Elvis Presley as Moby Dick
May 26, 1975
Writer Greil Marcus, a passionate student of our nation’s past and a madman for rock ‘n’ roll music, has in Mystery Train: Images of America In Rock ‘n’ Roll Music (Dutton, $8.95), set out to define that heady space where our history and our art merge into a single, durable vision of our country — a vision that is capable of illuminating the deepest and darkest recesses of our collective democratic soul. Mystery Train is determinedly and proudly in the tradition of such groundbreaking works of American cultural criticism as Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel, D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature and F.O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance (the first two of which Marcus draws from in his work); as his predecessors sought to understand Poe’s nightmares or the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock in terms of our most substantial national myths, so Marcus attempts to place such songs as Randy Newman’s “Sail Away,” The Band’s “Across the Great Divide,” and Elvis Presley’s early efforts for Sam Phillips at Sun Records into the same broad cultural context.
Marcus believes that rock ‘n’ roll no more deserves to be pigeonholed as a transient manifestation of “youth” culture than Huckleberry Finn deserves to be thought of as an adventure tale for 10-year-old boys. To prove his case, he forces his chosen musicians to carry the weight of much of American history, literature, social thought, and even geography to see if they can do so without collapsing under the stress. To a great extent, Marcus’s heroes come through very nicely indeed, and Mystery Train, which runs the risk of reading like a literary man’s pretentious effort to rationalize his craving for pop, instead has a humbling effect. At the end of the book, we, like Marcus, appreciate that we have only begun to hear what the most popular music of our time is telling us.
Marcus has chosen to organize his book around a handful of artists who “share in their music and in their careers … a range and a depth that seem to crystallize naturally in visions and versions of America: its limits, openings, traps”; after giving Mystery Train a “backdrop” in the form of brief essays on two rock ‘n’ roll ancestors, “howling tomcat” Harmonica Frank (Marcus’s quintessential Huck) and bluesman Robert Johnson (his Ahab), he goes on to The Band, Sly Stone, and Newman, before wrapping up with his climactic (and lengthiest) section, “Elvis: Presliad.” Throughout Marcus writes in a forceful, enthusiastic, almost driven style — he grabs his subjects by the lapels and shakes them until their vital organs tumble out — and his frame of reference is so vast that he never runs out of connections worth making between the music he loves and just about anything else that matters in American art and life.
Marcus finds (brilliantly, I think) an aesthetic link between Music from Big Pink and Robert Altman’s film McCabe and Mrs. Miller; he traces the legend of Staggerlee beyond the music of Johnson and Stone to the lives and politics of Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, and Eldridge Cleaver — and then even further, into the black Superfly exploitation movies of the ’70s; Raymond Chandler is brought to bear on Newman, and all over the book there are whispers from Tocqueville, Perry Miller, and Scott Fitzgerald, not to mention graceful invocations of the Great Awakening, the Civil War, and the Gilded Age. It’s a measure of how long and rich a view Marcus takes of these musicians and, concurrently, a vindication of the value he places in their work, that it never becomes necessary to shove Watergate or Vietnam into our faces to give the rock of Mystery Train its share of meaning.
In all of his subjects, Marcus finds both a quest for that freedom that Americans regard as a birthright and a realization (tragically late in some cases) of the dread and terror that lie behind the face of that dream. Each of the book’s protagonists have, in their music, reinvented unique pieces of the American mythos that set them apart from each other (from The Band’s vision of a joint-stock American community to Newman’s synthesis of the Southern California polarities represented by the Beach Boys and Nathanael West). In the end, it is only Elvis who can bind Marcus’s entire litany of images together.
That’s why the “Presliad” is the knockout section of the book; if Newman is, as the author indicates, his Bartleby, then Elvis is most certainly his Moby Dick. “Beside Elvis,” Marcus writes, “the other heroes of this book seem a little small-time. If they define different versions of America, Presley’s career almost has the scope to take America in.”
Marcus’s writing about Presley reaches a pitch of ecstasy, horror, and understanding that diminishes the prose of the book’s previous chapters as effectively as Elvis diminishes the subjects of those chapters. For Marcus, Elvis is the man who has best redeemed “the grandest fantasy of freedom,” but he has done so at the expense of resolving all the vital American tensions (“it is rather Lincolnesque; Elvis recognizes that the Civil War has never ended, and so he will perform The Union” ) — finally to end up in “a world that for all its openness … is aesthetically closed, where nothing is left to be mastered, where there is only more to accept.”
It’s a frightening dramatization of the ultimate bankruptcy of what this country teaches us to live for. But even now, as Elvis goes through the motions in Vegas, Marcus catches flashes of hope: “And so Elvis Presley’s career defines success in a democracy that can perhaps recognize itself best in its popular culture … success so grand and complete it is nearly impossible for him to perceive anything more worth striving for. But there is a horror to this utopia — and one might think that the great moments Elvis still finds are his refusal of all that he can have without struggling. Elvis proves then that the myth of supremacy for which his audience will settle cannot contain him … “
The electrifying beat of the “Presliad” aside, Mystery Train is not without its problems. Marcus has a tendency to repeat himself and to oversell a beloved song with superlatives; he has included some cutely labeled digressions that don’t successfully sidestep the fact that the book often doesn’t work as an organic piece of writing. (To his credit, however, he has thrown most of his more conventionally inbred rock criticism into the annotated discography that follows the main text.) At the most substantive level, he has neatly avoided taking on any American myths that might raise the disturbing, Fiedler-esque questions about our culture’s peculiar relationship to sex. I also wonder whether rock fans who are not well steeped in what universities call American Studies (which Marcus has taught at Berkeley ) are going to have a lot of fun with Mystery Train — the book isn’t written down to anyone — but maybe the very success of Marcus’s mission makes that beside the point. While our literature undoubtedly adds resonance to the best of our popular music, and vice versa, Mystery Train just as strongly suggests that, for many Americans, rock ‘n’ roll on its own, even when it’s heard in a cultural vacuum, may not be doing such a bad job of keeping our democratic vistas intact.