Does the world really need another history of rock & roll? It does when it’s as insightful and energetic as James Miller’s Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll 1947-1977. I never thought I wanted to slog through the standard litany again — you know, Bill Haley begets Elvis Presley, who inspires the Beatles, who are gloriously desecrated by the Sex Pistols, and don’t forget to throw Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan in there somewhere, too — but Miller makes the trip a fresh, colorful jaunt.
Flowers‘ vibrancy has much to do with the way Miller has constructed his book — around specific events, watershed occurrences in rock & roll’s development as a cultural juggernaut. Beginning with the chapter entitled ”December 28, 1947: ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight”’ (the date Wynonie Harris recorded the song that would become one of Elvis Presley’s first hits) and concluding with the chapter ”August 16, 1977: My Way” (the date Presley died at age 42), Miller’s book is a chronicle of moments when this most malleable of popular musics morphed into something else again. Along the way, he dissolves various cliches, the most insidious of which is that rock is a music of youth.
Miller begins by describing how 29-year-old Haley cut ”Rock Around the Clock,” which landed on the soundtrack of Blackboard Jungle, directed by a 43-year-old Richard Brooks, and in this hit-film context ignited rock’s rebellious fire. Miller points out that an almost-30 black bluesman, Chuck Berry, fashioned the guitar riffs and artful slang that became white teenage anthems in songs such as ”Maybellene” and ”Johnny B. Goode.” He reminds us that if it hadn’t been for the encouragement of the savvy pro Sam Phillips and his sharp-eared Sun Records assistant Marion Keisker, the gifted but painfully shy Elvis might never have become the King.
Miller writes clear prose, making striking juxtapositions. Who else would think to compare American Bandstand‘s Dick Clark to black- power advocate Eldridge Cleaver (in whose 1968 book Soul on Ice Miller locates a remarkable digression on the race-mixing power of Chubby Checker’s ”The Twist”)? Miller conjoins both as ”winning vast numbers of new recruits for a mass movement… against old racial barriers and sexual taboos.”
Flowers blossoms in chapters devoted to Bob Dylan and the Beatles, whose combined efforts, claims Miller, turned rock & roll into ”a medium fit for communicating autobiographical intimacies, political discontents, spiritual elation, inviting an audience, not to dance, but to listen — quietly, attentively, thoughtfully.”
It is this thoughtfulness that Miller finds lacking in most of contemporary rock. The subtitle of his book is important. He stops at 1977, the year punk rock peaked and Elvis Presley died. In some ways, the music died for Miller then, too. A former Newsweek rock critic and now primarily an academic who has written, among other things, the definitive book of the ’60s protest movement, ”Democracy Is in the Streets” (1987), Miller doesn’t have much use for post-punk rock. He gives the Sex Pistols their due, but dismisses acts such as Marilyn Manson and the Wu-Tang Clan as ”the triumph of the psychopathic adolescent,” contending that rock has ”destroyed the very musical sources of its own original vitality.”
Yet Miller’s own chilly disillusionment with the genre never freezes his thoughts. You can disagree with him about rock’s current state of health while still appreciating the vigor and imagination he has brought to bear on explaining how rock happened, and why supposedly disposable pop tunes cut a half century ago remain the bedrock, and are so endlessly invigorating today. A