Mystery Train/ Nuclear Physics from the Big Pink

Mystery Train (Greil Marcus, written 1975) is a wonderful book of music criticism, which I wish I had read decades ago. Just wanted to note here a few of its more surprising themes or undercurrents before I forget:

  1. He places a high value on the individuals in rock music. There was nothing historically inevitable about the music Elvis made, blending black and white idioms; rather, it was Elvis who did this and without Elvis there would be no music like his. The last time I encountered such opinions it was from scholars of a much more conservative stamp (or maybe just Harold Bloom?) arguing for the historical uniqueness of Shakespeare. It was not history that created those plays; it was him.
  2. What destroys great music and great musicians? In a word, audiences –the people who love that music and those musicians. This comes up most prominently in his discussion of The Band and Elvis, but in a more complicated way in his study of Randy Newman.
  3. No distinction for Marcus between so-called high and low art — a Robert Johnson song and Picasso painting are equivalent forms of art. He never makes an argument that this is so, but in the few places where it crops up as an issue, he takes a strong position.

This is Mystery Train, Elvis’ last recording for Sun.

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