Rock & Roll Books
Any Old Way You Choose It
Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock & Roll, 1947-1977by James Miller
Simon & Schuster, 416 pp., $26
As Father Time sweeps the detritus of the 20th century out history's back door, the music industry continues purging a rock & roll catalog that no longer fits in even your friendly, neighborhood Virgin Megastore. There's simply no room; with tens of thousands of albums released every year, chances are some of your favorites are already hell-and-gone out-of-print (never mind what was lost in the industry-wide conversion from LP to CD). Forgotten -- by all but you and perhaps some mail-order clearinghouse out of Peoria. Which is probably the way it should be. Call it "natural selection." Just make sure James Miller's Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock & Roll, 1947-1977 is swept up along with all those Britney Spears albums.
Editor of the original Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, as well as Newsweek's pop music critic for 10 years, Miller sums up the rock & roll revolution in a manner that you might expect from a staffer at an ever-contracting, checkout-stand newsweekly: in the simplest possible terms. Stringing together a book-length series of five-10-page essays chronologically sequenced according to the author's 30-year timeline, Miller pinpoints the birth of rock & roll as having occurred on December 28, 1947, with the release of jump bluesman Wynonie Harris' "Good Rockin' Tonight" and its demise (more or less) coming on August 16, 1977, with the death of Elvis Presley. Between those two events, Miller moves briskly through the invention of the Fender guitar, Patti Page's recording of "Tennessee Waltz," the rise of Top 40 radio, the Chords' doo-wop breakthrough "Sh-Boom," and Bill Haley & the Comets' explosive debut in the film Blackboard Jungle. And that's just the book's first chapter.
While this works for the first half of Flowers in the Dustbin, the early chapters building easily like Legos, by the time Miller reaches the Beatles, Stones, and Bob Dylan in the Sixties, his landmark events (Ken Kesey's acid tests, Monterey Pop, Altamont) become boundaries so compartmentalized as to render the author's version of rock & roll history myopic. Where, for instance, are a few pages on Buddy Holly, as integral to the Beatles' musical makeup as Elvis Presley? Instead, the reader is treated to six pages on Rick Nelson. By the time he gets to the Seventies, Miller is careening about wildly from Ziggy Stardust to The Harder They Come to Bruce Springsteen with nary a word on Led Zeppelin and the proliferation of hard rock.
"For Greil," reads the dedication to Flowers in the Dustbin, as in esteemed first generation rock critic Greil Marcus, who is cited a few times throughout. "For Recyling Only" would have been more apt.