Monday, January 17, 2011

Mystery Train by Greil Marcus

Originally published in 1975, Mystery Train is Greil Marcus' first book, an examination of six bands and musicians, the overall thesis being that rock and roll provides a lens through which American culture can be interpreted. The subjects are divided into “ancestors”--a fairly unknown one-man band from the 30s and 40s named Harmonica Frank (Sun put out some of his records in the 50s), and legendary bluesman Robert Johnson--and “inheritors"--The Band, Sly & the Family Stone, Randy Newman, and Elvis Presley.

When I mentioned to Dave that I was reading it, he very decidedly asserted that "I hate him." Seems he was deeply offended by Marcus' book Lipstick Traces, which compares the Sex Pistols to Dadaists, and stated that Marcus draws uninformed comparisons and writes it off as brilliance, and generally is very pretentious.

Some of that might be true, and since I haven't read Lipstick Traces I can't say for certain. Mystery Train might be pretentious, but I enjoyed reading it--there's a bit of that comparison-drawing I just mentioned, but the writing is colorful and engaging, bestowing an almost mythical quality on the subjects. Sly Stone becomes a 70s-era Stagger Lee, and there's enough lore behind Robert Johnson's story before Marcus even gets to him. I might steer clear of Lipstick Traces, but this one's a keeper.

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