with bands, rehearsing weekly, and playing hundreds of shows in a way that wasn’t possible while I was in the midst of constantly negotiating band dynamics, dealing with booking agents, lugging my equipment around, harassing my friends to come out to shows, and psyching myself up to sing in front of dozens, sometimes even hundreds of people. I’ve particularly had a lot of time to think about what it means to be a rock and roll musician as I’ve spent these last couple of years writing about music. My book, which I’m almost finished adapting from my dissertation, is tentatively titled How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll. I read the early careers of these three genre-defining artists from a theoretical perspective based on the work of William James, Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, and others.

I wrote my first song, “One-Sided Love,” when I was ten, and I think the song has actually held up pretty well.  I believe I wrote my next song when I was fifteen, and I started to think of myself as a songwriter when I was sixteen or seventeen. I’ve played with three major bands: The Arthurs from Austin, Texas (Sixties British and Elephant 6 inspired psychedelic pop, opened for My Morning Jacket, the Shins, and Of Montreal), The Pages from Brooklyn, NY (a weird amalgam of Beatlesque pop, country music, jam band, avant garde jazz, and hard rock that we referred to as “skiffle funk,” as if that explained anything), and The Morning Pages, also from NYC (a roots rock band that got within spitting distance of the big time). These three musical collectives have all influenced the development of my musical sensibility in profound ways. Although I’ve dabbled in a lot of styles over the years, my tastes seem to have settled on what can basically be described as roots music, though I see my aesthetic as less defined by genre and more by a set of qualities that cut across some pretty disparate styles of music.

Some of the musicians that exemplify my aesthetic include Waylon Jennings, Bob Marley, Tinariwen, JJ Cale, Jonathan Fire*Eater, Hank Williams, Miles Davis, Willie Nelson, The Grateful Dead (particularly in the early seventies), Neil Young (particularly with Crazy Horse), and Bob Dylan (particularly with the Band and the Rolling Thunder Review). This may seem like a slightly strange list, ranging from country and indie rock to North African music and reggae, but what they all share is a devotion to depth: of groove, of lyric, and of musical nuance. This is far from the only kind of music I like or listen to, but these are the artists that trace the contours of my ideal sound.

The musical element that Waylon and Marley and Tinariwen and JF*E all share is a highly distinctive rhythmic feel, though these rhythms are all very different from one another, with relatively few chord changes. This propulsive simplicity allows the musicians and audience to enter a kind of ecstatic, trance-like state that music with more active, vertical chord progressions and melodies vigorously disrupts. I’ve been in bands with plenty of musicians who prefer that mode—I even used to prefer it myself when I was younger—but over the years I’ve gravitated towards the horizontal mode. I think of the vertical mode as naïvely innocent and the horizontal mode as maturely road-worn, but that might just be a result of my own personal trajectory. I want music that impels me to move my body in reserved and complex ways. Think Richard Manuel or Levon Helm of the Band, shoulders pumping at slanted angles to their pelvis in a sinuous roll, literally a “hip” form of motivity equally removed from the angry head-banging of metal, the graceful swaying of country ballads, and the puppet-like jerk of eighties synth-pop, all of which have their center of gravity in the shoulders and chest. By contrast, the kind of music I generally prefer has its center of gravity in the pelvis. It’s basically rock and roll, though the original meaning of that term defined the “hip” feel, while later permutations took other elements of the genre in different rhythmic directions. Thus, I would argue that the artists mentioned above, though all from explicitly different genres, are the true inheritors of rock and roll, perhaps even more than Nirvana or Radiohead, both of whom I also love, but which I would classify more as “rock” than the syncopated, body-wiggling feel of those other artists. As far as I’m concerned, the Black Keys are the first widely successful “rock” band that’s emerged in a long time that actually possesses something of original rock and roll’s feel.

Just to be clear, I’m not against genre distinctions; they’re useful and they evolve through a complex process of public consensus and record company and radio-station marketing strategies. But, ultimately, I’d like to be able to discover new music based on this criterion of “feel” rather than of genre.

The other two elements that constitute my aesthetic can be described as depth of content, both lyrical and musical. In the case of the singers, to which, as a singer myself, I’m particularly attuned, these two qualities of words and phrasing go hand in hand. And like the feel described above, I prefer lyrics that are evocative without being too specific, philosophical without being pretentious, emotive without being dramatic. Think Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” Waylon’s “This Time,” or Marley’s “Bad Card,” though most of the songs by these three artists have a similar lyrical quality. I like songs that can be sung by many different singers, songs that contain universal truths or paint familiar situations, but without pandering like most new country, for instance. My favorite kind of songs are extremely simple and pure, the kind of songs that sound like they could be sung around a campfire a hundred years from now, as my old guitar player once said. This simplicity of composition combined with subtle rhythmic sophistication creates a palette for the singers and players to express the full force of their personalities by paradoxically putting their egoic consciousness aside and letting the song and the groove manifest through them. I like singers who completely own the words, who know the song is great enough that they can relax and experiment with the melody, draw out phrases and play around the beat. Willie Nelson, Bob Marley, and Bob Dylan are all masters of this style of singing.

Let me know if you have suggestions for music that fits these criteria. I’d love to add more artists to my small musical pantheon.


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