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Mystery Train

4.06 of 5 stars 4.06  ·  rating details  ·  2,091 ratings  ·  70 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 March 25th 1976 by Plume (first published 1975)
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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
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
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 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.
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

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
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
Pierre Corneille
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Kate Buford
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
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
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
Sep 26, 2013 Alan rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  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
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
I wonder if Greil is on Goodreads. He would love it.

Whatever you're expecting, you'll be surprised by this book. Marcus is eclectic, ambitious, and wacky. He shifts effortlessly from Nixon to Nathaniel Hawthorne, from Herman Melville to Harmonica Frank (whoever that is). His goal is nothing less than a meditation on the American music, and he uses rock 'n' roll as a diving board to leap in. The main stars of this book are Elvis, Robert Johnson, the Band, Sly Stone, and Harmonica Frank, but there
One of the first serious books about rock music by one of rock's most noteworthy rock critics. Marcus looks at rock, its influence on American culture, and how it is influenced by American culture. It's divided into different chapters by artists and each of those artists are grouped thematically, like much writing on the subject of music, much of this is in the form of a review of the music itself with facts and other research sprinkled throughout. I can see how influential and important it was, ...more
M. Milner
A 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. It sounds mote 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 the legend of Stagger Lee t
I opted out of the notes and discographies this time around, mostly just wanting to read something familiar at the end of the semester. But reading the main body of the book by itself was a revelation, not least of how much the back matter is, in its way, both looser and more dense. It's also clearer to me than ever how well the main text stands on its own.

Since I last read the book a couple years ago, I've listened to Randy Newman with increased enthusiasm, so I think I was able to appreciate t
Marcus's books consist of continuous-thought-streaming about various music threads. This book covers Harmonica Frank to the Band to ELvis, for instance. His books aren't for everyone. His rambling style is like having a (one-way) conversation with someone about the book title. Sometimes he strays too far from the topic, and, occasionally, he'll say something with which you'll actually agree.
Kip Williams
Marcus's book, the definitive work on rock n roll's influence on American culture, has been expanded and now in it's 4th edition, with all new discographies and notes, and a new introduction. Far from bloating the original work, the additions illuminate and explore even more the subjects introduced in the first chapters.
Marcus, by exploring the work of Elvis Presley, The Band, Randy Newman, Sly Stone and others and cross-referencing both the artist and the work to pertinent sociological trends a
Michael Borshuk
Marcus's "classic" of music criticism emerges from his desire to bring the same sweeping scope to rock and roll that Leslie Fielder or D.H. Lawrence did earlier in their scholarly considerations of American literature. When it works, the book is insightful in trying to narrate the music's importance within its national context; when it doesn't, it meanders through pages and pages of oblique language that sounds poetic but rings mostly empty. Moreover, Marcus's inattention to the most troubling a ...more
Interesting book, deals with The Band, Sly, Elvis, Randy Newman, Robert Johnson, and Harmonica Frank--something a bout overall American culture. He definitely has his ideas about music, which he assumes other people have, some of which I don't share; but I like the way he pulls in a lot of oblique references to the stories. Don 't really get the Randy Newman thing, because I don't know his music.
Ponderous and overwrought, and oh. so. pretentious. Very disappointing.
Josh Luft
Marcus gives the importance rock and roll deserves as one of America's great artistic and cultural creations. He draws comparisons to literature (Moby-Dick) and myth (Stagger Lee) in a deeply-informed, always-approachable style. Whether or not you're into the 6 artists he's chosen to focus on (Elvis, Sly Stone, The Band, Randy Newman, Robert Johnson, and Harmonica Frank), he gets you invested in their story and significance.
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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
More about Greil Marcus...
Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads Ranters and Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music, 1977-1992 The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs

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“Every time Elvis sings, he makes a bargain with the devil -- just like Captain Ahab in MOBY DICK!” 4 likes
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