Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train has never gone out of print since it was first published in 1974. Plume is re-issuing it this April in a handsome paperback edition, and it’s worth revisiting—or reading for the first time if you’re new to it. Mystery Train isn’t just a seminal book of rock ‘n’ roll criticism; it’s a one of the great books of American pop culture.
In the prologue, Marcus writes, “This is a book about rock ‘n’ roll—some of it—and America. It is not a history, or a purely musical analysis, or a set of personality profiles. It is an attempt to broaden the context in which the music is heard; to deal with rock ‘n’ roll not as youth culture, or counterculture, simply as American culture.”
Marcus writes beautifully about Harmonica Frank, Robert Johnson, the Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman, and Elvis. This may seem like a curious mix of artists, but according to Marcus, they “share unique musical and public personalities, enough ambition to make even their failures interesting, and a lack of critical commentary extensive or committed enough to do their work justice. In their music and in their careers, they share a range and a depth that seem to crystalize naturally in visions and versions of America: its possibilities, limits, openings, traps. Their stories are hardly the whole story, but they can tell us how much the story matters.”