"Gets as close to the heart and soul of America and American music as the best of R&R" - Bruce Springsteen on the cover of "Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll: Fifth Edition".
Summertime has arrived in the Netherlands and that is always a good moment to catch up on my reading. Nothing better than bummin' around with a book in the park and some cold beverages. The first book I picked up is the recently released 5th edition of Greil Marcus' classic book on R&R, "Mystery Train". At first glance this book looks like an oddity, but proves essential reading for anybody who wants to gain an understanding of the medium. In the book, first published in 1975, Marcus tells the story of R&R by portraying three artists and a band; The Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman and Elvis Presley. The artists of choice seem a little off at first, especially with hind sight. All except Elvis, their importance to R&R could be debated. With the Band it seems that the man they once backed, Bob Dylan, played a more pivotal role in the development of R&R, Sly and Newman beg the question if they even made R&R. Yet in Greil's book such questions become irrelevant. Marcus is not interested in reconstructing R&R's history, he is interested in what R&R says about America, the philosophical side of things. As such Marcus doesn't approach R&R in mannerisms, doesn't define it by rhythmic structures, but defines R&R as a force, as a powerful idea.
R&R is a totally unique art form in the world in the sense that it allows a window into America. R&R bears America naked for all the world to see. For us Europeans this has always been one of the exotic attractions R&R holds. No European music or other art form allows such a direct look into the very heart and soul of our various nations. Europe's history is too complex and ancient for any art form to grasp the entire notion of our individual countries. The US on the other hand, as Marcus argues, is still very young. The foundations of America, the promise that lies in its constitution aren't all that far removed from the people who inhabit the country now. Many Americans have heard from first hand how their grand parents came over from Europe. There are still people alive in America who heard first hand stories of slavery. Pick up Larry Crews biography "A Childhood" and he'll tell you what it meant to be a share cropper. Go to a Mavis Staples concert and she'll share memories of drinking from "colored only" fountains. The road to the America of today, with all its promises kept and broken, is still very much tangible in everyday life. Add to that the Democratic notions that are at the very fibers of American society and it becomes possible that an uneducated hillbilly like Elvis captures the essence of America's promise and terror in a three minute record.
Promise and terror are both sides of one coin that is both R&R and America is the argument Marcus seems to make here. As the great American notion, R&R holds a tremendous promise. That promise that the sky's the limit, that we are able to escape our mundane lives if we're willing to break loose. The latter seems the definition Greil uses for R&R in this book. Music that breaks through the boundaries, shocks people into awareness of their individual possibilities and that of their country, but which also holds the terror of failing, the mirror that shows Americas many mistakes in trying to achieve greatness. Reach high, fall deep is Marcus' argument here. Marcus' theory explains both the attraction of R&R in society as its rejection. R&R can cause great joy, place you on top of the world while at the same time confronts you with the great abyss. He makes his argument very effectively from the portraits he chose, how ever odd they may seem at first.
This book does a better job in helping you place contemporary artists and their function in R&R than any other book could. America's fascination with the rise and fall of teen stars like Britney Spears gains more context. After all if R&R reflects America, in Greil's definition Spears' bubble gum pop could very well be seen as R&R, what does Britney's fall say about ourselves and about the nation America is. What indeed did a song like "Whoops I Did It Again" say, with its uninhibited sexuality brought by an image of innocence. America's shock with Gangsta rappers like Snoop Dogg gains context in much the same way. It confronted the nation with harsh realities that not everybody was so willing to face. Marcus' book also helps you to place the controversy surrounding Eminem, in my mind the true heir to Elvis, Stagolee suddenly was white. Eminem shook up all kinds of latent racial stereo types that simmered under America's surface.
After reading Marcus it is easy to see how songs as "Rosalita" and "Born To Run" still get embraced so whole heartedly, it is easy to see why the songs on "Nebraska" make us a lot more uncomfortable. Not just because of what they tell us about America but also about ourselves. It becomes apparent why Springsteen made his best work of recent years against the backdrop of events that took away America's sense of security, and why his stance caused so much division amongst his fans. Springsteen's recent albums have confronted us with a side of America that isn't all that comforting to face. Springsteen has been asking question that are tough to answer, that sit easier left under the rug. "Mystery Train" is as helpful to make sense out of that unease as it was when it was originally released, the year Springsteen came out of hiding from those back streets.
Read Greil Marcus' original 1975 review of "Born To Run" for Rolling Stone here.
Also for further reading an interview with Marcus from 2001.