The first edition of MYSTERY TRAIN appeared in 1975, and now appears in its 4th Edition. That a study of rock 'n' roll should appear in a 4th edition shows the ongoing appeal of this book, which easily makes any short list of the great books or rock criticism ever written.
Throughout all his work, Greil Marcus has been concerned not merely with rock 'n' roll on its own, divorced from the greater culture, but with the role it plays in the cultural life of America as a whole. For many cultural critics, Elvis was a disruption with what came before. For Marcus, Elvis is a natural outgrowth of primary trends in American life. No section of the book illustrates this as well as the one on Robert Johnson, in which he emerges as the natural heir to the Puritans, because, like them, Johnson takes the Devil seriously. No just in writing about Johnson or Elvis, Marcus seems to believe that there is something uniquely American about rock 'n' roll, as if it were an outgrowth of the American spirit and soul. It is a part of American history in a way that it is not a part of English history, even if many British bands could take up rock 'n' roll and play it as well or better than its American creators.
Marcus never fails to write with great intelligence and insight, and if he sometimes seems to make a point go further than it wants to go, it should be viewed as evidence of his trying to make as much sense out of the subject as he can. Marcus isn't content to write superficial, glib criticism. He wants to go below surfaces to what lies beneath. If he tries to make connections that one might not quite agree are there, I find that preferable to a kind of criticisms that isn't capable of seeing larger connections at all.
This is also in advertently sad book. Most of the figures he wrote about in 1975 were all still alive and were most were still active. Indeed, many of them seemed capable of continuing to produce great music. But none of the major figures discussed in the book are today alive and active in producing rock 'n' roll. Elvis would be dead two years after the publication of the first edition. The Band would disband and key figures in the band would die. Sly Stone would become embroiled in drugs and then disappear from the public eye entirely. Randy Newman would produce a few more albums, but would eventually leave rock to write movie soundtracks like his uncles Alfred, Emil, and Lionel. Marcus wasn't aware that he was writing about the past when he completed the first draft in 1974, but he was.
Still, if one wants highly intelligent, literate, sophisticated rock criticism, a kind of incisive writing that cannot today be found in ROLLING STONE or SPIN or anywhere else, this is the place to go. I actually prefer some of Marcus's other books to this one (in particular, LIPSTICK TRACES), but this remains his best overall book on rock.