Book Review: Greil Marcus’s ‘Mystery Train’ Addresses Elusive Myths

Greil Marcus's Mystery Train

Rock writing didn’t really get underway until about 1967, a dozen years after the music itself first took hold. But, as books like this one show, the literary genre has since burgeoned at least as rapidly as its subject.

With the exception of Paul Williams and a very few others, early rock writers dwelled mostly on the merits or failures of the music at hand, digressing only to provide personality profiles and other background information. Increasingly, however, critics have begun testing out a larger territory by considering performers and their work in cultural and political contexts.

Requiring a good amount of generalization from the author, and demanding that the reader accept often weighty premises, such writing constantly flirts with tedium and pretension. But the most successful of its exponents, including Greil Marcus, have produced rock’s most significant and memorable essays.

Mystery Train, subtitled Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, attempts a task that on first consideration seems almost impossibly large. Eschewing purely musical or historical analyses, author Marcus chooses instead to discuss performers as representatives of American culture. It is perhaps the most chancy rock writing endeavor yet, and somewhat remarkably, it bears fruit.

Considering what Marcus attempts, it is not surprising that his fascination should center on musicians who themselves have taken major risks. Two such artists, Harmonica Frank and Robert Johnson, constitute the subject of a pair of initial chapters. These “ancestors” who helped pave rock’s frontiers, says Marcus, “can give us an idea of what the country has to give the music to work with—a sense of how far the music can go.”

With the Frank and Johnson discussions as a backdrop, the author moves on to consider the Band (“four Canadian rockers held together by an Arkansas drummer [who] staked their claim to an American story from the beginning”), Sly Stone (whose early music “combined the promises of Martin Luther King’s speeches and the fire of a big city riot”), Randy Newman (“who carries the weight of one version of America on his shoulders”) and Elvis Presley (“a supreme figure in American life”).

At times, especially in his 25,000-word Presley essay, Marcus strikes too heavy a nationalistic note for my tastes. And I disagree strongly with several of his stated conclusions, particularly that Elvis’s “natural affection for big cars, flashy clothes, for the symbols of status that give pleasure both as symbols and on their own terms” helps render him an embodiment “of what is good about [America].”

But this is quibbling, and what Marcus deserves is credit. He puts his finger on some of this country’s most elusive myths, taps a collective experience, and convincingly relates it to the work of the artists he discusses. And though many will find the result controversial, few will hesitate to acknowledge its importance.

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