A prizewinning historian and journalist who has covered the pop music scene for more than three decades, James Miller brings a powerful and challenging intellectual perspective to his recounting of some key turning points in the history of rock. Arguing that the music underwent its full creative evolution in little more than twenty-five years, he traces its roots from the jump blues of the forties to the disc jockeys who broadcast the music in the early fifties. He shows how impresarios such as Alan Freed and movie directors such as Richard Brooks (of Blackboard Jungle) joined black music to white fantasies of romance and rebellion, and then mass-marketed the product to teenagers. He describes how rock matured as a form of music, from Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley to the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Marvin Gaye, defining a decade of rebellious ferment. At the same time, he candidly recounts how trendsetting rock acts from Jim Morrison and the Doors in the late sixties to the Sex Pistols in the late seventies became ever more crude, outrageous, and ugly — “as if to mark,” writes Miller, “the triumph of the psychopathic adolescent.”
Richly anecdotal and always provocative, Flowers in the Dustbin tells the story of rock and roll as it has never been told before.
It appears that Flowers in the Dustbin author James Miller has just about had his fill of rock & roll. After chronicling a succession of triumphs in the development of the genre and its allied ancestors and offspring, here the veteran music scribe and editor of the superb first edition of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll surveys an environment tainted by “the Muzak of the Millennium” and “artifacts of stunning ugliness” (exemplified by Marilyn Manson and Wu-Tang Clan). Miller ponders, “What if rock and roll, as it had evolved from Presley to U2, had destroyed the very musical sources of its own vitality?” The erudite yet eminently readable author doesn’t answer his query in these pages, but he does prompt a longing for a time when pop culture moved too fast and impulsively to be processed and packaged.
Miller makes it his mission to tell the story of the “explosive growth” of rock & roll by recounting creative and commercial breakthroughs, dating from Wynonie Harris’s 1947 recording of the jump-blues hit “Good Rockin’ Tonight” through the last-gasp mutiny of the Sex Pistols and the death of Elvis Presley in 1977. In between, the development of top-40 radio begets the payola scandal of the ’50s, Norman Mailer’s “white Negro” becomes the model in a line of ever-more-self-conscious mavericks, and the 1960s trinity of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan pile remarkable musical and lyrical innovations atop one another like gifted children eager for attention. Once rock had reached its zenith, from the author’s perspective, it didn’t so much crumble as settle into regurgitated mush. That Miller is able to chronicle these dour developments in such an involving manner is testimony to his talent as a writer and historian, and to the thrill of rock & roll when it’s right. –Steven Stolder
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