Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘N’ Roll Music by Greil Marcus. A Plume Book. 424 pp. $17.00
I read this book because Dwight Garner—my favorite reviewer at the New York Times—named it as the book he’d most like to read again for the first time. Greil Marcus is a rough contemporary of mine, just three years older, and has had a long distinguished career. Mystery Train was his first book, and came out when he was just 30. It seems very much a young man’s book, full of energy and enthusiasm, cocksure in its opinions. Marcus had the confidence to let it rip in this first book; I don’t know where that came from. But it’s because he did so that the book is so interesting.
The book’s thesis is that Marcus can somehow sum up his moment of rock ‘n’ roll by looking at the careers of six musicians/groups: Harmonica Frank, Robert Johnson, The Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman, and Elvis. Nobody would argue, I assume, with that last entry, at least as an influence. It’s interesting that he saves Elvis for last, after three groups that hadn’t even gotten started when Elvis was in his prime. Of the five before Elvis, I knew most by only a song or two, though I loved those songs, and had played The Band’s major album to death when I owned the LP; I’d never heard of Harmonica Frank. I would have said I had a strong interest in popular music around the time Marcus was writing, in 1975. But compared to Marcus—a full-scale obsessive—and a number of the people he cites, I knew nothing and had listened to nothing. Marcus had listened to everything, and had strong vivid opinions about all of it. He makes me feel as if I never even turned on a radio.
Just to take up Elvis, the one singer in the book whom I’ve listened to a lot: Marcus has listened to all the Sun recordings, and I apparently have just scratched the surface. I know Elvis for what I consider his most famous songs, starting (when I was all of eight years old) with Hound Dog, Don’t Be Cruel, Love Me Tender, on to One Night, A Big Hunka Love, and his all-time greatest song, Reconsider Baby. I’d heard the rather cruel remark of the Beatles (I’m not sure which Beatle) when Elvis died. “Elvis died when he went in the army,” they said, and I agree that he was a wild, more unruly and revolutionary singer before he made that unfortunate career move (which Colonel Tom Parker apparently thought was a good one).
But I was completely thrilled by the songs Elvis sang when he first came back from the army (It’s Now or Never and Stuck on You), and I loved the movie G.I. Blues (though the prevailing opinion is that Elvis sold out in his movies and should never have done any of them. I don’t see how anyone can see Jailhouse Rock and feel that way. I admit the man was a lousy actor and seemed to be reading the lines from cue cards, but there were a lot of beautiful women in those movies, and there were always a few good songs. Watch Bossa Nova Baby from Fun in Acapulco. Don’t let it bother you that the Bossa Nova is not a dance, and that they wouldn’t have been doing it in Acapulco in any case). Marcus seems to think Elvis resurrected himself at least briefly midway in his career, a moment that I seem to have missed. I didn’t think the army was his downfall so much as too many grilled peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Apparently, though, it was in the army that Elvis started taking uppers to take awake, then downers to get to sleep. That was his real downfall.
I think of myself as a major Elvis fan. I’ve read the Goldman biography (which included that strange and telling line that he spoke to some groupies, “Please leave the underpants on”), and both volumes of the Guralnick bio, which I thought was excellent. But Marcus has read even the novels about Elvis, of which there seems to be a substantial number. One of them posits the interesting thesis that he actually was the Second Coming of You Know Who (giving a whole new meaning to the term “The King”). I think he was just a good-looking Mississippi boy who dressed weirdly, danced wildly, had a beautiful voice, loved all kinds of music, and came along at a time when somebody was going to fuse the various strands of country music, gospel, and what was then called “race records” into one thing.
The person who would do that had to be white because of the demographics and prejudices of the country, and there was famously a music producer—Sam Phillips—who was on the lookout for this person. It might have been Jerry Lee Lewis, who could really raise the roof, but he made a bad career move when he married his thirteen year cousin (he apparently wasn’t kidding when he sang “Great Balls Of Fire”). Probably Jerry Lee was a little too wild for America in the fifties. Elvis, with his adoration for his mother and for the gospel songs she loved, was more our speed. In any case, this weird backwoods boy hit the jackpot. I’m not sure that was a good thing, for him or for the world of music. But there it is.
I deserve a spot only in the caboose of the Mystery Train because I took a side track early in adolescence and never returned to the main line. I listened to Elvis and the Beatles and the Stones and everybody else through my high school years, and followed the general currents of music on into college, and the six years when I taught secondary school. But some years before Marcus wrote this book I found an obsession of my own, the one singer I always come back to, though I’ve listened to everything he ever sang dozens, in some cases hundreds, of times. He is the artist who truly brought together gospel and race records, and rock n roll, and popular ballads, and standards, and country western. He could sing anything if he liked it, and if he didn’t like it he wouldn’t touch it. His version of every song—however wild and strange—became the defining one for me. But he didn’t become Elvis because he was black, and blind, and in the early days of rock n roll a heroin addict. Even Colonel Tom Parker would have had trouble creating an image out of that.
I encountered his music when my best friend from seventh grade (whom I later wrote a book about) put on one of his records, and said, “This is a song about fucking.” It was indeed, and though Elvis eventually recorded that song, he didn’t get down with it the way Ray Charles did (I’ve read a story that Ray invented that song at a bar in Pittsburgh, my home town. I’d love to think that is true). The song was What’d I Say, one of the truly strange and great songs of American popular music, plopped down in front of an unsuspecting public in 1959—take that, Jerry Lee Lewis—and though I was thrilled that someone had sung a song about fucking, that wasn’t what hooked me. It was the voice. I’d never heard a voice like that, loud and commanding, soft and plaintive, growling, screaming, screeching, always right on the money. Ray Charles had a kind of talent, and an ability to put over a song, that neither Elvis nor anyone else ever had. And though I’ve appreciated many voices, and many kinds of singing, since that time, I’ve never gotten over the first time I heard that voice.
Ray Charles led me back into all kinds of early R&B, which he emerged from but also completely transcended. If you listen to even a simple song like “I Got a Woman,” then listen to other R&B hits from that time, it’s far more sophisticated, an instant classic. He led me into a love for piano soloists, Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum and Bill Evans and a host of others. He led me into the blues, Leadbelly and Muddy Waters and Taj Mahal and my distant cousin Buddy Guy. Ray traveled and recorded with a big band, which got me into Basie and Ellington. His recordings of small ensemble jazz got me into saxaphonists (like David Fathead Newman) and other small groups. The Genius of Ray Charles got me into the great standards, and my later love of Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Linda Rondstadt, and many others. His two albums of Country Western music opened up all of that, especially the original recordings of Hank Williams. Following the threads of Ray Charles’ career was a musical education in itself, from the time I started buying his records, in the early sixties, until long after he died.
I’m not arguing with Greil Marcus. He has his obsessions and I have mine. You can examine the panorama of American music through any number of lenses. Marcus’ lens is a good one, and he makes a great case for it. But if you’re not as familiar with the music as he, you’re just reading—in many cases—a bunch of song titles.
One of the interesting things about Mystery Train is that Marcus has continued to expand the Notes and Discography in subsequent editions, so that the book has become much larger and more complete. The man is now 70 years old and the obsession seems as strong as ever. This is one of those books (like Infinite Jest, to name a wildly different example) where you definitely want to read the notes, especially for the artists you’re interested in. The notes are often as good as the text.
So this is a chance to find out who Harmonica Frank actually was, to read about the way Robert Johnson’s recordings were rescued from obscurity (I bought the whole collection of his music just to hear Love in Vain), to hear that four members of The Band were Canadian, that Sly Stone got his start as a d-jay, Randy Newman as a young man idolized Carol King and wanted to have a career like hers. Mystery Train is packed with facts and details that only an obsessed person can have. That’s why it’s so valuable. And it was an occasion for me—as I talked about all this with my wife—to go back and listen to one of Ray Charles most astonishing songs, his version of Randy Newman’s Sail Away.
There are many candidates for Ray’s greatest scream (most people would say it’s at the end of the slow version of A Fool for You, which I, a white face in a sea of black faces, heard Ray sing at North Carolina Central College in 1967. One of the great musical moments of my life). But that scream toward the end of Sail Away is a candidate too. Take a listen.
 I don’t always run out and buy the books he recommends, but I’m always interested in them; he seems to have picked up the same book I would have read. And I love the way he writes.
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