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Mystery Train: Images of American Rock 'n Roll Music (Plume) Paperback – 25 Jun 1992


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Product details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd; 3rd edition edition (25 Jun 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0452267129
  • ISBN-13: 978-0452267121
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2 x 22.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 6,116,094 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

More than 20 years after its initial publication, Mystery Train remains one of the smartest, most provocative books ever written about rock-and-roll. Marcus puts his subjects--which include Robert Johnson, Elvis Presley, The Band, Randy Newman and Sly Stone--into their proper context, which is the culture-at-large. He makes you understand why these musicians matter and what they have contributed to the American imagination. In his introduction, Marcus confesses that he is no longer "capable of mulling over Elvis without thinking about Herman Melville"--to the benefit, I might add, of both parties. --Gala Brand --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

?Gets as close to the heart and soul of America and American music as the best of rock ?n? roll.? ?Bruce Springsteen ?The finest examination to date of American popular music.? ?Alan Light, "Entertainment Weekly" ?Probably the best book ever written about rock.? ?"Rolling Stone" --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 29 April 1999
Format: Paperback
Mystery Train is much more than just a very good piece of rock criticism, nor should it be remembered as perhaps the Father of Rock Criticism. This book is astounding because what Marcus is able to do is get inside a piece of music, an artist, a certain place in time, a brief second inside a recording studio or on a movie screen, and not only recall the moment (or what the moment might have resembled) but also manage to make the moment real for the reader. So often, when reading music criticism, one feels a distance between the work of art itself and the criticism in front of you. Seldom is the excitement, passion, or wonderful possibilities of art well discussed and analyzed, because most authors are unable to find that fine balance between salivating fan and distanced critic. In Mystery Train (and in his other books as well), Greil Marcus has found that balance - or, more precisely, he has refused to accept the balance as necessary. Whatever Marcus trains his eye upon becomes fascinating and important because he sees every possibility, every ramifcation, every opportunity to return to the overriding theme, which is America. After reading Mystery Train, I not only wanted to track down those old Harmonica Frank tapes and re-listen to my Robert Johnson record, and scrutinize The Band's "Brown Album"and Sly Stone and Randy Newman and Elvis - I also wanted to go beyond the book, to attempt to apply Marcus' vision to what I saw around me. For some reason, this book reminds me of the works of Thomas Pynchon, but not just because they're both regularly classified as "post-modernists" by critics and profs.Read more ›
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer VINE VOICE on 31 Dec 2002
Format: Paperback
...This is a tremendously influential book about Elvis, Robert Johnson, Sly Stone, The Band and Randy Newman as American legends, putting them into the context of the unwritten history and mythology of the frontier, the riverboat, and the Appalachian mines. Later on Marcus got a bit too academic and obscure for this reader's taste (e.g. in 'Lipstick Traces') but this is the business. If you are remotely interested in America or in rock music, there's plenty for you here. Buy it!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Neil Kernohan on 22 Jan 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is definitely a book for those interested in the wider social and cultural significance of rock'n' roll music and fans of expert rock journalism. It's a rather unusual collection of long discursive essays about a few select artists starting with Harmonica Frank an obscure musician and one time associate of Sun Records' Sam Phillips, blues godfather Robert Johnson, The Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman and the great Elvis Presley. In each chapter Marcus offers his uniquely personal perspective on what motivated these artists, their place in the musical pantheon of the 20th century and the stories and messages behind their lyrics and albums. The book also has astonishingly detailed footnotes of which the section on Elvis is a goldmine of information on the man's recording career and legacy. Here is Marcus on the importance of Elvis "It is vital to remember that Elvis was the first young southern white to sing rock'n'roll, something he copied from no one but made up on the spot; and to know that even though other singers would have come up with a white version of the new black music acceptable to America, of all who did emerge in Elvis's wake, none sang so powerfully, or with more than a touch of magic."
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 4 Mar 1999
Format: Paperback
Just about the best book about artists which (with the exception of Sly & The Family Stone) I've never bothered to listen to. But Marcus' choice of performers is irrelavant. What matters is his thesis on how rock & roll has influenced American culture, and vice versa. The introduction, about Little Richard's rant on Dick Cavett's early-70's show on ABC, nicely sums up what Marcus does in this book---insisting that rock & roll is THE postwar American music, no matter what the elitists tell you.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 32 reviews
35 of 35 people found the following review helpful
A book for the lover of the rock and roll idiom 2 Aug 2000
By Olly Buxton - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Founding rolling stone writer Greil Marcus is what you'd describe, were you English and of a certain age, as an "Anorak". He's an obsessive, passionate, academic lover of rock 'n' roll in all its many forms. Here he sketches out a book structured in a loose fashion like the bible, in that it has an "old testament" surveying two of rock's 'ancestors' and a "new testament" on five of their 'inheritors'. It's a book about rock 'n' roll. In short, Marcus waxes long and with great hyperbole on things which most grown ups in this day and age find rather trifling.
Well, I don't, and I think this is a fantastic book. It's subjects are eclectic as can be: Robert Johnson is a reasonable enough choice for "ancestor of the rock 'n' roll tradition" but it would be a brave man who would pick one-man band "Harmonica Frank" Floyd, from Toccopola Mississippi, as the other. But Marcus does, and creates a fascinating case for his inclusion.
The threads he picks up of rock iconography are incredible - the myth of Stagger Lee, blended into the history of Sly Stone was something I'd never heard of, but it prompted me to head off in that direction and see what I could find. Likewise the short chapter on Robert Johnson.
In a lot of ways, that's the beauty of this book: For all its obsession-shot prose, it functions as a bunch of references; directions which the reader can follow up at leisure, and Marcus's effervescent writing style functions like a firm push between the shoulder blades. The bibliography is almost as long as the text, and it's well worth the read.
There are some who find Marcus' style too garish, and there is a view that he is too much of a boffin - an anorak, if you will - for his own good. I don't agree with that - Marcus is self-aware enough to see the funny side of himself and his subject matter, and he is always so enthusiastic that it isn't fair to say he misses the point, or the energy, of what he's writing about.
Marcus' later work, especially on punk rock, is well worth investigating too. Don't believe the nay-sayers who don't like his "straying" into punk: "In the Fascist Bathroom", Marcus' anthology of essays on punk rock is one of the funniest, most compelling reads I've had in a long while.
25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
In The American Grain 17 Oct 2000
By Papa Hemingway - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
I am a 20yr old English American Studies student, a verified "america-phile" (this is how i've been described by americans in my year abroad at an american university, shocked as they are by my fascination w/ american culture)...this is one of the things that started it all for me. I first became interested in american culture through the music of the country and this book convinced me that american music could be seen "not as youth culture, or counterculture, but simply as American culture." (for me the book's key line, its thesis, the simplist and yet greatest explanation for the worth of studying popular music as you would literature or even film)...yes, i admit, the book is often complex and obscure, imprenatrable (most of it rests on Marcus's own assumptions and overriding optimism for the promise of the American dream), assuming a great deal of knowledge of american history and culture (as i learn more about this country, i find it extraordinarily rewarding to keep re-reading it, to pick up on more of the allusions) and yet it is still possibly the most rewarding and influential (to me anyway) book i have ever read, reminding me time and time again of the social-cultural-human power in american music, rather than simply its commercial power (which a lot of popular music studies, ie media studies, seem to focus on)...and the discography! this is worth the price of purchase alone! its like TS Eliots notes to 'The Waste Land'! So many albums I have bought simply from reading about them here...i recommend that anyone interested in american culture and rock n roll read this! and then peter gularnick's "sweet soul music" etc etc...
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
In Mr. Marcus, I, For One, Hear America Singing 29 April 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Mystery Train is much more than just a very good piece of rock criticism, nor should it be remembered as perhaps the Father of Rock Criticism. This book is astounding because what Marcus is able to do is get inside a piece of music, an artist, a certain place in time, a brief second inside a recording studio or on a movie screen, and not only recall the moment (or what the moment might have resembled) but also manage to make the moment real for the reader. So often, when reading music criticism, one feels a distance between the work of art itself and the criticism in front of you. Seldom is the excitement, passion, or wonderful possibilities of art well discussed and analyzed, because most authors are unable to find that fine balance between salivating fan and distanced critic. In Mystery Train (and in his other books as well), Greil Marcus has found that balance - or, more precisely, he has refused to accept the balance as necessary. Whatever Marcus trains his eye upon becomes fascinating and important because he sees every possibility, every ramifcation, every opportunity to return to the overriding theme, which is America. After reading Mystery Train, I not only wanted to track down those old Harmonica Frank tapes and re-listen to my Robert Johnson record, and scrutinize The Band's "Brown Album"and Sly Stone and Randy Newman and Elvis - I also wanted to go beyond the book, to attempt to apply Marcus' vision to what I saw around me. For some reason, this book reminds me of the works of Thomas Pynchon, but not just because they're both regularly classified as "post-modernists" by critics and profs. Rather, I find that after reading Marcus and Pynchon, I find myself looking at things differently, recognizing possible patterns around me, being amazed at the myriad possibilities and variety of life. Mystery Train is not simply "a book about rock and roll." It is a work which exists on its own, a work which is both dependent upon and an improvement on the works it discusses and analyzes. Certainly, in 50 years, this book will be looked at as one of the finer moments in American criticism.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
The Landmark Randy Newman Chapter 26 July 2000
By R. W. Rasband - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Many people love this book for "Presleyiad", the lengthy mythic analysis of Presley's career. Others like the Sly Stone chapter, or the riveting section on Robert Johnson. What makes this book special for me, however, is the Randy Newman chapter. Marcus may have been the first critic to propose that Newman was a great American composer and he makes a passionate, convincing case. In recent years Newman may have been embarrassed at being singled out so strongly by Marcus, and Marcus may disparage Newman's most recent work (unjustly, I think.) That doesn't change the landmark character of Marcus' great book. Too bad he went off the deep end with punk and "Lipstick Traces."
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Still one of the truly great Rock 'n' Roll books 13 Oct 2002
By Robert Moore - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
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.
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