01
Jul
13

Music and Myth in America: Mystery Train by Greil Marcus

Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' RollMystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll by Greil Marcus

Rock is the quintessential American music form. Say what you will about jazz, bluegrass and hip-hop, it’s rock that people identify with the US more than any other. It’s one of those assessments that people make not because of the music, or the people who make it, but because of the culture: rock is so tied into what it means to be an American, it’s hard to separate it. Even the Brits try to sound like they’re from the south when they rock out.

In this  series of essays about America, rock music and the cultural history between the two, Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train is an attempt to place music in the greater context of America and, in particular, American culture. Here he’ll go between Moby Dick to Robbie Robertson to Stagger Lee to Elvis, making the connections one never thought about before and can’t help but see afterward. Don’t worry, it sounds more high-handed than it is and it’s a blast to read to boot.

In a series of essays about bands and musicians – Sly Stone, The Band, Robert Johnson and Elvis, among others – Marcus looks at the roots of music and the traditions between each, tying together disparate elements like Moby Dick and slavery to music’s role in culture. It’s thought provoking and gave me, someone who’s been listening to some of these acts for years, a new angle to look at their output.

One good example is The Band’s second album: Marcus makes the case that their long experience and travels through America, first as the backing band for Ronnie Hawkins and later for Bob Dylan, gave them the breadth and exposure to America to become commentators on it; only an outsider could write as nuanced a look at the south as The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and make it, as Marcus writes, “not so much a song about the Civil War as it is about the way each American caries a version of that event within himself.”

Later, Marcus ties together the common elements between the songs on their second album, The Band:

“The shifts between songs finally let us understand that the man who sings King Harvest wants nothing more than to sing a song like Rag Mama Rag; we understand that the voice on Rag Mama Rag is real because it’s been shaped by the terrors of King Harvest and knows a chance to dance them away for what it’s worth.” (pg 57)

 

In this essay, Marcus makes a great case for this album’s importance: it’s more familiar than their first record, although it lacks a song as iconic as The Weight, and that familiarity comes from the common roots of their music. It’s an album inspired by where we’ve been, looking backwards at a time when music was pushing forwards, coming together as a remarkable synthesis of two. It’s unfortunate that The Band lost the thread shortly after, releasing one good concert film (The Last Waltz), one decent album (Stage Freight) and some forgettable ones before breaking up for good in the mid 70s.

The other essays are just as provoking. In Every Man Is Free, he ties the literature of Los Angeles and the spectre of slavery to the music of Randy Newman (in particular the 1972 album Sail Away). In another, he examines the legend of Stagger Lee’s ties to black culture, and especially how they relate to the music of Sly Stone. To wit:

“On the way to the silent riot Sly shouldered the racial and sexual fantasies of a huge audience and staggered under them, as if he were Staggerlee himself back from the dead to live up to his myth. The images of mastery, style and triumph set forth earlier in Sly’s career reversed themselves; his old politics turned into death, his exuberance into dope, his old music into a soundtrack for a world that didn’t exist. As an artist, Sly used those facts to reverse the great myth itself.” (pg 78)

The heart of Mystery Train is his in-depth look at Elvis, which ties together all the elements of America: he cuts through the bullshit and hype to look at how one man came to represent so much, mean everything to a style of music and almost leave it as quickly – even if he still gave glimpses of his raw power here and there: on Ed Sullivan, on the Comeback Special, in the way he commanded himself on stage, doing so much while doing so little. A nod here, a move there and he had the crowd eating out of his hand.

Also of note is a giant Notes and Discographies section, which offers a more straightforward history of each act, breaking down their careers and discorgraphies (often with pointed opinions towards them), literature about them and suggestions for further reading. It’s nice to have a reference like this and having a seasoned critic like Marcus not only offer suggestions on where to go for everything (he seems to have an opinion on thousands of records), but what to read and to make it completely readable is a nice bonus.

Rating: 8/10. I read the fourth edition, which means the discography section was a little out of date (it’s since been updated, but I can’t speak to specifics), but it was still a blast. Still, the little things that nagged at me most were in the main text. Recommended for music fans, but I imagine some will find it a little pretentious. Still, there isn’t a better book in it’s vein. And if you’re like me, you’re going to go back and listen to these bands again and again.

 

Advertisements


Archives


%d bloggers like this: