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Flowers in the Dust Bin
The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977
By James Miller
Simon & Schuster. 416 pp. $26

Reviewed by Tom Carson, a columnist for Esquire and a frequent contributor to the Village Voice.

Sunday, September 5, 1999

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In Flowers in the Dustbin, James Miller traces the development of rock-and-roll as art form, business and phenomenon by describing 45 signpost events, from Wynonie Harris's 1947 recording of "Good Rockin' Tonight" to Elvis Presley's death 30 years later. This sort of thing has been done before; in fact, Entertainment Weekly seems to do it about every other week. But Miller, a respected former Newsweek pop critic whose previous books include studies of Michel Foucault and the New Left of the 1960s, is both an astute writer and a serious cultural historian, packing each of his nuggetlike chapters with insightful analysis and absorbing musical and sociological lore as well as vivid, shrewdly chosen anecdotal detail.

Particularly early on, Miller can't avoid repeating some oft-told tales, mostly about Elvis. But his account of rock's beginnings also features many less familiar treats -- not the least of them a sample of the original lyrics to "Tutti Frutti," so crude and obscene that even the uninhibited Little Richard was embarrassed to sing them to the lyricist assigned to clean them up. Miller is especially good on the complexities of early rock-and-roll's racial crossovers, with white tunesmiths and performers striving to approximate African-American models even as black artists retooled their own styles to appeal to the white audience. In the space of a few lively, tightly knit pages, a superb chapter on the genesis of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's "Kansas City" treats the song as the culmination of a tradition of ersatz black music stretching back to Ira Gershwin and Stephen Foster while presenting its composers -- two white kids, politically radical by background and bohemian by inclination, who were also brainy enough to understand the ambiguity of their relationship to the blues they loved -- as real-life avatars of Norman Mailer's "White Negro."

Miller's mosaic doesn't neglect non-musicians who played key roles. Along with a warm portrait of pioneer Memphis deejay Dewey Phillips and a sharp one of payola-tainted popularizer Alan Freed, seen here as an unpleasant man in the right place rather than the martyr he's often depicted as, the author includes a fascinating account of the two obscure executives, hired to bail out a last-place radio station in a minor market, who invented the Top 40 format one night in Omaha. He's also alert to the technological innovations that did so much to shape the music's nature, singling out Leo Fender's 1950 invention of the electric guitar that bears his name as a turning point not only for its sound but its futuristic design. "These were instruments that made a fashion statement," Miller writes. Then he moves on to a more telling point: "Fender's instruments did more than change the sound and look of postwar pop music; above all, they changed the range and variety of people who would be able to make music."

Dominated by "the Holy Trinity" -- the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones -- Miller's tour of the highlights of '60s rock is celebratory without being vapid, and highly enjoyable reading for anyone interested in the period. Nonetheless, the book's texture turns flimsier. There's no question that the best music of rock's most frenetic decade has endured as both art and artifact, and Miller's description of the mix of inspiration, patience and gimmickry that went into the recording of "Strawberry Fields Forever" captures both the era's rule-breaking creativity at its peak and Beatles producer George Martin at his most long-suffering. But the air of momentousness that the music enjoyed at the time has proven more chimerical, since it was both transcendent in the short run and inconsequential in the long one -- a paradox that even a writer with Miller's knack for elucidation can't come to grips with.

Another limitation is that the author's choice of topics increasingly reflects the conventional tastes of the middle-aged white boomer that he doesn't quite want to admit he is. Most noticeably, aside from a brief appreciation of Marvin Gaye and another of "The Harder They Come," black musicians virtually disappear from his text once Beatlemania hits. Aside from a few paragraphs about Janis Joplin's performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, women are absent all along, which may be even more of a blind spot in a book about the moments when the musical landscape shifted; both Joni Mitchell, who pretty much invented female autonomy as far as the record-buying public was concerned, and Carole King, who performed the possibly trickier and no less valuable feat of turning feminist perceptions into MOR bromides, fall well within Miller's 1977 cutoff date. The author's overarching premise that "the music's era of explosive growth has been over for nearly a quarter century" also strikes me as more the crankiness of a nostalgic fan than a useful judgment, since the rise of rap alone undermines this generalization, even if Miller doesn't have much sympathy for it. Then again, he's hardly the first critic to elevate the vagaries of his own temperament into the verdict of history -- and certainly not the first boomer, either.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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