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Mystery Train

4.05  ·  Rating Details ·  2,650 Ratings  ·  111 Reviews
Catch a train to the heart of rock ?n? roll with this essential study of the quintessential American art form. First published in 1975, Greil Marcus's "Mystery Train" remains a benchmark study of rock ?n? roll and a classic in the field of music criticism. Focusing on six key artists?Robert Johnson, Harmonica Frank, Randy Newman, the Band, Sly Stone, and Elvis Presley?Marc ...more
Published September 1st 2003 by Gallimard Education (first published 1975)
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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.
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
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

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.
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
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.
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 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.
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  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
Jack Wolfe
Nov 08, 2016 Jack Wolfe rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I've resisted the pull of Greil Marcus for years now. He's made me anxious, in the past... He seems to be interested in the exact same things I'm interested in; namely, rock and roll, American democracy, and the intersections of rock and roll and American democracy. It freaks me out, finding a Jack who's better at being Jack than Jack. Cuz it's one thing to hastily write a rather pretentious senior project about the parallels between Puritan societies and straightedge subculture, and another to ...more
Oct 26, 2016 Carol rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: music
In this book, Marcus traces the ways that American popular music has tapped into, portrayed, and evoked the image and myth of America in all its terror, dread, beauty, and promise. Marcus does this by examining the work of 6 artists or groups: Harmonica Frank, Robert Johnson, The Band (and tangentially, Bob Dylan), Sly and the Family Stone, songwriter Randy Newman, and Elvis Presley. For each, Marcus explores how they express aspects of America and how they fit into the history of American popul ...more
Timothy Swartout
Dec 06, 2016 Timothy Swartout rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Marcus' magnum opus, with the current edition's notes and discographies section longer than the body of the book, is a beautifully descriptive meditation on the author's view of American rock and roll music. The final chapter concerning Elvis Presley is particularly surreal and bewitching with its vivid imagery. Although originally written in the early 1970's, this book does not seem at all dated and would likely reward a repeat read at some point after listening to all the music it brings into ...more
Dec 04, 2016 Erik rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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.
Naomi Krokowski
Nov 26, 2016 Naomi Krokowski rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Some passages left me stunned by their ability to articulate my awe at the cultural strew that is rock & roll. I enjoyed playing music as I read that was either new to me or so far back in my childhood that is was a delight to revisit them. I particularly loved the parts about Elvis, The Band, The Kinks, and Randy Newman. I enjoy Marcus' writing very much.
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.
Mike Bender
Dec 30, 2016 Mike Bender rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Subjuntivo Subjuntivo
No lo terminé, me aburrió.
Michael Lovito
The Harmonica Frank and Robert Johnson chapters are great, as are the two about Randy Newman and Elvis...but I'm not sure I got the stuff about The Band at all, and the Sly Stone chapter is great if you like Greil Marcus writing ten paragraph synopses of blaxploitation films.

You can also tell this guy is just dying to write another book about Dylan. It's embarrassing how much he tries to shoehorn him into everything.
Aug 03, 2016 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
Oct 06, 2016 Rob rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"The pure joy of the music unveils the depth of emotion that's his to win; and that must have been the treasure he was after from the beginning, whether he knew it or not. He had to learn that the key to the treasure is the treasure--that to be free is not to get what you want or to settle for what you've got, but to begin to know what you want and to feel strong enough to go after it."
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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!” 6 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.” 2 likes
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