on 29 April 1999
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.
...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!
on 4 March 1999
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.
on 22 January 2011
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."
on 8 March 2015
'Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music', told via the following artists - Harmonica Frank, Robert Johnson, The Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman and Elvis. Not an easy book to describe after one read through, but the subtitle conveys the theme. The best I can say is that I found it a genuinely enlightening and enjoyable read. And as a consequence I bought myself a copy of Sly and the Family Stone's - 'There's a Riot Goin' On'; Randy Newman's - 'Sail Away'; and a good compilation of early Elvis - 'Elvis Gold'. Whether you already have the albums or not - a good read.