"Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977"

Do we need another history of rock? If it's this good, yes.

By Gavin McNett
Published August 26, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

When a book comes sailing in looking the way "Flowers in the Dustbin" does -- flaunting a trash-art cover, named with a Sex Pistols lyric, written by a noted cultural historian and bearing the dedication "For Greil" -- you naturally expect the author to have some ideas up his sleeve. "Greil" is, of course, Greil Marcus, whose own trash-jacketed work of Sex Pistology, the 1989 "Lipstick Traces," is so dizzy with ideas it makes your head hurt. Marcus' book sets a demanding precedent for anyone who wants to write seriously about rock 'n' roll as cultural history, and James Miller should be up to the task: He's the author of "The Passion of Michel Foucault," the most vivid, muckraking book on the French philosopher ever to go to press. But -- to steal another Pistols lyric -- don't judge the book just by the cover.

"Flowers in the Dustbin" starts with a brilliant treatment of the late pre-rock era, knitting together various threads of influence that would later emerge in rock 'n' roll. But the book soon turns into a chronological jaunt past all the familiar guideposts of rock history. Elvis steps into view, shaking his famous pelvis. The '60s happen. The Beatles disembark in New York, right on time, and Miller tells the familiar Joplin, Hendrix and Morrison stories. He reaffirms that "Sgt. Pepper" was great and notes that members of the Velvet Underground were on drugs. Altamont was the end of innocence. David Bowie dressed in drag.

And throughout you're forced to wonder: Why is he telling us all this? There are some great light-handed essays along the way, including an inspired treatment of the rise of the Fender guitar. For once Jimmy Cliff and Marvin Gaye get the attention they deserve. But as the stars and the hit records and the pivotal moments stream past, the impression you get, at least at first, is of one more rock 'n' roll "Lives of the Saints," only vamped up with new detail and an especially fine sensibility.

In the end, though, the detail and sensibility are enough to turn "Flowers in the Dustbin" into a substantial book. Once you stop waiting for Miller to tell you something big and important about rock 'n' roll, the history sweeps past with the unimpeded fluidity of a good short-story collection -- and each of Miller's stories, no matter how familiar it is on the surface, turns out on closer examination to be a subtle, dynamic work of portraiture constructed from just the right facts and just the right quotes.

Miller tends, in his Foucault book as well as here, to walk along paths laid down by previous thinkers. But he can be a gifted synthesist and summer-upper. He has the sort of intellect less drawn to pinning a spotlight on the big picture or to shining a penlight on the close detail than to brightening up the middle distance with a consistent 60-watt glow. As a survey alone, the book covers everything the casual reader really needs to know about the music's first three decades. But don't expect much beyond the late '70s -- Miller remarks in the introduction that while newer music will sometimes catch his ear, he believes that rock 'n' roll's "essential possibilities have been thoroughly explored, its limits more or less clearly established." Having reached his own, he lays down his pen with the death of Elvis Presley, growling a throaty harrumph.

Miller likes the breadbox-sized idea, the human-scale event. He calls himself an intellectual and cultural historian, but he's really something of an imaginative reporter -- he can transport himself to a concert hall or Alan Freed's radio show or Elvis Presley's Sun sessions and talk about it with authority. (Imagining Marvin Gaye in the studio recording "What's Going On," he writes, "One pictures him at a microphone, eyes closed, enveloped in a cloud of marijuana smoke ...") That's a rare and valuable talent, and while "Flowers in the Dustbin" is essentially a small sort of book, it's one of the best of its kind ever written: a definitive collection of rock 'n' roll anecdote and history.

Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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