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

Mystery Train by Greil Marcus
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's review
Sep 05, 2011

it was ok
Read from September 10 to October 21, 2011

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 book), leading his analysis into strange digressions that he lazily attempts to connect to the artists: the biggest disappointment is the Sly Stone section, which could have lost the entire Stagger Lee component and still been a decent portrayal of black American's trying to find an identity in the early 1970s. The section on The Band nearly dispenses with any analysis after a few pages and instead traces how disappointed Marcus became with them after their 2nd album. The prose is tepid, refusing to delve into a deep critical analysis of the artists while neglecting any autobiographical elements that could shed light on the author's opinions. Marcus wants it both ways: His only support for the importance of these artists is their popularity (though Elvis was the only one to achieve a long-lasting version of it) and his own opinion of them; Billboard chart positions and record sales can support the former, but we aren't left with much to support the latter.

The discography section (which is about the same length as all of the preceding essays) does a better job of tracing the lineage of American music, though entire pages are simply a list of every version of "Stagger Lee" that Marcus could find. While the album & book suggestions are helpful, they are also extremely subjective, and his dismissive tone is off-putting.

If you are interested in the musicians listed on the cover (Elvis, Sly Stone, The Band, Randy Newman), consider a separate biography about them. This isn't about rock 'n' roll as much as it as about how Greil Marcus sees rock 'n' roll.

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Carol Storm Say Amen somebody!

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