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.”
In this excerpt, Marcus captures Elvis a few years before the icon’s death in 1977. Reprinted with permission from Plume and the author, dig this small taste and then do yourself a favor and dive into the book.
These days, Elvis is always singing. In his stage-show documentary, Elvis on Tour, we see him singing to himself, in limousines, backstage, running, walking, standing still, as his servant fits his cape to his shoulders, as he waits for his cue.
He sings gospel music, mostly; in his private musical world, there is no distance at all from his deepest roots. Just as that personal culture of the Sun records was long ago blown up into something too big for Elvis to keep as his own, so the shared culture of country religion is now his private space within the greater America of which he has become a part.
And on stage? Well, there are those moments when Elvis Presley breaks through the public world he has made for himself, and only a fool or a liar would deny their power. Something entirely his, driven by two decades of history and myth, all live-in-person, is transformed into an energy that is ecstatic—that is, to use the word in its old sense, illuminating.
The overstated grandeur is suddenly authentic, and Elvis brings a thrill different from and far beyond anything else in our culture; like an old Phil Spector record, he matches, for an instant, the bigness, the intensity, and the unpredictability of America itself.
It might be that time when he sings “How Great Thou Art” with all the faith of a backwoods Jonathan Edwards; it might be at the very end of the night, when he closes his show with “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” and his song takes on a glow that might make you feel his capacity for affection is all but superhuman.
Whatever it is, it will be music that excludes no one, and still passes on something valuable to everyone who is there. It is as if the America that Elvis throws away for most of his performance can be given life again at will.
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