Book Review: Flowers in the Dustbin
by James Miller
New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1999. Paperback, 8.5" by 5.5", 416 pp. $15.00. ISBN 0-6848-6560-2.
This book is a tremendously valuable complement and counterpoint to Jim Cogan and William Clark's Temples of Sound, which I reviewed in the July issue. That book did a marvelous job of laying out the what and the how of the golden age of recording popular music in the US. This intriguing and at times provocative book tackles the thornier questions of what difference it all made, and why.
James Miller is uniquely situated to have worthwhile opinions on such questions, because he was a member of the first generation of rock-media music critics. His first nationally published record review appeared in 1967, in Rolling Stone No.3, when his byline was "Jim Miller"; he was for 10 years the popular music critic for Newsweek; and he edited the first edition of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll. He is now professor of political science and director of liberal studies at the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research.
Perhaps because Miller had already edited a rather encyclopedic history of rock and roll, he felt free to adopt a very different plan for a book that is as much social criticism as history. Flowers in the Dustbin (the title comes from a Sex Pistols song) comprises about 45 short chapters, each dedicated to a particular event that was a step in the process by which, over the course of 30 years, rock music evolved from an outsider's enthusiasm to a cultural norm.
Many of the chapters are prefaced by an exact calendar date—such as July 9, 1972, when David Bowie made his Royal Festival Hall debut in London. This gives the writing a real sense of journalistic specificity; you feel that you're getting a first-hand report. At the same time, Miller's use of secondary sources is amply documented; this is a history, not a memoir.
The time frame of the book's subtitle, The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977, was chosen because December 28, 1947 was the date of the recording session for Wynonie Harris' "Good Rockin' Tonight," a jump-blues dance number that many believe was the first record that could be called "rock and roll"; and because August 16, 1977 was the date of Elvis Presley's death. Miller's book chronicles rock's rise from a marginated and at times despised music, to a position of such cultural ascendance that, upon Presley's death, two of the commercial television networks replaced scheduled programming with special reports.
Implicit in Miller's choice of 1977 as his chronology's end point (although his epilogue does cover such post-1977 developments as Michael Jackson's solo career and U2) is an assertion that, after 1977, rock music was no longer on the rise; it was in part on a plateau, and in part in decline. Miller suggests that rock's very success may have destroyed the wellsprings of its original vitality. Within two generations, the "rock artist" had gone from toreador to sacred cow.
Miller writes very well. Flowers in the Dustbin is the work of a journalist who has found the time to ponder and refine what in the past he had to file on deadline. Miller has a taste for irony, usually of the delicious rather than the bitter sort. What some readers may take exception to, however, is his disillusioned and at times revisionist perspective. Explaining why he abandoned rock criticism, Miller writes, "The music I once found fraught with strange, even subversive meanings now often seems to mean nothing at all."
Miller's ultimate question is whether the listeners in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s who made rock music the center of their lives were part of a spontaneous movement for personal and societal transformation, or did their need "to be a nonconformist, just like everybody else" (my phrase, not his) make them form themselves into a tightly segmented market, all the better to sell a product to? You may or may not agree with Miller's conclusions, but they are factually well supported, deeply thought out, and deeply felt.
Miller's major concern in this book is not so much the music itself (although his treatment of the music is insightful), but in exploring how causation works in cultural history through what he calls "critical moments." For example, Ricky Nelson claimed that the amount of attention a girl he was dating paid to an Elvis song heard on his car's radio caused him impulsively to tell her that he was going to make a record, and then he had to follow through. Or, to take a perhaps more significant example, how the LP reissue in 1961 of Robert Johnson's 78rpm sides inspired Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, and Eric Clapton. Arguably, the soaring passion of Clapton's guitar in "Layla" descends directly from Johnson's work in 1936 and 1937.
On the other side of the ledger, because Miller's focus is on the hinges of history, some very popular performers who had already appeared on the scene in 1977—even some that were both popular and musically significantèt scant or no attention, examples being the Beach Boys, Elton John, and Steely Dan.
Miller's anecdotal chapters are like pieces in a mosaic. By the time you've finished Flowers in the Dustbin, you'll see the big picture of the first 30 years of rock music from a unique, albeit slightly world-weary, perspective.
My only constructive criticism would be that the music Miller chooses to discuss is so wide-ranging, and at times unfamiliar, that it would have made sense to try to obtain clearances for the most important songs, and bundle a compilation CD or CDs along with the book. The higher price would have been worth it.
I'll let Miller himself have the last words:
"Whatever its expressive limitations—and they are manifold—rock and roll speaks to millions. Out of the chaos of our time has come a prerecorded music bearing the promise of redemption through Dionysian revelry....
"And because people around the world want to hear this sound, and share in the fantasies it still excites, rock and roll is here to stay—for better; for worse; and for a long time to come."