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Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll

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When it was first published, critic after critic called this brilliant study of rock 'n' roll and American culture the best book on the subject. Now, firmly established as a classic, the fourth edition features a completely new introduction as well as an entirely updated discography that includes CDs for the first time.


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When it was first published, critic after critic called this brilliant study of rock 'n' roll and American culture the best book on the subject. Now, firmly established as a classic, the fourth edition features a completely new introduction as well as an entirely updated discography that includes CDs for the first time.

30 review for Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll

  1. 5 out of 5

    Michael Finocchiaro

    This is a masterpiece from Greil Marcus about what makes American rock-n-roll such a special beast. It focuses on the origins of rock music in the blues and then profiles four completely different artists: Elvis, The Band, Sly and the Family Stone and Randy Newman. It also includes a kickass discography to go back and listen to the music he discusses. I was blown away by the original Sun sessions of Elvis and grew an entirely new appreciation of Bob Dylan's work with The Band, Sly Stone's music This is a masterpiece from Greil Marcus about what makes American rock-n-roll such a special beast. It focuses on the origins of rock music in the blues and then profiles four completely different artists: Elvis, The Band, Sly and the Family Stone and Randy Newman. It also includes a kickass discography to go back and listen to the music he discusses. I was blown away by the original Sun sessions of Elvis and grew an entirely new appreciation of Bob Dylan's work with The Band, Sly Stone's music as well as that of Mr. I Love LA. It is a must read for fans of rock music and a magnificent testimony to the art behind the legends as well as the ethos behind the music.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Paul Bryant

    Pretty much the big bang for those who like to plug their music collection into their book collection and let the two comingle, cohabit, collude and co-depend. I've always believed that somewhere Geoffrey Chaucer and Slim Harpo, Christina Rosetti and Iris DeMent, Jelly Roll Morton and Sheherezade, Geeshy Wiley and The Book of Kells, Zoot Horn Rollo and Thomas Traherne share the same chords even as they spin distinct threnodies. Yes, I agree, Greil Marcus is a waffling, grating self-parody of a ta Pretty much the big bang for those who like to plug their music collection into their book collection and let the two comingle, cohabit, collude and co-depend. I've always believed that somewhere Geoffrey Chaucer and Slim Harpo, Christina Rosetti and Iris DeMent, Jelly Roll Morton and Sheherezade, Geeshy Wiley and The Book of Kells, Zoot Horn Rollo and Thomas Traherne share the same chords even as they spin distinct threnodies. Yes, I agree, Greil Marcus is a waffling, grating self-parody of a tall-foreheaded fierce rock crit whose favourite obsessions are painfully predictable (Robert Johnson, Randy Newman, Elvis for starters). His later books you would have to pay me in unmarked bills to read, but this one was very cool for its time and the time I read it, so hey Greil, you may be male and oh so pale but this wasn't a fail.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    wonderful book. I hope one day to follow in Marcus' footsteps. He combines (or better to say assimiliates) varying traditions and social forces within American history and popular culture, beginning with an artist, a moment, a tone, a mood, an instance and expanding it outward into larger and more elegant circles of reference and obscure historical connection until we get a sort of folk gestalt, an x-ray if you will, of another seemingly endless angle on the American consciousness, which is expe wonderful book. I hope one day to follow in Marcus' footsteps. He combines (or better to say assimiliates) varying traditions and social forces within American history and popular culture, beginning with an artist, a moment, a tone, a mood, an instance and expanding it outward into larger and more elegant circles of reference and obscure historical connection until we get a sort of folk gestalt, an x-ray if you will, of another seemingly endless angle on the American consciousness, which is experiemntal to the bone. If you're going to talk about rock and roll, you've got to confront the obscure. A whole chapter on Harmonica Frank? I'm pretty well-versed in rock n roll and I've never so much as heard of him. But Marcus makes him come alive. The chapter on Staggerlee- the man, the myth, the legend is absolutely essential, I think, to getting at the heart of a certain kind of American poetry (in this case, a folk ballad) and American violence (bad man, cruel Stagolee...don't mess with his Stetson hat)... It has been fairly said of Marcus that "everything reminds him of everything else"...if this sounds like goop for cultural criticism this ain't your book. If this sounds sort of like what one of his blurbs says of him: 'Marcus writes criticism like Dylan writes songs' then this just well be the book for you. (I think you can take quite a bit from the nature of the blurbs on a book jacket, their number and tone and the who and the where, but that's another issue altogether)... The drawback as such to a book like this is that it does contain an extensive (almost larger than the main course itself! 'notes and discography' section which EXAUSTIVELY documents the textual background for the musicians he covers (I learned more about bootlegs for 'The Band' than I ever wanted to thought possible). This can be enthralling if you're a fan or scholar of the artist in question- I was actually pretty riveted to his discussion of Robert Johnson. I do think it's somewhat annoying to read discriptions of songs and records which you know you'll never actually get around to hearing....this is a very strong drawback for any literary person, since after all how much culture can one take in in a lifetime? It got a little jarring at points (see parenthesis above) but- here's the kicker- Marcus writes so damn well about obscure novels and bootlegs and concerts that even if one did actually hear them or attend them Marcus' phrases are so distinct and so tastefully sketched that they envelop the music in a poetic aura of interpretation which becomes a thing of its own. He makes the music (or, if one wants to be uncharitable) his impression of the music vivid, incisive, tough-minded, and profound. I would love to see this kind of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink, artistic style of criticism more often. Especially in academia. It's sort of an accepted truism that the critic is really just a frustrated artist- 'those who can, do, etc'...always a bridesmaid never a bride'- but I think a case can very easly and poignantly made (there is some truth to this slander after all) that criticism is its own form of poetics, aesthetics, its own artform. If you read the best it has to offer the reason for its very being is more than present, its obvious, and makes such distinctions irrelevant to say the least. Criticism is, or should be, about making the thing discussed more vivid, more alive, more complex and writhingly real. Juxtaposition is not eclipse. Marcus is one of the critics who make criticism MATTER. Rave on

  4. 4 out of 5

    Paul Secor

    Perhaps the most overrated writer on popular music - no, wait - that would be Dave Marsh. Both of those guys are more pimps than writers.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Jon

    Geoff Rice correctly assesses Invisible Republic as where the Marcus voodoo choo-choo goes off the rails and re-reading this vividly recalled the many strange feelings one can get receive via the Holy Greil – from 'this is obviously the best thinking ever about music' to 'if I read one more evocation of the paradoxical nature of the South, I'm gonna choke myself on a chitlin.' I read this in high school and a couple things jumped out as I reread back home on vacation. One: apparently I wasn't a Geoff Rice correctly assesses Invisible Republic as where the Marcus voodoo choo-choo goes off the rails and re-reading this vividly recalled the many strange feelings one can get receive via the Holy Greil – from 'this is obviously the best thinking ever about music' to 'if I read one more evocation of the paradoxical nature of the South, I'm gonna choke myself on a chitlin.' I read this in high school and a couple things jumped out as I reread back home on vacation. One: apparently I wasn't a very bright teenager. I have all these passages highlighted in yellow but they're all completely random and usually not very interesting, sometimes just factual. I'll underline a totally nugatory line right next to a brilliant observation. I guess at seventeen years old I didn't know what the main idea in a paragraph was yet. Scary. On a more positive front, I was reminded of the way he makes criticism part of artistic process, especially in the chapter on the Band. His imagination helps make Big Pink a better record. I was also reminded how much this guy demanded of the art he cared about. After reading this I used to listen to even the most average post-REM college rock records dozens of times because Greil told me that if you couldn't play it five hundred times and keep finding something new it was either your fault or the record's (In the case of Guadalcanal Diary's Walking In the Shadow of the Big Man it was probably the record.) Anyway, now I never ask or expect anything from anyone ever. Thanks context. In other news, everyone loves the Elvis chapter but, except for the end where he explains his theory of American popular culture, it's my least favorite. The Sly chapter, especially the section about conservatism in '70s soul (which I kinda forgot) has plenty of balls for a white cat from Berkeley. I'd totally forgot about the great LBJ-Huck-Ahab digression, the '60s vs. 'the 70s section (winner" the '60s!), the Westerns/Orsen Welles comparison, lines like "the Band don't refer to their sources anymore than we refer to George Washington when we vote." Of course, there's also lines like "all the beauty of the world and the terror of losing it is in Eric Clapton's rock and roll." Yep, that's ALL the beauty. ALL OF IT. So, if you like ALL THE BEAUTY IN THE WORLD, get down to the record barn and pick up a copy Slowhand by Eric Clapton on Columbia Records and Tapes. That is, if you can stand the THE TERROR!!!!

  6. 4 out of 5

    Matthew

    The latest edition is two books in one: the first half is a spotty analysis of Marcus' favorite groups that barely holds together; the other half is a discography section that succeeds mostly because it's not weighed down by Marcus' own sense of self-importance. Then again, if your opinion supported every baby boomer's claim that modern music ceased to be relevant once they hit 30, you'd think every notion that came to you was important too. There's no clear thesis (despite the subtitle of the b The latest edition is two books in one: the first half is a spotty analysis of Marcus' favorite groups that barely holds together; the other half is a discography section that succeeds mostly because it's not weighed down by Marcus' own sense of self-importance. Then again, if your opinion supported every baby boomer's claim that modern music ceased to be relevant once they hit 30, you'd think every notion that came to you was important too. There's no clear thesis (despite the subtitle of the book), leading his analysis into strange digressions that he lazily attempts to connect to the artists: the biggest disappointment is the Sly Stone section, which could have lost the entire Stagger Lee component and still been a decent portrayal of black American's trying to find an identity in the early 1970s. The section on The Band nearly dispenses with any analysis after a few pages and instead traces how disappointed Marcus became with them after their 2nd album. The prose is tepid, refusing to delve into a deep critical analysis of the artists while neglecting any autobiographical elements that could shed light on the author's opinions. Marcus wants it both ways: His only support for the importance of these artists is their popularity (though Elvis was the only one to achieve a long-lasting version of it) and his own opinion of them; Billboard chart positions and record sales can support the former, but we aren't left with much to support the latter. The discography section (which is about the same length as all of the preceding essays) does a better job of tracing the lineage of American music, though entire pages are simply a list of every version of "Stagger Lee" that Marcus could find. While the album & book suggestions are helpful, they are also extremely subjective, and his dismissive tone is off-putting. If you are interested in the musicians listed on the cover (Elvis, Sly Stone, The Band, Randy Newman), consider a separate biography about them. This isn't about rock 'n' roll as much as it as about how Greil Marcus sees rock 'n' roll.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Hilary

    This book may have been filled with interesting and relevant information, but the writing style was this terrible stream-of-consciousness nonsense, and the author kept comparing rock songs to classic lit books, like Moby Dick. Ouch. Also, the author (pronounced Gry-el Marcus)expected his reader to already have a ton of background information about the times and the music, which was annoying. This book was mainly useful to me (born in 84) as a primary document of what it was like to live in the 7 This book may have been filled with interesting and relevant information, but the writing style was this terrible stream-of-consciousness nonsense, and the author kept comparing rock songs to classic lit books, like Moby Dick. Ouch. Also, the author (pronounced Gry-el Marcus)expected his reader to already have a ton of background information about the times and the music, which was annoying. This book was mainly useful to me (born in 84) as a primary document of what it was like to live in the 70s.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    Heralded as the first academic examination of pop music and it's relationship to American life/culture, I had high expectations. Not all of these were met. The front is the examination, done in a socio-politico-economic-philosophic style that tends to sink under the weight of its own self importance and lofty language at times. The original edition, with a definitely shorter section of notes and discography, must have been a let down to many people when they finished reading it. Tracing pop musi Heralded as the first academic examination of pop music and it's relationship to American life/culture, I had high expectations. Not all of these were met. The front is the examination, done in a socio-politico-economic-philosophic style that tends to sink under the weight of its own self importance and lofty language at times. The original edition, with a definitely shorter section of notes and discography, must have been a let down to many people when they finished reading it. Tracing pop music to someone named Harmonica Frank seems like a reach, and raising Randy Newman to some high place as mirror on America reads like the work of a devoted fan rather than anything else. And while as a fan I enjoyed seeing that Sly Stone was included as one of the principals in the book, his section drifted from its named subject more so than any other, which was disappointing. In the plus column was his essay on Elvis. Long before many others cashed in on Elvis books after he died, Marcus carefully and respectfully illustrated Presley's influence on American culture and music. It also gets into Sam Phillip's influence on these things, which cannot be overlooked. Furtheri, Appreciated the scholarship (yes, scholarship) on Robert Johnson. I remembered how blown away I was when I first heard Johnson after buying the double cassette "King of the Delta Blues Singers" from a discount bin when I was in high school. I wore them out and no longer have cassettes, so this book put me on a path back to buying that collection or another simple collection of 29 songs. The greatest plus here, though, are the Notes and Discographies that form the second half (or more) of "Mystery Train." The notes are the greater of the two add-ons, as the historical and anecdotal information contained within are of greater value to me than the social commentary. Still, I think Marcus exhausted all of his Newman knowledge in the main, as the second section is an unreadable list of Newman's records, writing credits and guest appearances. Ultimately, "Mystery Train" has its place in the pantheon of rock books as a first-of-its-kind, and as a decent history in places. Just not as a best-of-its-kind.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Gabriel Conroy

    I might as well just write a book about the exact same bands Marcus talks about and claim whatever it is I want to claim about them. For god's sake....he devotes an entire chapter to Randy Newman. (Randy Newman!) Unfortunately, that is Marcus's most cogent chapter because he actually provides evidence for his "analysis" of Newman, which is more than I might say for his other chapters. In the chapter on Robert Johnson, for instance, Marcus claims that when Eric Clapton, in "Layla," hopes that his I might as well just write a book about the exact same bands Marcus talks about and claim whatever it is I want to claim about them. For god's sake....he devotes an entire chapter to Randy Newman. (Randy Newman!) Unfortunately, that is Marcus's most cogent chapter because he actually provides evidence for his "analysis" of Newman, which is more than I might say for his other chapters. In the chapter on Robert Johnson, for instance, Marcus claims that when Eric Clapton, in "Layla," hopes that his love will not be in vain, the listener can hear the torment of the damned (which somehow relates to something Robert Johnson might have said 40 years before Clapton sung that song). Now, I've listened to at least two versions of "Layla," looking for this anguish, and I just can't see it. Of course, Marcus must be right. After all, he wrote for the rolling stones magazine.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Harriett Milnes

    In 1975, Greil Marcus wrote Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music. He discusses enthusiastically the music of Harmonica Frank and Robert Johnson (the Ancestors), and The Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman and Elvis (The Inheritors). This is half the book. The other half is Notes and Discographies, which was updated in 2015. Lots of great, interesting stuff. Value judgments abound. In his list of the Top Ten of Rock 'n' Roll versions of Robert Johnson's tunes. #4 is Barack Obama, "Sw In 1975, Greil Marcus wrote Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music. He discusses enthusiastically the music of Harmonica Frank and Robert Johnson (the Ancestors), and The Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman and Elvis (The Inheritors). This is half the book. The other half is Notes and Discographies, which was updated in 2015. Lots of great, interesting stuff. Value judgments abound. In his list of the Top Ten of Rock 'n' Roll versions of Robert Johnson's tunes. #4 is Barack Obama, "Sweet Home Chicago," closing "Red White and Blues," the White House, February 21, 2012 (whitehouse.gov). In what would have been his 101st year, Johnson's song was sung by the President of the United States. As if he'd heard it all his life. And that is just one of the reasons I LOVE President Obama.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    I rarely give a book two stars but I found the 100 plus pages of the discography in the second part of the book fractured and disjointed. Although the artists he elected to write about did have impact on American culture I thought the fawning over Elvis was a bit too much. Not enough credit was given to the black influence in "The Kings" music nor was the people that actually wrote the songs given their due with royalties and recognition. Mr. Marcus is a little full of himself and his opinions f I rarely give a book two stars but I found the 100 plus pages of the discography in the second part of the book fractured and disjointed. Although the artists he elected to write about did have impact on American culture I thought the fawning over Elvis was a bit too much. Not enough credit was given to the black influence in "The Kings" music nor was the people that actually wrote the songs given their due with royalties and recognition. Mr. Marcus is a little full of himself and his opinions for my liking.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Blake

    Greil Marcus simultaneously invented and ruined rock criticism. He suffuses his work with literary references (Moby Dick, John Bunyan, et al), humor, and a depth of emotion that makes it both beautiful and gritty. His style is inimitable, and yet he has countless imitators who wish they could write like him, who possess neither his insight nor his instinct, and just end up writing boring pieces that sound like they are trying too hard. But he cannot and should not be blamed for his imitators. Mys Greil Marcus simultaneously invented and ruined rock criticism. He suffuses his work with literary references (Moby Dick, John Bunyan, et al), humor, and a depth of emotion that makes it both beautiful and gritty. His style is inimitable, and yet he has countless imitators who wish they could write like him, who possess neither his insight nor his instinct, and just end up writing boring pieces that sound like they are trying too hard. But he cannot and should not be blamed for his imitators. Mystery Train is an American classic. I will be poring over the appendix and the discographies (twice as long as the actual book) for weeks to come.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    I like rock and roll, I like music, I probably listen to more genres of music than the average American, I like rock biographies, and I like American history - so why not read this book that is a modern classic and the reviews say I should read? I tried it and I failed, miserably. I realized fairly quickly that without having in depth knowledge about all the performers and their songs you will get very little out of this book. If you are studying the subject or are a HUGE fan of one of the six a I like rock and roll, I like music, I probably listen to more genres of music than the average American, I like rock biographies, and I like American history - so why not read this book that is a modern classic and the reviews say I should read? I tried it and I failed, miserably. I realized fairly quickly that without having in depth knowledge about all the performers and their songs you will get very little out of this book. If you are studying the subject or are a HUGE fan of one of the six artists then I would recommend picking this up. I read the first half, or tried to at least, and I skimmed the second half. For me it would be better to read a biography of Elvis than this critique. I would say that if you are a music critic or want to be one you should absolutely read this book pronto, because the writing is melodic in itself. No harm in trying I suppose. But now I'm frustrated with myself...I didn't quite get it.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Carol Storm

    Pretentious, badly-written, and way over-rated -- and it shouldn't read "Images of America" in Rock and Roll. It should read "images of brutal violence in old redneck songs that send weak little Berkeley boys into spasms of vicarious blood-lust!" I mean, let's *not* all get Dixie Fried. Really!!

  15. 4 out of 5

    Stenwjohnson

    Greil Marcus' 1975 "Mystery Train" comes from a critical milieu that will seem as distant as Mars to today's readers of Pitchfork.com. Its Age of Aquarius preoccupations and urgent obsession with pop cultural redemption will be familiar to anyone who's paged through the notorious first (red) 1979 edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide, or flirted with the writings of Robert Christgau, Nick Tosches, Dave Marsh or Lester Bangs. Marcus and those simpatico writers occupy various points on a simila Greil Marcus' 1975 "Mystery Train" comes from a critical milieu that will seem as distant as Mars to today's readers of Pitchfork.com. Its Age of Aquarius preoccupations and urgent obsession with pop cultural redemption will be familiar to anyone who's paged through the notorious first (red) 1979 edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide, or flirted with the writings of Robert Christgau, Nick Tosches, Dave Marsh or Lester Bangs. Marcus and those simpatico writers occupy various points on a similar philosophical spectrum: Rock and roll is redemptive art, authenticity is paramount, critical winners (then including Jackson Browne, Van Morrison, Graham Parker, and Warren Zevon!) wear bent halos while losers and poseurs are damned to burn in Pablo Cruise hell. That same hand-wringing intensity is visible in "Mystery Train's" debt its late 60s through mid-70s origins, where pop music was central to social change, both a medium of protest and a cultural preoccupation. If only for that reason, it can be excused its occasional eccentricities of tone and argument, and behind a plumage-and-truffles surface lies an initially compelling study of rock and roll and its relationship to American life and imagery. But “Mystery Train” succeeds more at pure effect and broad strokes that gradually lose their power (and coherence) as Marcus repeatedly batters away at the same ideas. Marcus' thesis is straightforward: Rock n roll and its influences effortlessly connect with and illuminate American archetypes and images. As he states in his introduction, the book "is no attempt at synthesis, but a recognition of unities in the American imagination that already exist." Those unities shift over time; naturally ingrained in early outsiders like Harmonica Frank and Robert Johnson, rock music continued to amplify American themes as it matured from raucous party tunes to more literary and self-conscious expression, in the examples of the Band, Sly and the Family Stone and Randy Newman (not the genial composer of "You've Got a Friend" but the cynical satirist of "Rednecks" and “Louisiana 1927”). It’s an auspicious premise, but only if the reader is prepared to weather Marcus' fanboy intensity and an oracular, rhapsodic style which is often content to merely evangelize on a topic, often in digressive fire-and-brimstone prose poetry. Some may sensibly be tempted to re-read any number of near-mystifying passages. Other seasoned connoisseurs of music writing will likely weary of another fawning survey of the Band's work and the sublimity of their rough-but-right harmonies and atmospheric Canadian-Americana. But Marcus occasionally hits on authentic, poetic truth in his essays, which strangely refute counterargument by never actually attempting true argumentation in the academic sense. For example, he is content to evoke the broad idea of the Puritan archetype rather than connect the lyrics of Harmonica Frank to, say, the theology of Jonathan Edwards. The enormity of his topic forces Marcus to make wide-ranging thematic points of contact, and he does so credibly in the book’s early chapters: Ahab is a doomed outsider, just like Robert Johnson's lyrical protagonist; blues evoke a note of disappointment that can only exist in relationship to the extremes of the American promise; Sly Stone invokes a historical current of sex and violence. "Mystery Train" often thrives on mythic generalities that ring true. But once the most hardened reader reaches the final “Elvis: Presliad,” they will have wearied of the endless tautological party with Moby Dick, Huck Finn and Stagger Lee.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Phil

    Sharing with us his vision of how the quintessential American art form (rock n roll) has responded to and shaped the reality that we live in as Americans (collective work, rock does), Marcus writes like a lazy sociologist. He's not lazy -- too well researched for that. But his winding narrative is imprecise at times, a fact which underscores two things: 1) Marcus is a rock critic, embodying the music in all of its irreverence (he doesn't need to expand every idea or vague phrase he writes down b Sharing with us his vision of how the quintessential American art form (rock n roll) has responded to and shaped the reality that we live in as Americans (collective work, rock does), Marcus writes like a lazy sociologist. He's not lazy -- too well researched for that. But his winding narrative is imprecise at times, a fact which underscores two things: 1) Marcus is a rock critic, embodying the music in all of its irreverence (he doesn't need to expand every idea or vague phrase he writes down because it would cheapen his own art); 2) rock n roll is itself entirely open to interpretation. All the same, Marcus understands the best of late-20th century social history, leaving traces of Clifford Geertz all over the place. Culture, as Robert Orsi (following Geertz) puts it, is the world that we make and sustain together, inheriting the work those before us have done while simultaneously taking it all for granted and working on that inheritance. Rock n roll has played a profound role in the process of the inheritance, acceptance, remodeling, and construction of future expectations within American culture, expressing the inherent contradictions of the promises we inherit and the failures we experience that we hold up against ever present ideals. Mystery Train is at the forefront of that conversation, illuminating to me despite my not having understood too many of Marcus' mid-20th century pop culture references.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Luke

    If music means a lot to you, and you’re open to reading someone else’s fairly idiosyncratic and creative readings of rock music, you’ll enjoy this book. I find Marcus feeds the imagination, makes you hear things beyond the music, makes you see historical and cultural connections that you’ve never thought about. The chapter on The Band is my favorite; the Sly Stone chapter didn’t make much sense to me. I never understood what Randy Newman’s song “Sail Away” was really about until I read about it If music means a lot to you, and you’re open to reading someone else’s fairly idiosyncratic and creative readings of rock music, you’ll enjoy this book. I find Marcus feeds the imagination, makes you hear things beyond the music, makes you see historical and cultural connections that you’ve never thought about. The chapter on The Band is my favorite; the Sly Stone chapter didn’t make much sense to me. I never understood what Randy Newman’s song “Sail Away” was really about until I read about it here...holy shit, right? The Elvis chapter is kind of cool: written before his death, it reads like an argument for why Elvis Still Matters. Did Elvis ever not matter? Still fun reading, though. I got bored with The Band’s first two albums soon after the remasters came out back in 2000, but after Mystery Train and some re-listening, they haunt me day and night. I recommend playing the songs discussed on YouTube during and after reading—it’s sometimes difficult to understand what Marcus is on about without the drama of the music in your ears.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Johanna

    originally published in the seventies, updated in the nineties to include some things, like The Band's second incarnation, but not others, like Elvis's death. this left me always a little puzzled about when i was reading. which is not a problem for time-telescoped music like The Band's and Randy Newman's, but definitely changes how you view Sly and the Family Stone or Elvis. this is early Marcus and straighter criticism than he'll drift to later, less poetic swirling, more "get this reissue but originally published in the seventies, updated in the nineties to include some things, like The Band's second incarnation, but not others, like Elvis's death. this left me always a little puzzled about when i was reading. which is not a problem for time-telescoped music like The Band's and Randy Newman's, but definitely changes how you view Sly and the Family Stone or Elvis. this is early Marcus and straighter criticism than he'll drift to later, less poetic swirling, more "get this reissue but not that one." still, fascinating, insightful, entertaining.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Jason Diamond

    Had a new copy of this and decided to reread it. Glad I did.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Adam

    What a strange book. Nearly as much discographic information as storytelling and commentary, Mystery Train is a book by and for obsessive music listeners and record collectors. I was excited to read my first Greil Marcus book (I had enjoyed his column in The Believer magazine and had heard others praise him as a genius), but was disappointed for two principal reasons. First, part of my attraction to the book in the first place, was its subtitle, “Images of America in Rock ’n Roll.” I took the ti What a strange book. Nearly as much discographic information as storytelling and commentary, Mystery Train is a book by and for obsessive music listeners and record collectors. I was excited to read my first Greil Marcus book (I had enjoyed his column in The Believer magazine and had heard others praise him as a genius), but was disappointed for two principal reasons. First, part of my attraction to the book in the first place, was its subtitle, “Images of America in Rock ’n Roll.” I took the title literally, and expected to drawn into America as portrayed through its music. Ostensibly, this in fact occurs in the book, albeit opaquely, but I found Marcus’ prose too tiresome to work hard enough to find it. With the minor exception of his section on Sly Stone, Marcus’ writing did not give me new insight of America or how its experience is refracted through its music. Second, I found it difficult to match his emotions and feelings for the music he described. The artists he covers in this book are beloved to him: Robert Johnson, Elvis Presley, The Band, Randy Newman, Sly Stone. And Marcus is in LOVE with these artists. I love to read people’s writing about music the love (see my review of Simon Reynold’s celebration of post-punk). See, I am a fierce music lover and great musical explorer—I seek out new artists, read up on old artists, swap records with aficionados, even go crate-digging at thrift stores, picking up records based on their covers alone. However I’ve never been a fan of the music contained in this book. I never liked Johnson, Presley, The Band, Newman, or Sly (though I love many peer artists in their respective genres including Chicago bluesman, Carl Perkins, Neil Young, David Bowie, etc.), but came to this book open-minded and open-eared, ready to be swept-away by Marcus’ irresistible praise and unmatched enthusiasm. But it never happened. I feel like I understand the novelty and excitement of 50’s rock ‘n roll, and especially rockabilly, but I’ve never felt that magic moment with Elvis. And Marcus failed to bring me any closer. After enjoying his description of the evolution of The Band, I checked out some of their albums from the library. After just a few minutes of listening, I felt so let down by the vast distance between Marcus’ celebration of them and the way they sounded in my speakers. It actually caused me to dislike The Band even more! I’ve long been interested in reading Lipstick Traces, Marcus treatment of 70’s punk (and more). It will be interesting to see if I like his writing when he covers one of my favorite genres.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Brett

    I had never read Greil Marcus before and I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting. You should know this book focuses mostly on four particular artists and does not address "Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll" in some kind general fashion. If you are passionate about Sly Stone, the Band, Randy Newman, or Elvis, then this book has an essay that will intrigue you, but it's best to know something about these artists--the essays aren't really for the uninitiated. Marcus writes with some serious verv I had never read Greil Marcus before and I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting. You should know this book focuses mostly on four particular artists and does not address "Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll" in some kind general fashion. If you are passionate about Sly Stone, the Band, Randy Newman, or Elvis, then this book has an essay that will intrigue you, but it's best to know something about these artists--the essays aren't really for the uninitiated. Marcus writes with some serious verve though, and his enthusiasm is infectious. I was more excited about music than I have been in years after reading this. The bibliography section of the the latest (5th) edition is considerably longer than the actual text of the book, and again, is really only for those that want to get seriously into the weeds of the aforementioned artists' careers. These artists aren't exactly my cup of tea, though I recognize their value, but I would be interested in reading more of Marcus when he it talking about something I am more heavily invested in.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Tom

    Obviously, someone looking to pick up Mystery Train for the first time should go straight to the fifth edition and behold the expanded discography, which I'm pretty sure is now longer than the main part of the book. But the first edition is a triumph, and amply demonstrates why Marcus keeps going back to it once a decade or so. Basically, if you care about American music, literature, culture, history, and mythology, you have to read this book. And that's not something I'll say all that often.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Greg Fanoe

    Waffled a bit on this, but ultimately I decided not to let the incredibly boring (oh sorry, "extensive" and "exhaustive") "Notes & Discographies" section detract from my enjoyment of the main meat of the book too much (though note - the "notes and discographies" section has actually become longer than the book itself due to multiple updates/new versions). As the book itself is concerned, the Sly Stone chapter was pretty decent for a white writer trying to explain black culture to a white audienc Waffled a bit on this, but ultimately I decided not to let the incredibly boring (oh sorry, "extensive" and "exhaustive") "Notes & Discographies" section detract from my enjoyment of the main meat of the book too much (though note - the "notes and discographies" section has actually become longer than the book itself due to multiple updates/new versions). As the book itself is concerned, the Sly Stone chapter was pretty decent for a white writer trying to explain black culture to a white audience, and the Elvis chapter was great.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Marxist Monkey

    This was the first academic book about rock I ever read. I still think that it is among the prime examples of the American Studies myth/symbol method applied to popular music. There are some awkward moments here--the discussion of Robert Johnson makes me cringe some now. But this book established the possibility for me of thinking deeply and knowledgeably about rock and roll as a cultural form.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Matt Comito

    There is something of the magic that Randall Jarrell brings to his poetry criticism here in Marcus's book. His approach in discussinng any given song is synthetic and creative, not just a description but an imaginative 'reading' that adds to your experience of that song. This is one of Marcus's gifts. He is able to add dimension to the work he discusses while at the same time educating the reader not just in the specifics of a song or an act but also in how to hear and experience the work.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Tanya

    A fascinating look at the origins and development of five musical acts: Elvis, Sly Stone, Robert Johnson, Randy Newman, and The Band. Sometimes his detailed history and mythology is hard to plow through, but it is a fascinating read for those who are obsessed with music. Because you will go to itunes and buy each album featured and listen with a new appreciation.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Christopher McQuain

    My taste and sensibility don't overlap nearly as much with Marcus's as I'd assumed from his masterpiece LIPSTICK TRACES, but his word flair, deep knowledge, and passion make this an invigorating journey, even if one's affection for the likes of The Band or Randy Newman is (like mine) only a fraction of the author's.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Erik

    I love non-fiction and I love biographies, especially those that center on musical icons. Unfortunately, I wanted to like this book much more than I actually did. Though I really liked the subject matter, I couldn't help but think that the author was just trying too hard to write "literature," rather than just telling the story. Bottom line: reading the book was more work than play.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Padraic

    Academic,perhaps, although only for those terrified of footnotes. Dense, surely. Interesting, absolutely. For me, the reason I went back and listened to Thank You For Talking To Me (Africa). And for that alone, brilliant.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Mike Bender

    Closer to 3 1/2 stars than 4 - some brilliant moments, but you really need to (a) work hard to find them and (b) adopt a bit of Marcus's premises to appreciate them. Skip the Harmonica Frank section and go directly to Robert Johnson. And don't skip the discography and notes - great stuff

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