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Even if there were a definitive history of rock ‘n’ roll, it would be useless to most people. All rock ‘n’ roll, the worst of it included, has the power to shape lives. And given that the music has featured prominently in the personal histories of more currently living English speakers than perhaps any other art form, rock scholars are left to contend with more than just one unruly history—there are millions of them. For most people, the history of rock begins with their first song-induced epiphany, be it induced by “Roll Over Beethoven” or “God Save the Queen” or “The Message” or something by Foreigner, and it ends right around the time they quit caring. You don’t need to fancy yourself an aesthete or even a rocker to believe that you know for certain what’s good, what’s bad, and what really mattered.
James Miller officially quit caring about rock ‘n’ roll about 10 years after Elvis’ death, at which point he realized that he’d been not really caring for quite a while. In the epilogue to his book Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977, Miller recalls the day that it all became clear to him: It was 1987, and he was in Memphis reporting a story for Newsweek, where he was then a staff music critic, on the cult that had grown around Elvis in the decade following the singer’s death. In Memphis, Miller climbed a bluff overlooking the Mississippi and began musing over all the musicians, from Louis Armstrong on, who had traveled up and down the river, depositing along its banks the sediment that would grow into the music he wrote about. Miller filled with doubt at realizing that most of the popular rock acts that had emerged after punk were “musically crude or gleefully obscene or just plain silly.” What would become of rock’s essence? “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 reminiscence is more than adequately foreshadowed in the crabby history that precedes it, yet Dustbin is something more than the rock-is-dead rant that critics have been writing since the world discovered Elvis’ pelvis. The guy’s a cynic, but, for the most part, he’s clear-eyed, and he doesn’t let his biases keep him from offering a valuable text. 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 also an accomplished academic; he’s currently director of liberal studies at the Graduate Faculty of the New School and the author of a biography of Michel Foucault.
The book’s very structure flaunts Miller’s 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 the writer undoubtedly understands would require a much bigger volume and a larger chunk of his life to do well—he’s written a collection of essays based around specific people and events that he believes are central to rock’s evolution. The organizational device is fitting: It mirrors many fans’ visions of rock’s infant years as a series of sea changes and genre shifts brought on by crucial figures. The gaps that the stories don’t fill (um, James Brown?) make it plain that this text is far from definitive.
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Dustbin begins, not surprisingly, with Miller searching for rock’s birth. He decides to begin his story with Wynonie Harris, a jump blues wild man who recorded “Good Rockin’ Tonight” in 1947, although he stops short of anointing him as the music’s sole progenitor—Louis Armstrong, Joe Turner, Bill Haley, Elvis, and Alan Freed, among others, vie for that title. Miller reserves most of his enthusiasm for the music that developed in Harris’ immediate wake, and, as a result, his renderings of rock’s earlier years are most vivid.
The ’50s are particularly full-bodied; the influential pre-rock styles that Miller will go on to lament on the Memphis bluff are still manifest in the music of that era, and as a music writer, Miller is 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 makes sense of 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 (the song stayed at No. 1 for 11 weeks), Miller 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 later disillusionment casts a larger shadow on his analysis of rock in the ’60s, yet it’s clear that he’s a product of that decade. Who but a former hippy would choose to give the Grateful Dead their due while reducing Led Zeppelin to a name that’s merely dropped in passing? Rock’s power to induce nostalgia is one Miller devotes a lot of space to both explaining and belittling; by devoting so much space to the Fab Four that he’s essentially written a book within a book (suggested title: How the Beatles Turned Me Into an Elitist Scholar), he’s borderline guilty of succumbing to it.
Miller is more researcher than reporter. More than 40 of Dustbin’s 415 pages are reserved for discographies and notes, and the actual writing contains relatively little original reporting. Miller’s work simply forges 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 that they hardly seem to be there. And I’ll admit to being blown back more than once by Miller’s ability to follow a subject’s far-reaching tentacles without ever losing grasp of the issue at hand. Anyone wondering about the mechanics of mythmaking—or, for that matter, how American culture ever became so enamored of rap—could do worse than starting with Miller’s assessment of bluesman Robert Johnson’s posthumous fame.
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 true hero. But Dustbin, despite its exhaustive notes, isn’t entirely honest. Only in the end does Miller really ‘fess up to the fact that his personal experiences might have influenced his view of history, at which point it becomes clear that Dustbin is less an analysis of the rise of rock, as its title suggests, than it is 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—which, in many ways, it is. But it’s also a story about youth—and about what happens to youthful enthusiasms when you quit being young.
Over and over, Miller scornfully refers to the screaming teens and drug-addled meatheads to whom the music business panders, implicitly suggesting that he’s as disgusted by common fans as he is by the music that makes them crazy; the writer attacks Jim Morrison as if he’d never had a Dionysian fantasy in his life. In his essay about Beatlemania, Miller writes about the “timid conformism” of American teens and how the Beatles “laughed it out of existence.” By the end of the book, he’s convinced that rock no longer has such power.
The fact is, 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 outside the arc of his own personal history—or even choose a punk band besides the Sex Pistols to examine—he would have to admit as much. But by Miller’s measure, rock ‘n’ roll didn’t die with Elvis—it was dead on arrival. Even Wynonie Harris was just out to get paid. CP