Greil Marcus,
Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music, Sixth Revised Edition
(Plume, 2015)

Here's the newest version of a classic work of music history and criticism, first published in 1975. It's the toughest book I've waded through in a long time.

I agreed to take on this title because I like to listen to American rock and I like to read about this music, its roots and its people. But these pages quickly become tedious. So much so that, whenever a more appealing book came along, I dropped this one in half a heartbeat and snuggled up with the newbie, then reluctantly trudged back to this one when the other was done. This cycle played over again and again, as the weeks and months slipped by. But I promised to review it, so I deliberately sat down with the sole intention of finishing this book and writing its review before doing anything else. Ugh.

The task would be indeed be tall, if you took it on yourself. Pick six American musicians who epitomize the root-essence and culture of the early days of rock 'n' roll. Veteran author Greil Marcus has chosen these six: Harmonica Frank Floyd (1908-1984); Robert Johnson (1911-1938); The Band [Robbie Robertson (b. 1943), Rick Danko (1943-1999), Levon Helm (1940-2012), Garth Hudson (b. 1937), Richard Manuel (1943-1986)]; Sly Stone (b. 1944); Randy Newman (b. 1943); and Elvis Presley (1935-1977). Granted, Johnson and Presley would and should be on anybody's list. The rest? Well, some yes, and some no. Marcus says that his book "is not a history, or a purely musical analysis, or a set of personality profiles. It is an attempt to broaden the context in which the music is heard; to deal with rock 'n' roll not as youth culture, or counterculture, but simply as American culture." I guess if this is his goal, then he succeeds.

The book is divided in half, with the main narrative coming first. Each artist gets a chapter, a combination of biographical details coupled with more industry-related ones, as well as an examination of some of the artist's best, representative or most controversial lyrics. (This refers to lyrics as they were performed, because while Elvis is a crucial part of the genre, he was not a songwriter -- a small detail the author doesn't point out.) In fact, Marcus's examination of lyrics goes beyond the mere words themselves, to focus on the intent of their message. And quite frankly, this can be amusing. A lot of people either don't hear lyrics accurately, or they sing along without giving much thought to the story (if there is one).

Nevertheless, it's in the lyrics where Marcus finds his "images of American life," at least as it was in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. To Marcus, the essence of American life is as simple as black and white. Literally. We're talking about race. We're talking about relations between the races. And we're talking about the images of black and white America, as found in these songs.

With this as his primary focus, the author takes time out in the Sly Stone chapter to diverge into the story of Stagger Lee Shelton, an African American living in St. Louis before the turn of the last century who is said to have shot and killed another man for stealing his Stetson hat. The story turned into a song that fueled a continuing legend and stereotype. For more than a century, the Stagger Lee image has turned up again and again in songs, in plays, in stories.

Since rock 'n' roll is rooted in southern blues, it shouldn't be surprising that these kinds of stories appear here. This history is a study in black and white. But it may jolt the reader a bit, because the words "race," "black" and "white" do not appear in any of the book's promotions or summaries. We figure it out on our own, as the pages turn, and as the subject regularly arises. If this all-out social commentary is not what you expected, then it's easy to get turned off. Is it important to sociologists? Of course. Is it vital to music lovers, and to rock 'n' roll fans especially? Maybe, maybe not. And while these issues play a crucial role in our history, we should remember that while these snapshots may be America, they do not represent the only America, then or now.

Yes, this is a musical and cultural analysis, and yes, it is thought-provoking. But while Marcus is a talented writer, he sometimes is long-winded with his descriptions and explanations.

Here are three examples of his critique. They all appear in the Randy Newman chapter, but really, in the author's eyes, they could apply to any popular musician:

"Rock 'n' roll is a combination of good ideas dried up by fads, terrible junk, hideous failings in taste and judgment, gullibility and manipulation, moments of unbelievable clarity and invention, pleasure, fun, vulgarity, excess, novelty and utter enervation, all summed up nowhere so well as on Top 40 radio, that ultimate rock 'n' roll version of America." (p. 92)

"Without massive public response, we would not even get close to two crucial democratic questions, questions worth asking about any interesting work of popular culture: How far can this work take its audience? How far can its audience go with it? Only works that can't be ignored -- liking them is hardly the point -- raise such questions and bring them to life. In one way or another we are all affected by hits, and are forced to define ourselves in terms of our response to them." (p. 103-104)

"And what often happens to the American popular artist, who feels he must grab the country itself and fails to even scratch it, is that he tries so desperately and honestly to alter his work in order to make it matter (not even compromising to make it palatable, though the line is hard to draw, especially for the artist), that he loses all sense of what impelled him in the first place. Either his career declines, and he is forgotten, or he hits, and decides that he has betrayed himself -- and his audience." (p. 106)

Wait a minute. Liking the music is "hardly the point"? As a fan, I grouse at this remark. And has every popular American artist thought first of pleasing and appeasing the public, and only secondly of making the music good? Maybe I'm naive, but this is a dark view of the work of any performer or songwriter. Genuine artists are compelled to follow personal preference first, the public be damned. If it's otherwise, then maybe I don't want to know this much about these musicians.

Throughout the text, the author frequently paraphrases philosophical quotes from several American authors: Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman and, especially, Melville and Twain. He regularly references Tom, Huck and Jim, Ahab and the white whale. After all, he expects an erudite audience, and woe to readers who can't catch his analogies between classics of American literature and the basic themes of rock 'n' roll. Again, some of us will just say, "What?" Unless Marcus is quoting one of the performers verbatim, this is how he writes: with long passages and literary references. When you think about it, it's odd to talk about down and dirty blues and early rock in a language that doesn't reflect its own words.

What are missing for me are behind-the-curtain peeks at the artistic process and creativity that went into the music. The text focuses so much on lyrics that the melodies don't seem to matter much. (Marcus must again think they are "hardly the point.") But isn't it the sound that grabs us and appeals to us the most? Admittedly, more "musicology" appears in the chapters on The Band and Elvis than the others, but these are usually snippets of scenes from production rooms. We aren't privy to what happens beforehand: the songwriter's struggle; the way words and notes are magically matched; the organic way a finished piece of music emerges as individuals come together to play it. Marcus's view of rock 'n' roll seems deliberate and calculated. The product is seen not as art but commodity, a necessary representation of society at large. Okay, it could be this way. But what about the people who feel they must play it, no matter what? Or those who are compelled to listen? Emotion, man, emotion. This book needs more of it. In large doses.

I guess it was the combination of language and approach that kept turning me away. So whenever I got bogged down on a page, I told myself that this was just one person's view of rock 'n' roll history, in the same way that my review would be just one person's reaction to it. This is true for any act of creation. The piece will either resound with those who look upon it, or it won't. This book is just like music, in this regard. But I have to say that from the white cover on in, the main body of Mystery Train left me cold. And this is disappointing, because this is not what music means to me.

The second half of Mystery Train (discounting the final index) consists of a section innocently titled "Notes & Discography." Without looking at it first, the reader may believe that it is merely a list of footnotes from the previous narrative, coupled with a succinct list of recordings by and about each of the main artists analyzed. In other words, something that can be skimmed in just a few minutes. Maybe even skipped. WRONG! Very wrong. Tremendously wrong. For it is in this section where the real meat of the book has been hiding all along.

"Notes & Discography" makes up more than half of the text of the book. Here the author addresses the six musicians again, bringing their lives and histories up to date since 1975. He talks about further recordings of their music, as well as any number of books written about the individuals. And he adds whatever else has come up, on topic, over the past 40 years. This section too is a narrative, not just a list. And I found it to be much more enjoyable than the first part of the book. It's still written in long paragraphs, with a lot of ink filling every page. But it's concrete, it's interesting and it makes sense. No diatribes are necessary. This part could be better titled "Legacies," after the first half of "Analysis."

Here is also where the author takes sufficient time to explore the relevant tangents that arose around each artist in the first half of the book. We're talking about Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks, Bob Dylan (with The Band), Stagger Lee (yes, here are even more details about the myth and legend), Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West, The Beach Boys, The Kinks, The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Charlie Rich, "Louie Louie," Sam Phillips, Sun Records and Rockabilly Music. These are valuable lines to consider.

But it doesn't take too long to for you to dip into the juices of "Notes & Discography" before you have to wonder why this information remains separate from the chapter it follows. I almost wish I'd had the chance to compare previous editions of Mystery Train with this one; I assume the first half chapters have stayed mostly the same as the originals from 1975, with only a few minor exceptions. It's the "N&D" section that must change the most with each update. Indeed, some casual online reviewers have touted the virtues of new editions solely for these final updates alone. More ideas on this story division, in a few.

Above all, EVERY Elvis Presley fan should read the lengthy Presley chapter AND the Presley part of "N&D." These 155 pages will be well worth the price of the whole book for them. Marcus is obviously an Elvis aficionado. If you were wondering which of the hundreds of posthumous biographies are worth reading and which are trash, he'll tell you. He sorts through voluminous amounts of recordings and tells you what's good there, too. Marcus does not speculate much at all on the actual circumstances surrounding the King's death, as he does about Robert Johnson's. He doesn't reveal where he was when he got the word and what it meant to him. (On the other hand: While I was never a fan of Elvis, I have some respect for his body of work, and I can show you the exact piece of road I was driving on when the sad news came over the car radio in August 1977.) But Marcus has written more extensively on this matter in at least two other books: Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession (1999) and Double Trouble: Bill Clinton & Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives (2001). Maybe he felt it unnecessary to include such an aside here.

If Greil Marcus were to ask me for advice in preparation for his next edition, I would give him two recommendations. First, rearrange the information. Move "Notes & Discographies" for each artist to the end pages of their own chapters so the information for each person or group will be found in one place. The reader won't have to either read through ALL of the musicians' stories a second time, or thumb through many pages to find a favorite. The extra stories, like the ones about the Kinks, Beach Boys, etc., can be kept in an "Additional Chords" section after the main body of the book.

Secondly: recordings. Where are they? Give us some. Or give us a better way to find them. Many are referenced in the narrative itself, including some esoteric ones that the author came upon by quirks of fate. For a book published in 1975, it was an uncommon occurrence to tuck a recording inside the back cover. Not impossible, but not common. And it wouldn't have been practical for this work then because a small and thin vinyl record, even created to play at 33 1/3 rpm, would not have been able to hold much music. Perhaps only one selection representing each artist.

But times have changed -- and for the better, in this instance. Now publishers can fairly easily include a CD or a thumb drive with additional material for each volume. It's nearly unthinkable that such a musical reference should be published without adding a sampler of the music that goes along with it. This major publisher must have staff with the expertise to acquire copies of some of the recordings and the necessary rights to do so. Or alternatively, the company or the author could provide a web page that has links to selections the author has deemed to be "must hears." At the very least, I beg for the inclusion of a final and succinct must-hear list of titles, artists and dates, as a summary appendix. Otherwise, what the most diligent fans have been given here is an assignment -- one that could take a year or more of their spare time. While they will be busy tracking down the music through individual song searches, Marcus will be busy collecting tidbits of information to add to the next edition. When will anyone be able to come up for air? Or have time to listen to the other good music that came later on?

In the end, I still don't know what to make of Mystery Train. Am I glad I read it? Perhaps, though only slightly. Not enough to keep this copy in my personal library. I'm going to pass it on to a musician friend. If Marcus's work doesn't resound with him, then he may know someone else in his circle who would appreciate it more. This is my hope: to get it into the hands of someone who will be enthralled by it. There must be someone out there.

[ visit the author's website ]

book review by
Corinne H. Smith

3 December 2016

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