Electric Review

Culture & Criticism Since 2003

American Idioms

MYSTERY TRAIN. Images of American Rock and Roll Music. Greil Marcus. Plume.

“Gets as close to the heart and soul of American and American music as the best of rock and roll.”
– Bruce Springsteen on Mystery Train

Mystery Train

Cover courtesy of Plume.

If rock and roll fans were required to read one book, it should be Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train, since it contains all the reasons why this music has survived the test of time, telling us why it’s always going to matter.

Now in its sixth edition and celebrating its 40th birthday, Mystery Train dissects the careers of six seminal artists (Robert Johnson, Harmonica Frank, Randy Newman, the Band, Sly Stone and Elvis Presley), each of whom helped to shape an edge of the genre, each of whom helped to sharpen the teeth of the music and render it immortal.

Marcus, who has taught at Princeton and U.C. Berkeley and served as a the first records editor at Rolling Stone, presents the quintessential snapshot of America via this exploration of its most extensive artistic movement. In turn, Mystery Train is not just about music, it’s about the country and her citizenry. Rather than just serve up another 300-page record review in the guise of analytical tome, Marcus uses the music as the vehicle through which we come to traverse the intricate labyrinth of the culture and our place in it.

Accordingly, the random reader is able to ride the hard-honed blue-note wail of Robert Johnson’s catalog into the Negro experience in the southern swamps of the United States. Do you really want to know what these people endured and why the rage still over-flows in so many American cities today? Then drop a copy of Johnson’s Complete Recordings on the turn-table and follow the trembling lit of each line: Within this music you will find the history of the American people and a blood-spotted chronicle of their footsteps.

Additionally, Marcus’ analysis of the Band is vital: Although they’re mostly known for the ass-kicking wall of sound they built behind Bob Dylan’s time-changing 1966 tour of Europe, Marcus shows us that this quintet (Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Richard Manual, Garth Hudson and Rick Danko) were probably the most versatile band ever assembled – a true ensemble able to play hard rock, blues, folk, gospel and ragtime-swing with equal precision.

Due for re-release on April 28th, Mystery Train is as much a part of the American musical fabric as any record that’s ever been recorded. Some 4 decades after it was originally written, it is still compelling and piercing and relevant. And there’s simply no greater compliment you can offer a writer or a book than that.

by John Aiello


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This entry was posted on May 11, 2015 by in 2015, In the Spotlight, May 2015, Rat On Fiction & Nonfiction and tagged , .
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