Scribes Sounding Off: Mystery Train

by Chris Estey

Yes, you should own this book already. It was the first great rock book, and it is still high up in the top ten. But if you don’t have it on your shelves, now’s a great time to pick it up, due to its reprinting with another book’s amount of pages in sumptuous culturally critical notes.

Mystery Train by Greil Marcus is arguably the London Calling of rock books. Like with that diverse, dizzying double album, you probably already do have an earlier edition and take it out to sample its timeless yet revelatory pleasures whenever you get a chance. Both had come out in times when when rock mainstream music and the writing about it had become generic, and both Marcus and The Clash swirl their brushes through a bright and deep palette of North American musical voices, confidently extrapolating on the signifying nature of black music culture as much as the mutated white redneck variations on it. (Mystery Train = Great narrative on Robert Johnson, Sly Stone, and Elvis P.; London Calling = Great songs titled “Jimmy Jazz,” “Wrong ‘Em Boyo,” and “Death Or Glory.”)

So why buy the recently released fifth edition of Mystery Train, even if you’re a diehard fan who knows that it reportedly inspired the recording of The Clash’s recorded zenith, and that Joe Strummer would end up acting in a pivotal role in Jim Jarmusch’s 80s rock energy-as-art film Mystery Train? (Talk about a hall of mirrors.)

Why? Because the deluxe reissue of the 1975 book subtitled Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, a once-ubiquitous tome that both parents and punk kids could enjoy for its historical and prophetic assessments of artists both tragically apocryphal (Harmonica Frank and his influence on early rock) and critically-lauded (the character-driven race-entwined shock pop of Randy Newman), has been doubled with extra features. Here, you’ll find plenty of new notes on recent cultural occurrences and artifacts like the 33 1/3 book on The Band (Music from the Big Pink), the saga of stone cold killer Stagger Lee still developing through the songs of America-inspired performers like Nick Cave (on the Murder Ballads album), and assessments of the spurt of reissues connected to Stone, Presley, and other essential-to-experience icons.

Don’t take this book for granted, as it will clearly elucidate why these artists touch you so deeply as you encounter their work in both popular culture and the underground, both of which Marcus keeps a steady eye on. (For more examples of that, check out his excellent column in The Believer magazine, which had the brilliance to take him on for a “Real Life Top Ten” every month, with this month’s featuring a tightly accurate analysis of Seattle’s own The Gits). More than that, the fecund notes do not detract from the original beauty of the book, so if you wanted to own an updated definitive Mystery Train or wanted to turn someone else (whether punk child or parent who’s probably already aware of Marcus’s amazing talent) on to it, here is an excellent edition to do so. And after you devour this one either for the first time or twentieth, don’t hesitate seeking out Marcus’s other books, such as the spiritual-cultural history of punk philosophy Lipstick Traces and my favorite recent American cultural theory assertion, The Shape of Things to Come, noble and delicious heirs to the Mystery Train tradition.

This is the second post in a new ongoing series called Scribes Sounding Off, in which we discuss some of our favorite music writing, both new and old.

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