A milestone in musical criticism, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music by Greil Marcus is a demanding read. But for all that is packed into its 177 pages (without the still-expanding “Notes and Discographies” section), it is worth the effort.
Alternately provocative and off-putting, the book polarizes online reviewers:
“The ur-text for those who like to plug their music collection into their book collection.”
“Tends to sink under the weight of its own self importance and lofty language at times.”
“This book established the possibility for me of thinking deeply and knowledgeably about rock and roll as a cultural form.”
“Ponderous and overwrought, and oh. so. pretentious.”
“Made me think differently about not only music, but all art and life in general.”
“A dense difficult book to read.”
Marcus says the book “is an attempt…to deal with rock ‘n’ roll not as youth culture, or counterculture, but simply as American culture.” He considers “the compromise between fantasy and reality that fills most of this book” to be the essence of America and being American.
Six performers–Harmonica Frank Floyd and Robert Johnson (“Ancestors”); The Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman and Elvis Presley (“Inheritors”)–are featured “because they are more ambitious and because they take more risks than most. They risk artistic disaster (in rock terms, pretentiousness), or the alienation of an audience that can be soothed far more easily than it can be provoked; their ambitions have a good deal to do with Robbie Robertson’s statement of his ambitions for The Band: ‘Music should never be harmless.’…Their records–the Band’s Big Pink, Sly’s There’s a riot goin’ on, a few of Randy Newman’s tunes, Elvis Presley’s very first Tennessee singles–dramatize a sense of what it is to be an American; what it means, what it’s worth, what the stakes of life in America might be….Their stories are hardly the whole story, but they can tell us how much the story [of America] matters.”
These artists–among, but more so than, many others–struggle to balance the contradictory and complementary desires and fears of American society through their music.
“Cultural history is never a straight line,” Marcus writes, “along with the artists we care about we fill in the gaps ourselves. When we do, we reclaim, rework, or invent America, or a piece of it, all over again…trying to create a world where we feel alive, risky, ambitious, and free.”
Marcus links familiar American forms in mind-blowing ways. In the first chapter, he unforgettably compares Harmonica Frank Floyd and Lyndon Johnson to Captain Ahab and Huck Finn.
“Of all the characters who populate this book,” he says, “only Harmonica Frank did more than keep the legend of Huckleberry Finn alive–he lived it out….His humor, his cutting edge, came like Twain’s from that part of the American imagination that has always sneered at the limits imposed by manners….It is a revolt against the hopeful morality of Twain’s aunts and the tiresomeness of Ben Franklin doing good and being right.”
Predictably, Marcus spends the most time on Elvis and his relationship with American music and audiences. Last June, at Sun Studio in Memphis, I first read Marcus’ poignant description of how Presley’s original take on an old blues song made Sun the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll:
“That’s All Right” was one of three Arthur Crudup tunes Elvis recorded….Elvis reduces the bluesman’s original to a footnote. He takes over the music, changing words and tightening verses to suit himself…. he turns Crudup’s lament for a lost love into a satisfied declaration of independence, the personal statement of a boy claiming his manhood. His girl may have left him, but nothing she can do can dent the pleasure that radiates from his heart. It’s the blues, but free of all worry, all sin; a simple joy with no price to pay.”
When I read that description again in Mystery Train, the story had another context almost as rich and appropriate as Sun Studio itself.