Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'N' Roll Music (E. P. Dutton, 1975)
Reissued by Plume in paperback in 1997.
A music reviewer, editor, and lecturer on popular culture, Greil Marcus is above all a critic. It is not surprising, then, that he begins Mystery Train, his first in a series of books that examine the politics of pop culture, by providing his own critical assessment of the work that follows. "It is not a history, or a purely musical analysis, or a set of personality profiles," he writes. "It is an attempt to broaden the context in which music is heard, to deal with rock 'n' roll music not as a youth culture, or counterculture, but simply as American Culture." And that, in a nutshell, is precisely what he does.
Mystery Train, its title taken from Elvis Presley's last single for Sun Records, is a complex analysis of the relation between rock 'n' roll music and America. Rather than providing a general overview of influential bands and artists, Marcus focuses on just five: virtually unknown early rock 'n' roller Harmonica Frank; the country blues singer Robert Johnson; and some of the better-known musicians who followed: The Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman, and Elvis Presley. Marcus traces the history of each band and artist, peppering his prose with anecdotes and chunks of illustrative lyrics. Ultimately, however, his aim is to weave all the bits of information into a larger social context. His cultural references range from Coppola's Godfather, to Walt Whitman, to Raymond Chandler, to President Lyndon B. Johnson, to Herman Melville, each serving to illustrate some facet of American (rock 'n' roll) culture. Central to Marcus' conception of this culture is the Huckleberry Finn-esque image of the restless wanderer. Equally important is what Marcus perceives to be an inherent tension in rock 'n' roll music: that between America as a land of endless opportunities and as a place of failed dreams; the conflict between optimism and lingering dread; and the juxtaposition of absolute independence and creative collaboration.
Since its first publication in 1975, Mystery Train has garnered mostly enthusiastic reviews, which extolled its scholarly treatment of pop culture. A 1979 Washington Post article called it "an ambitious broad-based study." In 1991 Boston Globe writer Matthew Gilbert wrote, "Mystery Train is considered by some the best serious book about rock 'n' roll to date." Today, Marcus' debut remains relevant and has acquired the status of a classic. Rolling Stone, for instance, has called it "a milestone achievement." But overwhelming academic acceptance and monumental praise may be overshadowing just how fun and enjoyable the book is. Marcus' love of music inevitably seeps into his prose and infects the reader with a sense of awe and endless possibility. Cultural critique rarely gets this personal and entertaining.
The 1997 paperback reissue contains a new introduction, and the 112–page notes and discography section has been updated to include CDs.
Greil Marcus interviewed by Dave Weich: “All These Inches Away from where Greil Marcus Began”
Greil Marcus interviewed by Billy Bob Hargus: “Do Politics Rock?”