Images de l'Amérique à travers le rock'n'rollTrad. de l'anglais (États-Unis) par Héloïse Esquié et Justine Malle«C'est donc un livre sur le rock'n'roll - une partie du rock'n'roll - et sur l'Amérique. Ce n'est pas une analyse historique ou purement musicale, ni une galerie de portraits. J'ai essayé d'élargir le contexte dans lequel on écoute la musique, d'analyser le rock non pas comme expression de la jeunesse, ou de la contre-culture, mais de la culture américaine elle-même.Les artistes sur lesquels j'ai choisi d'écrire m'intéressent en particulier parce qu'ils ont plus d'ambition que les autres et qu'ils prennent plus de risques. Ils prennent le risque du désastre artistique (dans le vocabulaire du rock : la prétention), de se mettre à dos un public qu'il est plus facile de flatter que de provoquer - leurs ambitions ont beaucoup à voir avec celles que Robbie Robertson avait pour le Band : La musique ne doit jamais être inoffensive. Ce qui m'attire encore plus chez le Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman et Elvis, c'est que je pense qu'ils se voient comme des Américains symboliques. Pour moi, ils essaient, avec leur musique, d'être à la hauteur de ce rôle.»Greil Marcus.
Writing these opening notes reminds me of the prefaces to the American history books that were written during World War II, when the authors, looking back for the meaning of the Revolution or the Civil War or whatever, drew modest but determined parallels between their work and the struggle. They were affirming that their work was part of the struggle; that an attempt to understand America took on a special meaning when America was up for grabs. Those writers were also saying—at least, this is what they now say to me—that to do one’s most personal work in a time of public crisis is an honest, legitimate, paradoxically democratic act of common faith; that one keeps faith with one’s community by offering whatever it is that one has to say. I mean that those writers were exhilarated, thirty years ago, by something we can only call patriotism, and humbled by it too.
Well, I feel some kinship with those writers. I began this book in the fall of 1972, and finished it late in the summer of 1974. Inevitably, it reflects, and I hope contains, the peculiar moods of those times, when the country came face-to-face with an obscene perversion of itself that could be neither accepted nor destroyed: moods of rage, excitement, loneliness, fatalism, desire.
• • •
Like a lot of people who are about thirty years old, I have been listening and living my life to rock ’n’ roll for twenty years, and so behind this book lie twenty years of records and twenty years of talk. Probably it began when a kid pushed a radio at me and demanded that I listen to a song called “Rock Around the Clock,” which I disliked at the time and still do. I know the music came together for me in high school, thanks to my cruising friend, Barry Franklin. We spent years on the El Camino, driving from Menlo Park to San Francisco to San Jose and back again, listening to Tom Donahue and Tommy Saunders on KYA, trying to figure out the words to “Runaround Sue” and translating “Little Star” into French. Later, we followed the sixties trail to college, Beatles shows, and Dylan concerts.
About a month before the Beatles hit I met my wife, Jenny, who confirmed my enthusiasms and who has always kept them alive; it means more to me to say that this book wouldn’t have been written without her than to say that it couldn’t have been.
The time I have spent talking rock ’n’ roll with my friends Bruce Miroff, Langdon Winner, Ralph Gleason, Ed Ward, Michael Goodwin, and many more, has gone into this book; so has talk with my brothers Steve and Bill, with teachers and students, and with my daughter Emily, who picked “Mystery Train” as her favorite song at the age of two. My daughter Cecily is not as yet so discriminating, but I have hopes. As much as anything, rock ’n’ roll has been the best means to friendship I know.
I have been writing about the music since 1966—professionally, for publication, since 1968. Before I got up the nerve to see my efforts in print I put together a book of pieces by myself and some friends; one of them, Sandy Darlington, taught me a lot about music and a lot more about writing. After the book was finished I took over Sandy’s music-space in the San Francisco Express-Times, then edited and inspired by Marvin Garson. Until the events of Peoples’ Park sent it reeling into mindlessness, the Express-Times was the best underground newspaper in America, and I’ve always been proud to have been part of it. When it changed I moved across town to Rolling Stone, where I wrote and edited for a year. In 1970 I left, and ultimately ended up with Creem, a magazine that seemed like a place of freedom and was. Creem gave me the chance to try out many of the ideas that eventually found their way into this book.
There would be little to those ideas without the study I did in American political thought and American literature with three Berkeley teachers: John Schaar, Michael Rogin, and Norman Jacobson. And there are a few books that mattered a great deal to the ambitions of my own book, and to its content: D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel, James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Pauline Kael’s I Lost It at the Movies, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and, in a way that is still pretty mysterious to me, Ernest Hemingway’s short stories.
Many people helped me in many ways while I was writing: Mary Clemmey, Greg Shaw, Richard Bass, Pat Thomas, Ms. Clawdy, Bill Strachan of Anchor Press, and Wendy Weil. Jenny Marcus, Peter Guralnick, Bruce Miroff, Bob Christgau, and Dave Marsh read every page of the manuscript, and made it far better than it would have been without their help.
Bob and Dave deserve special thanks. They have been part of my work from beginning to end; they encouraged it, at times inspired it, always cared about it. No critic could ask for better colleagues, and no one could ask for better friends.
And I owe as much to my editor, Bill Whitehead. Without his commitment to the book, mine would have faded out a long time ago.
What I have to say in Mystery Train grows out of records, novels, political writings; the balance shifts, but in my intentions, there isn’t any separation. I am no more capable of mulling over Elvis without thinking of Herman Melville than I am of reading Jonathan Edwards (not, I’ve been asked to point out, the crooner mentioned in the Randy Newman chapter, but the Puritan who made his name with “Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God”) without putting on Robert Johnson’s records as background music. What I bring to this book, at any rate, is no attempt at synthesis, but a recognition of unities in the American imagination that already exist. They are natural unities, I think, but elusive; I learned, in the last two years, that simply because of those unities, the resonance of the best American images is profoundly deep and impossibly broad. I wrote this book in an attempt to find some of those images, but I know now that to put oneself in touch with them is a life’s work.
Berkeley, August 9, 1974
INTRODUCTION TO THE 2015 EDITION
Every seven or eight years, I’ve had the privilege, thanks to the publisher that, under different names, has stayed with Mystery Train for four decades, to dive into the Notes & Discographies back sections of the book and again take up the story it tried to tell. Of the six principals in the book—Harmonica Frank, Robert Johnson, the Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman, and Elvis Presley—Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson of the Band, Sly Stone, and Randy Newman are still alive, though only Newman performs in anything like the way that he did when this book first appeared. But there are always reissues to chronicle, and often there’s music that was never heard in its time. New books, sometimes shaping an old tale in a new way, sometimes working from discoveries that upend what everybody thought they knew, are always appearing. There are movies inspired by the music traced in these pages. Novels. Poems. Plays. Countless new songs from the handful that are followed here.
The great surprise I found, when I began to look at where those once fugitive, once looming figures stood today, was that the one who seemed most culturally alive—the one who was, after however many years, most the subject of a real and ongoing conversation—was Robert Johnson, the Mississippi blues singer who has been dead since 1938. When I wrote about him in 1975, almost nothing certain was known about him. But the discovery and publication, soon after that, of the facts about the identity of this once almost absolutely crepuscular artist did nothing to still the voices hiding in his songs—to fix their identity. For that matter the facts of Johnson’s identity—his birth, real name, life, travels, death, even imposture—are probably more in dispute today than they have ever been, to the point that some people who have devoted a good part of their lives to the search for Robert Johnson now seem to be arguing that he may have never existed at all. Johnson may have a greater presence today than he has ever had. He may have a greater hold on the imaginations of individuals and the common, constructed memory, which is to say the story we tell each other about who we are and where we came from. That is partly because of the re-release of Johnson’s music in 2011, to mark the putative centennial of his birth, in a form so clear and deep it was less that he seemed to step into the present than that he was able to transport any listener into the Texas hotel rooms where he recorded almost eighty years ago, because of the issue by Dogfish Head Brewery in that same year of “Robert Johnson’s Hellhound on My Ale,” or because in 2012 the president of the United States sang Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” to close a celebration at the White House. But if Johnson’s presence in culture were that simple it wouldn’t exist.
• • •
I thank the people at Plume who have made this edition possible: editors Matthew Daddona and Philip Budnick, managing editor Norina Frabotta, senior production editor Lavina Lee, designer Eve Kirch, and for the cover the design firm the Heads of State, and proofreader Jennifer Rappaport.
• • •
Wendy Weil, who died suddenly in 2012, guided this book through many editions. I was in the Bill Clinton Library in Little Rock when her associate Emily Forland called with the news, and the version of the American story in the library, the Civil Rights Movement plaques marking vicious attacks on citizens witnessing and making history at the same time, the museums and blues lines painted on the windows of restaurants on President Clinton Avenue brought home, like a building collapsing, how central Wendy was to the books that, with her soft-spoken, often quizzical advice, I’ve had the chance to write. I am lucky now to continue to work with Emily Forland, now with Brandt & Hochman, and as well with her colleagues Emma Patterson, who was also with Wendy, and Marianne Merola and Henry Thayer. They are the quickest people I have ever known in publishing, and the sunniest.
Oakland, February 1, 2015
INTRODUCTION TO THE 2008 EDITION
When I took the title of Elvis Presley’s last single for Sun Records as the title for this book, I had no argument to make for it. The words had an echo in them, that was all I knew.
More than thirty years later, I know one thing more: it’s been a good train to hitch a ride on. Over time, the idea or the image of the song has surfaced again and again, as a kind of talisman—of, I think, the need or the wish for mystery itself, as a dimension of life too often missing. I first noticed that this train was still running in 1986, with Thurston Moore’s slow chant “Mystery train / Three-way plane” in Sonic Youth’s “Expressway to Yr. Skull,” the sound blowing up in a tiny nightclub but those first two words as clear as a fire alarm. That same year, I came across Lynn Turner’s Harlequin Intrigue novel Mystery Train discarded on a beach. The jacket showed a clean-cut young man apparently attempting to rescue a clean-cut young woman, who seemed about to pitch off the back of a railcar. In the lower right-hand corner was a smaller picture of a dead woman facedown in a creek. Cut in under the first woman’s windblown hair was an insert promising “SPECIAL OFFER WIN A GREAT PRIZE See inside No Purchase Necessary.” The prize was detailed on the inside cover: “Lots of money.” In 1989 there was Jim Jarmusch’s film Mystery Train—three stories about foreign visitors holed up in the same Elvis-haunted Memphis hotel on the same night, but with the train that brings two Japanese rockabilly fans into town taking a turn that wasn’t in the script. In the middle of the night, an Italian woman is awakened by a befuddled Elvis ghost; she asks him what he’s doing in her room. “I don’t rightly know, ma’am,” he says; then he vanishes. The actor was Stephen Jones, perhaps the least convincing Elvis impersonator in the history of Western civilization, though a few years later Jones got his hands on American history, the real thing, when his wife, Paula—fronting for a slew of heavily funded right-wing groups—filed a sexual harassment suit against another sometime Elvis impersonator, a better one, especially in 1992, when he was elected president of the United States.
“Mystery train”—it was a phrase that, once Elvis made it a metaphor for fate and desire, became a signpost, a doorway to a better world, a key to the truth, a philosopher’s stone. Even in the fifties, Janis “The Female Elvis” Martin was asking the other Elvis for a ride on his mystery train, in her hands an image Elvis would not have likely associated with schedules and conductors; in 1969, in “Rock Is Dead,” a miserable studio jam not released until 1997, Jim Morrison found his one moment of lucidity when he stumbled onto the long black train. From the Soft Boys to the Blake Babies to Ashtray to the Waco Brothers, from Robert Zimmerman in Hibbing, Minnesota, in 1958 (with his band the Golden Chords and their “Mystery Train” rewrite “Big Black Train”) to Bob Dylan in Los Angeles in 1981 (a hammering version of the real thing, with saxophone and female shouters), as band after band has found itself scavenging pieces of the tune, ringing small changes on a song that, the performances seemed to say, was too big for them, you could hear the twentieth century itself riding the song’s rails—riding them straight into the next century, where, as I write, in 2007, Bruce Springsteen is calling down the talisman, “searching for a mystery train” in a “Radio Nowhere” determined to give up no such thing. “‘It takes a worried man to sing a worried song,’ sang the Carter Family in the Victor studios one Saturday evening on May 24, 1930,” the late Charles K. Wolfe wrote in the notes to the 1995 Carter Family reissue Worried Man Blues, speaking of the earliest recording of the folk ballad that Sam Phillips and Junior Parker would rewrite as “Mystery Train.” “The record wouldn’t be released until November of that fall—it would be one of their last really big hits for some time—and by then more than a few listeners were nodding their heads in sad appreciation of the lyrics. Out in the Midwest over a million farm families were being devastated by the drought . . . President Hoover was admitting that over four million other Americans were now unemployed, but denying that the government should offer direct aid to them. Across the South as furniture store owners wheeled Victrolas out on their sidewalks to play the new Carter Family records, families with grim faces and patched clothes gathered and listened.”
“It takes a worried man to sing a worried song,” David Thomas sang in his tune “Enthusiastic” in 1984; in 1995 he was writing liner notes for his band Pere Ubu’s Ray Gun Suitcase. “That’s the way it goes at the lost, last outpost of American folk culture,” he said, thinking back to the time he’d spent at the Days Inn on Brooks Road in Memphis, during Elvis Week ’93. The delirium of the notes is mor...Quatrième de couverture :
«C'est donc un livre sur le rock'n'roll - une partie du rock'n'roll - et sur l'Amérique. Ce n'est pas une analyse historique ou purement musicale, ni une galerie de portraits. J'ai essayé d'élargir le contexte dans lequel on écoute la musique, d'analyser le rock non pas comme expression de la jeunesse, ou de la contre-culture, mais de la culture américaine elle-même.Les artistes sur lesquels j'ai choisi d'écrire m'intéressent en particulier parce qu'ils ont plus d'ambition que les autres et qu'ils prennent plus de risques. Ils prennent le risque du désastre artistique (dans le vocabulaire du rock : la prétention), de se mettre à dos un public qu'il est plus facile de flatter que de provoquer - leurs ambitions ont beaucoup à voir avec celles que Robbie Robertson avait pour le Band : "La musique ne doit jamais être inoffensive." Ce qui m'attire encore plus chez le Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman et Elvis, c'est que je pense qu'ils se voient comme des Américains symboliques. Pour moi, ils essaient, avec leur musique, d'être à la hauteur de ce rôle.»Greil Marcus.
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