By Greil Marcus (Plume/Penguin)
By Brian Varney
Originally published in 1975, Mystery Train is seemingly the last Marcus volume that is neither awash in academic incomprehensibility (I’m looking at you, Lipstick Traces) nor about Bob Dylan, which means it’s probably the last thing he wrote that’s worth reading. This is a revised fifth edition, with an updated Notes and Discographies section that now runs about the same length as the book itself.
One of the first things I should say is that Marcus writes very well about music. As anyone who’s ever attempted this rock writing thing knows, describing the music in an interesting way while also conjuring some of the sound or mood or energy of the music itself is quite difficult, and Marcus is better than most. That being said, the single biggest problem is that a good portion of Mystery Train is given over to musical subjects unworthy of Marcus’s gifts. The Band and Randy Newman are, to my ears, two of the most overrated critical favorites in rock history, though I will say that re-reading Marcus’s descriptions almost makes me want to give them another chance. Almost.
Unfortunate subject matter aside, Marcus’s writing is, as I’ve said, uniformly good, and when he writes about a worthwhile artist (i.e. the sections dealing with Sly Stone and Elvis Presley), the results are endlessly readable. The Sly Stone section focuses on There’s a Riot Goin’ On, and although Marcus’s attempts to place Stone within the continuum of the Stagger Lee folktale aren’t particularly successful, the writing is some of the finest on this oft-analyzed work.
The Presley section is the real attraction. Probably the best single piece written about this legendary, sometimes polarizing figure, “Presliad” brilliantly pinpoints what makes Elvis himself such an important part of American culture. It’s a wonder to behold, and it also thankfully sidesteps the common impulse to paint Elvis as some sort of tragic “victim of his own success” sad-sack. It’s a wondrous piece of writing, and if you have any interest in Elvis or his place within popular culture, it’s worth the price of the book.
The ever-swelling Notes and Discographies section will give you more prosaic information about the artists – what they’re doing now, other trivia, what recordings have been collected and in what form, etc. There are occasionally interesting tidbits to be had, but nothing you can’t find with an Internet connection.