Wednesday, January 14, 2009

MYSTERY TRAIN by Greil Marcus (book review)

Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music
by Greil Marcus

Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train is the closest thing to literature that I’ve ever experienced reading rock criticism. That may be because it’s also the closest to fiction. Defiantly subjective, Marcus assumes his readers are already familiar with his subjects and dives right into his primary thesis, that rock music is a lens by which we can understand American culture as a whole and vice versa.

He divides his subjects into “ancestors” and “inheritors,” the former being legendary bluesman, Robert Johnson and a relatively obscure novelty folk singer named Harmonica Frank. The latter are The Band, Sly & the Family Stone, Randy Newman and, in the longest and most interestingly named piece (Presliad), Elvis Presley.

Marcus’ love of these artists is palpable in every sentence of Mystery Train. This passage discussing Robert Johnson’s song, “Stones in My Passway” demonstrates an ability to elevate his own listening experience to epic level:

“The song is enormous. I cannot put it any other way. The image of the words is subsumed into Johnson’s singing, his guitar, into the eerie, inevitable loudness of the song. The music has its claims to make: no matter how low you set the volume, the music creeps up louder, demanding, and the only way to quiet it is to shut it off.”

While having great admiration for Robert Johnson as the most vital of the early bluesmen who set the stage for rock n roll, I was not affected by “Stones in My Passway” as Marcus was, but his eloquence in making his case renders agreement or disagreement irrelevant. I believe him when he claims to have spent many months listening to nothing but Robert Johnson (whose recorded catalogue includes only about 30 songs.)

I also believe him when he claims that Johnson’s songs were musically structured in such a way that, had he used a full band and amplified sound, rock music, as we know it, would have been invented in the 1930’s. Of course, Johnson’s mythical selling of his soul to the devil is the stuff of legend that Marcus thrives upon throughout the book. What’s most affecting about the Johnson chapter is his observation that the blues is such a purely American art form because it’s the first to embrace the American dream and then demonstrate the tragic results when it does not come true.

Nowhere is Marcus’ free association taken to such an extreme as in his chapter on Sly and the Family Stone. He actually only wants to talk about one of Sly’s albums, There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Earlier releases by the group were feel good late sixties funk, but Riot was a sullen and depressing album, purposefully distant and cold. It was the sixties ending before our ears, with brotherhood replaced by racial divisions and drug induced highs inevitably leading to dark withdrawals.

From this album Marcus riffs, at length, about how Riot was really under the influence of an African-American murder ballad, literally covered hundreds of times, called “Stagger Lee.” The song differs slightly in all its many iterations, but is basically the story of a badass gambler who kills a man for stealing his hat and usually gets away with it. Loosely based on an actual incident, Stagger Lee became the black equivalent of Jesse James and the Western outlaw legends.

Marcus uses this song as a general umbrella for a more aggressive stance taken by many black artists in the seventies. It was the Stagger Lee influence that led The Temptations, for instance, from the Motown fun of the mid-sixties to a song as bleak as “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” Stagger Lee was also the father of blaxploitation movie anti-heroes like Superfly. It’s an impressive feet of the book that an analysis of Sly and the Family Stone culminates with a detailed look at the obscure (but worth a rental) violent Blaxploitation police thriller, Across 110th Street.

His take on The Band also relies on symbolism, but of an even less tangible kind. Their first two albums, Music From Big Pink and The Band are widely hailed as masterpieces of Americana. If they are concept albums, it is not readily apparent, but Marcus finds all kinds of fascinating connections. If the American Dream seems unattainable in the African-American experience (remember, this was written in 1975), for The Band it is a possibility, but first must be defined, or in some cases even desired.

Take this passage from Big Pink’s most well known song “The Weight”:

“I picked up my bag, I went looking for a place to hide
Then I saw Carmen and the devil, walking side by side
I said, hey Carmen, come on, let’s go downtown
She said, I gotta go, but my friend can stick around”

There’s more to be noted about these lyrics than there’s space for here, but what’s most fascinating to me, is how Marcus contrasts the devil imagery in “The Weight” with Robert Johnson’s legend and songs like “Me and the Devil Blues.” For The Band, the association is more nebulous, while Johnson’s spelled doom.

The Band, by the time of their self titled second album, was able to see America from a variety of perspectives, with voices ranging from the farmer of “King Harvest” to the Civil War rebel of “The Night They Drove old Dixie Down.” Randy Newman, on the other hand, also looked at this American landscape, but through much darker glasses.

Newman, who would cast himself as the devil in his version of Faust, writes with absolutely wicked humor. Marcus compares him, not to other musicians, but to pulp crime novelist, Raymond Chandler. The Newman song most discussed is “Sail Away,” which is melodically beautiful, but tells its story from the point of view of a slave trader in Africa, selling the idea that the natives would be happier as slaves in the colonies. It’s a mark of Newman’s craft that, despite his narrators being the most unpleasant sorts, his songs are so rife with irony that we never confuse his storytelling with approval.

Shifting gears, Marcus ends with Elvis Presley. By this time in the book, it’s no surprise when Presley is described as a combination of Huckleberry Fin and Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab. More biographical than the rest of the pieces, Presliad traces Elvis from the ambitious poor boy to visionary artist to (in his opinion) Vegas hack. Marcus states:

“Beside Elvis, the other heroes of this book seem a little small time. If they define different versions of America, Presley’s career almost has the scope to take America in.”

Of course, Elvis doesn’t need Greil Marcus to tout his legend. That job’s been done. Instead, Marcus looks at his rockabilly roots, particularly those early sessions at Sun Studios. He cites “Good Rockin’ Tonight” as a defining example of the previously unmatched energy that would define rock ‘n’ roll. The unresolved tension of “Mystery Train” and “Hound Dog’s” sexual danger are also considered indispensable turning points.

Then, as the fifties ended, he went into the army and spent most of the next decade making interchangeable and forgettable movies. In 1968, Elvis launched a televised “Comeback Special” that marked the first time since he became The King” that he had something to prove. Marcus believes that, with the song “One Night,” Elvis captured the essence of his greatness and marked the high point of his career.

Mystery Train ends with a discography. Actually, to call it a discography is a bit of an understatement as it takes up a good third of the book. Updated to 1997, the discography not only details the recorded works of the artists featured, but also other musicians who influenced or were influenced by them. Anecdotes abound and, frankly, Marcus just goes off about whatever he wants to. He’s earned that right.

Mystery Train is a sprawling book that perfectly matches the sprawling nature of its subject, and that can apply to both rock ‘n’ roll and America.

1 comment:

Paul Tumey said...

Excellent review of one of my favorite books. The 5th edition (2008) has a completely rewritten discography and notes section which, at 200+ pages, is now longer than the original book, and worth the price of admission alone. Again, great review, thanks.