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Mystery Train

4.06  ·  Rating Details  ·  2,501 Ratings  ·  96 Reviews
A special 25th anniversary edition of this classic study of American rock and roll focusing on Sly Stone, Randy Newman and Elvis Presley amongst many others. The book looks at the American dream touching on myth, landscape and oral tradition of the continent.
Published November 1st 2000 by Faber & Faber (first published 1975)
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(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Sep 05, 2007 Jon rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Paul Bryant
How could I have forgotten to list this one which is almost the ur-text for those who like to plug their music collection into their book collection and let the two comingle, cohabit, collude and co-depend, having 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 ...more
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 ...more
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
Paul Secor
Mar 26, 2012 Paul Secor rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Perhaps the most overrated writer on popular music - no, wait - that would be Dave Marsh. Both of those guys are more pimps than writers.
Oct 24, 2011 Matthew rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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

Nov 29, 2009 Steve rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Jun 29, 2008 Brett rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: music
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
Mar 04, 2016 Laura rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Pierre Corneille
Aug 03, 2008 Pierre Corneille rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 25, 2010 Tom rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
David Guy
Dec 15, 2015 David Guy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I read this book because Dwight Garner—my favorite reviewer at the New York Times[1]—named it as the book he’d most like to read again for the first time. Greil Marcus is a rough contemporary of mine, just three years older, and has had a long distinguished career. Mystery Train was his first book, and came out when he was just 30. It seems very much a young man’s book, full of energy and enthusiasm, cocksure in its opinions. Marcus had the confidence to let it rip in this first book; I don’t kn ...more
Todd Stockslager
The original edition of Mystery Train, in 1975, was a trail blazer in applying literary and historical criticism to rock music and musicians, and as such it has been widely and rightly praised. The validity, value, and success of this approach is evidenced by the world that it helped create, where popular music of all kinds ("Rock" being entirely too limiting a definition of the genres of which we write and think today) is not just an appropriate course of study, thought, and criticism, but perh ...more
Oct 24, 2009 Hilary rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Matt Comito
Mar 06, 2009 Matt Comito rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Sep 12, 2015 Eric rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This one has been in the back pocket of my mind for about 20 years. It's loomed large as a historic piece of rock/americana literature for decades, but I've never read it until now. I have to say, while Marcus's book definitely should have an prominent place in its genre he overanalyzes Elvis Presley to the point of madness, and I found this strangely appealing. The book is kind of an homage collage to American roots music (Robert Johnson) to current (it was published in 1975) music trends and i ...more
Marxist Monkey
Nov 29, 2008 Marxist Monkey rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Sep 02, 2010 Tanya rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
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.
Jack Sonntag
Jan 03, 2016 Jack Sonntag rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
One of the most anticipated, then hugely disappointing reads ever! Marcus comes off as very pompous and makes analogies and connections and observations from all over the place to back up his own weak premises. He frequently contradicts himself and jumps all over to maintain a theme. For example, after an entire chapter on how The Band's music reflects the American personality (ignoring their composition as four Canadians and one American) would he use the observations of a Canadian's wife about ...more
Don Gorman
This book is considered by many to be a must read for true music, and expecially rock, afficianados. I have to say, at times I felt it went right over my bald head, and other times it totally resonated with me. There is a lot of interesting music history here and some stories that are just delicious as well. Some of the sociological directions Marcus goes are hard to follow and don't always connect but he always brings you back. I read his book on Elvis and never thought I could read any more an ...more
Oct 19, 2015 Emily rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Mixed feelings. Sometimes his writing is so loose I can't keep track of his pronouns. And he makes huge sweeping generalizations, about half of which earn a WTF? or 'fraid not from me. And he's very much in a particular American cultural tradition. The kind that doesn't mention women much, which this book doesn't do (then again, it was published in the mid-70's).

Anyway. Despite that, I'm glad I read it. When the riffs are good, they're exhilarating and sometimes profound. And it exposed me to so
Oct 16, 2015 Philipp rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: clubbing, essays, 1970s
Nice. Like with all collections of things that are to represent something larger, one of the first questions is: why was this included and not that?
The answer: because that's what the author wanted to do, now suck it up or read a different book.
Fun read and good, if often overreaching, insights. Still, why step up to a task like this if not to make some grand claims?
And the notes, which grow from edition to edition, are great.
Read it. Tell me if you like The Band. I'm still not so sure about th
Kate Buford
Jan 17, 2014 Kate Buford rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Continuing my desultory goal of reading good books about American popular music, this is an essential title to have read. Not easy, like reading a strange dream of music, rather than a book. Marcus is a fellow Northern Californian and lives in Berkeley, which is maybe all we need to know before jumping into this. A favorite sentence about BLUE MOON OF KENTUCKY: "There is a delight in adventure and novelty here that we can't touch with pure musicology: Elvis's affection for a song he's heard for ...more
Garrett Cash
Marcus's writing has to be read to be believed. Mystery Train is a classic of rock criticism, and even those who find Marcus's exaggerated style to be too in-depth will see how this has influenced all subsequent music journalism. Once you pass the "Ancestors" section which dives in the immensely obscure "Harmonica" Frank and blues legend Robert Johnson the book truly becomes a fans-only territory. Those who have never heard albums like Music from Big Pink, The Band, There's a Riot Goin' On, Sail ...more
Feb 28, 2015 Jeff rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: music-writing
Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock and Roll Music is a charter text in the New Left's valorization of participation in American civic life. Marcus made three claims here upon which the argument of this book will stand or fall. The first, and most provoking to me on my first reading of it, in the late Seventies, is that rock music merited a thematic analysis as a product of American cultural and political processes -- that these two were ultimately the same is certainly one of the book's wa ...more
Nov 20, 2011 Adam rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: art-and-music
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 ...more
Todd  Fife
Jan 11, 2011 Todd Fife rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Hated it.
Sep 26, 2013 Alan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Hound dogs, Boomers and other makers of noise
Recommended to Alan by: Tony Wilson, in _Spike_ magazine's PDF (
We all know what talking about music is like (and for those who don't, great googly moogly, don't get me started). Greil Marcus does a lot of dancing about architecture in this book, first published in 1975 and updated for this fifth edition in 2008. Thank goodness (or thanks to rock and roll, which is not quite the same thing) it's an interesting dance. From the calculated shock tactics of Lyndon Baines Johnson to the ornate phrases of William Faulkner, Marcus moves effortlessly from "high" cul ...more
Jul 14, 2013 Jennifer rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A tremendous read for anyone interested in 20th century American history and the development of rock and roll and its impact on American culture. The author knows his great literature, too, and makes connections between the artists and their themes with some of the biggies of American literature, including Twain, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, to name a few.

I bought this book to read the essay on The Band, which I've read twice so far, but the essays on each artist are detailed and fascinating. Mar
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Greil Marcus is the author of Mystery Train (1975), Lipstick Traces (1989), The Shape of Things to Come (2006), When that Rough God Goes Riding and Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus (both 2010), and other books. With Werner Sollors he is the editor of A New Literary History of America (2009). In recent years he has taught at Berkeley, Princeton, Minnesota, NYU, and the New School in New York. He lives in ...more
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“Every time Elvis sings, he makes a bargain with the devil -- just like Captain Ahab in MOBY DICK!” 5 likes
“Blues grew out of the need to live in the brutal world that stood ready in ambush the moment one walked out of the church.” 0 likes
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