Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977

by James Miller

(Simon & Schuster)

Even if there were a definitive history of rock ‘n’ roll, it would be useless to most people. Given that rock has featured prominently in the personal lives of more currently living English speakers than perhaps any other art form, rock scholars are left to contend with not just one unruly history but millions of them. For most people, the saga begins with their first song-induced epiphany–be it induced by “Roll Over Beethoven” or “God Save the Queen” or “Mr. Roboto” or “Antichrist Superstar”–and it ends right around the time they quit caring.

James Miller officially quit caring about rock about ten years after Elvis died, at which point he realized that he’d been not caring for some time already. In the epilogue to his recent book, Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977, Miller recalls the day it all became clear to him: It was 1987, and he was in Memphis reporting a story for Newsweek, where he was the staff music critic, on the cult that had grown around Elvis in the decade following the singer’s death. He climbed a bluff overlooking the Mississippi and began thinking about all the musicians, from Louis Armstrong on, who had traveled up and down the river, depositing along its banks the sediment that would give life to the music that he wrote about. He was filled with doubt upon considering that most of the popular rock acts that had emerged after punk were “musically crude or gleefully obscene or just plain silly,” and worse, seemed to be part of some giant interactive marketing scheme. He mused, “What if rock and roll, as it had evolved from Presley to U2, had destroyed the very musical sources of its own original vitality?”

Miller’s Memphis memoir is more than adequately foreshadowed in the crabby history that precedes it, yet Flowers in the Dustbin is something more than the rock-is-dead rant that critics have been writing since Elvis first shook his pelvis. The guy’s a cynic, but for the most part, he’s clear-eyed, and his biases–a distrust of anything blatantly mainstream, a blatant disinterest in punk–don’t prevent him from offering some valuable insights.

Apart from being a knowledgeable rock critic (he wrote for Rolling Stone before it went glossy and was the original editor of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll), Miller is an accomplished academic; he’s the director of liberal studies at the Graduate Faculty of the New School and the author of a biography of Michel Foucault. Flowers in the Dustbin’s structure flaunts his experience in navigating unwieldy subject matter. Instead of presenting a detailed play-by-play of the 30 years he chooses to examine–a task that would undoubtedly require more than these 416 pages–he’s written 45 essays based on specific people and events that he believes are central to rock’s evolution, including Ricky Nelson, disc jockey Dewey Phillips, the Monterey Pop festival, and American Graffiti. Even without his disclaimer, the gaps these stories don’t fill (um, James Brown?) make it plain that the book is not intended as a definitive text.

It begins, not surprisingly, with Miller searching for rock’s birth. He decides to begin his story with Wynonie Harris, the jump-blues wildman who recorded “Good Rockin’ Tonight” in 1947, but he stops short of anointing him as the music’s sole progenitor–Louis Armstrong, Big Joe Turner, Bill Haley, Elvis, and Alan Freed, among others, compete for that title. Miller reserves most of his enthusiasm for the music that developed in Harris’s immediate wake, and, as a result, his renderings of rock’s earlier years are most vivid.

The 50s are particularly full-bodied; the prerock influences Miller will later lament on that Memphis bluff are still manifest in the music of that era, and as a sheer describer of music, Miller’s at his best dissecting the grooves of early rock and R & B. The latter genre’s transformation into the former was a slow, somewhat accidental process, but Miller clarifies the blurry line that separated the two evolving styles. By way of explaining how Ruth Brown’s “Teardrops From My Eyes” rose above the other R & B singles released in 1950 (it stayed at number one for 11 weeks), he writes: “Since she was a singer of pop ballads by inclination, Brown sounded faintly uncomfortable with the song’s chugging tempo, a discomfort that imbued her performance with a paradoxically piquant sense of drama.”

The writer’s disillusionment casts a longer shadow on his analysis of rock in the 60s. His history follows two arcs–rock’s evolution as an art form and its evolution as a business–and in the 60s they start to look indistinguishable. As much as he seems to admire Dylan, the Beatles, and the Stones, Miller argues that high commercial expectations were attached to all of their recordings. In his Monterey Pop essay, he recalls label execs surveying the crowd and seeing not just the stoned, unwashed masses, but kids with “lots of ‘irresponsible dollars to spend.'” By decade’s end, Miller observes, “rock and roll was no longer a genre of popular music…rock and roll now was popular music–the only kind that really mattered.”

Yet it’s clear that Miller’s a product of the 60s. Only an old hippie would choose to give the Grateful Dead their due while reducing Led Zeppelin to a passing reference. Miller spends a lot of space explaining and belittling rock’s power to induce nostalgia, but in devoting four different essays to the Fab Four (suggested title for this book within a book: “How the Beatles Turned Me Into an Elitist”) he’s guilty of succumbing to it.

Miller is more researcher than reporter–more than 40 pages are reserved for discographies and notes, and the text contains relatively little new information. His real work goes into forging perspective. He’s particularly adept at making this collection of stories read like one: each of the essays references the ones that precede it and foreshadows the ones to come, and the segues–from guitar maker Leo Fender to “The Tennessee Waltz,” from Ken Kesey’s acid tests to the Velvet Underground (“the most influential rock band since the Beatles”), from Ziggy Stardust to The Harder They Come–are so logical they hardly seem to be there. And I’ll admit to being blown away more than once by his ability to follow a subject’s far-reaching tentacles without ever abandoning its head. Anyone curious about the mechanics of mythmaking–or, for that matter, how American culture became so enamored of rap–would do well to start with Miller’s assessment of bluesman Robert Johnson’s posthumous career.

Miller is too interested in the truth to practice mythmaking himself–with the possible exception of John Lennon, no one emerges from this story a hero. But Flowers in the Dustbin, despite its exhaustive endnotes, isn’t entirely honest. The listening habits of a professional rock critic are hardly typical; the passion that leads one to the job can fade under the pressure to keep up with changes one is not really interested in, breeding frustration and, as with Miller, career shifts. Only in the end does he fess up that personal experience might have influenced his view of history, at which point it becomes clear that the book is less an analysis of “the rise of rock” than a vehicle for the writer to explain away his midlife blues. The way Miller sees it, the story of rock ‘n’ roll is about business. But it’s also about youth and about what happens to youthful enthusiasms when you cease to be young.

Throughout the book Miller scorns the screaming teens and drug-addled meatheads to whom the music business panders, suggesting that he’s as disgusted by the fans as he is by the music that makes them crazy; he attacks Jim Morrison as if he’s never had a Dionysian fantasy in his life. In his essay about Beatlemania, Miller writes about the “timid conformism” of American teens in the early 60s and how the Beatles, benign mop-tops who quickly evolved into drug-taking aesthetes, “laughed it out of existence.” By the end of the book, he’s convinced that rock no longer has such power. In the epilogue he writes: “A music that once provoked the wrath of censors has become the Muzak of the millennium.”

The fact is, rock still has power. He’s just quit seeing it. In obsessing over the commercial forces that cause so many would-be artists to forfeit their principles, Miller neglects to acknowledge that even “watered down and trite” commercial rock inspires listeners, if only to react against it; if he’d allow himself to look beyond his own personal history–or examine punk even one band beyond the Sex Pistols–he’d have to admit as much. By Miller’s measure, rock ‘n’ roll didn’t die with Elvis–it was dead on arrival. But it’s been well documented that the seedy financial underbelly of rock ‘n’ roll existed before the music even had a name. Even Wynonie Harris was out to get paid.