Review: Mystery Train by Greil Marcus
One of the bigger problems of criticism, is that it’s quite easy to decipher the symptoms of a music that will cause its decimation, but it’s harder to write a piece of criticism that can actually make the listener listen anew. Marcus, and for that matter myself, fall into the first category. Mr. Marcus is adept at finding the limits of various American music genres nailing them down to specific mind sets he situates with the experience of American culture, but he’s unable to elaborate where music should go and by extension Americans. Some asides are made to Randy Newman, who breaks with the confessional style of the sixties and seventies, and Sly Stone, but for the most part Marcus sets out to explore a body of music he’s a master at murdering. However, regardless of how Marcus kills his subjects, he does so humanely and with a fondness that merely shows that thinking often leads to music falling flat. Mystery Train is still an essential piece of criticism, because it’s heart lies in a mind-set that bands today don’t just situate themselves around, but actively worship with nostalgia.
The bigger problem with Marcus is that the albums he charts his America through had an entirely different impact when he was writing about them, then as they do now. The Band’s Big Pink coming after their electric period with Dylan was another amoebic growth of the post-sixties generation, a time when the children out numbered the adults and their new found trends didn’t just signal next seasons fashion, but a potential swurve in the hippie majority’s concerns. For someone born in the post-sixties generation the Band is just another way for AT&T’s creative staff to pitch next year’s cellphones with a catchy toon (and no I don’t think that degrades the song).
One of Mystery Train’s greater reasons for infamy is simply that Marcus was living through a time when music critics were important and publications like Rolling Stone really did break with literary conventions, but the groups he’s picked often line up with the shocks that radio gave at the time and the pressing mysteries of who invented rock and roll. Greil is great at finding flaws, but it’s really the critics who invert history, who destroy listening, who can re-imagine the music of their times that are most memorable, many of the sixties generation of critics were engaged in the game of second guessing the history of their music as it happened as if music criticism was a game of deciding who would ultimately become important. In the late nineties music criticism differed, and such questions of epic quality didn’t touch upon us, perhaps someone would argue the merits of the most experimental band at the moment or something, but few seemed to be convinced anyone today was making history. The creative process has been taken apart taught in design courses and dispersed on web-logs to the point that we have exhaustion at the means through which a band is attempting to achieve the new. Mystery Train at the very least caught a creativity of a different sort, one of place and alienation with the only connector being the am radio dial. It is, a testimony to the individual and a totem of them.