Matt's Reviews > Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music

Mystery Train by Greil Marcus
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's review
Apr 22, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: america-f-k-yeah, historyonics-american, literary-crit, musicalities, social-crit
Read from April 30 to May 31, 2011

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
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