Some thoughts on Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train
To be honest, I had some trouble getting into this book. At first I thought it was just because it is the beginning of the semester and I haven’t read school stuff for a couple of weeks, but after reading the Robert Johnson chapter and finding my bearings, I decided it is Marcus’ style to which I had trouble adjusting. Marcus expects his readers to have a lot of knowledge about his subject from the beginning. I know a bit about Robert Johnson from last year’s blues class, so I could follow Marcus’ tangents better in that chapter than in the Harmonica Frank chapter. Later, after finishing the Elvis chapter (love that name “Presliad”) I found the “Notes and Discographies” section and felt foolish for not noticing it earlier. I wish I would’ve read this whole section first! I didn’t have time to read all of this section, but from the first few pages I could tell that it is much more straightforward than the rest of the book.
That got me wondering about writing style/tone in this book. It is clear from the “Notes and Discographies” section that Marcus can write without all the excess and meandering of the rest of the book. Why, then, does he change his tone? Does he feel the need to prove his expertise with all the allusions? Marcus’ enthusiasm for rock and roll definitely comes through; perhaps it is total unfettered passion for his central idea (“rock ‘n’ roll not as youth culture, or counterculture, but simply as American culture”) that takes over his writing style. Marcus’ style felt especially appropriate in the chapter on Sly Stone. The way Marcus jumps around between biography, lyrics, movie scenes, historical and cultural anecdotes, and myth seem to capture the tumultuous rhythm of events and sentiments between 1969 (“Stand”) and 1971 (“There’s A Riot Goin’ On”). Overall though, Marcus’ frequent shifts in subject and rambling digressions were distracting.
Of what I read (I skipped the chapters on The Band and Randy Newman), Marcus focuses on men (yes I know there were women in the Family Stone – Cynthia Robinson and Rose Stone – but Marcus glosses over them) who lean towards the individual side of that quintessential American paradox of longing simultaneously for individuality and community. According to Marcus, once an artist accepts a position in the culture-scape without challenging the listeners’ perception of that position, the artist becomes trapped in their own myth. This is definitely a bad thing in Marcus’ view. He writes “Elvis has dissolved into a presentation of his myth, and so has his music” and that “it is a sure sign that a culture has reached a dead end when it is no longer intrigued by its myths” (p. 123). But is it Elvis’ job to keep our culture progressing? If the artist finds something that works and the audience is willing to keep coming back (and paying) for more of the same, it is hard to blame the artist for not wanting to mess with the lucrative situation. Artists have to eat and pay bills like everyone else. Whose job is it then, to make sure we don’t get trapped by our myths? Should we care if our culture is not “progressing” (what does that mean, anyways)?
One more thing about this book – I was shocked by the way Marcus mentioned violence (especially violence against women) so flippantly. And as I mentioned earlier, Marcus focuses exclusively on male artists. If rock ‘n’ roll is American culture, as Marcus effectively argues, it is sad that women have such a small voice in it. It is also disturbing to me that violence against women is almost glorified by such an iconic cultural critic.