Saturday, October 1, 2011
The title of James Miller’s Flowers in the Dustbin is taken from the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen, whose lyrics state, “We're the flowers in the dustbin. We’re the poison in your machine. We’re the future.” Such lyrics are apropos for a book that asserts that rock’s best days are behind it. Even though the subtitle states that it’s about rock's rise, it’s just as much about its fall.
Less a history than a cultural argument based on rock's milestones, Miller writes of a hybrid form that broke down racial barriers. As early disc jockeys such as Dewey Phillips and Alan Freed played rhythm and blues by black artists and Sam Phillips of Sun Records (Elvis Presley’s early label) recorded them, white musicians started to reflect their influence. (This black-white cultural interplay is also reflected in two other books reviewed here, Hip: The History and Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s).
For Miller, there were two periods of rock’s flourishing. Artists such as Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Little Richard excited 1950s youth and scandalized their parents; the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix were among those who established rock as a serious art form in the 1960s. While paying these giants their due, Miller does not shy from knocking other icons. Jim Morrison was not so much a “Dionysus” as a “jerk.” Janis Joplin engaged in “amateurish shrieking” (a judgment with which I particularly disagree). Bruce Springsteen is a “minor talent” who benefited from rock’s hype machine. As rock has become an international force, this machine has resulted in pre-packaged mega stars–a process that leads to cynicism when marketing supposed rebels such as the Sex Pistols (Miller acknowledges that the band is given more sanguine treatment in Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus, reviewed here).
Rock’s rise ends with the death of the “ultimate rocker,” Elvis. After that, the thrill is gone and the rock audience is increasingly fragmented. While it’s true that there has not been an artist on the scale of Elvis or The Beatles for the decades, can one really conclude that rock’s “essential possibilities have been thoroughly explored”? Following 1977, for example, punk bands such as the Ramones and the Clash, inspired by rock's raw roots, revitalized the music, and new wave bands such as Talking Heads took innovative musical and lyrical directions.
Miller argues that rock has “the features of a finished cultural form"–yet despite his jadedness, he treats his subject with passion. Argue with it as one might, “Flowers in the Dustbin” is consistently engaging in discussing a form of music that, in my view, may yet yield further surprises.