Wrigley's in the Trashcan

James Miller Tries to Control What He No Longer Loves

There's a rare unguarded moment in the impressive discography-bibliography to James Miller's Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll 1947­1977, when he comes upon "a really esoteric item featuring Jimi Hendrix playing with a U.K. group called Eire Apparent, 'The Clown.' Wow." By ordinary standards of rockcrit wild-ass, that "Wow" may not seem like much. But for all Christopher Hitchens's dustjacket praise of Miller's "vivid and ironic prose," Flowers in the Dustbin doesn't sparkle with bright informalities. From The Real Paper to Newsweek, Miller was never the most demonstrative of rock critics, and nothing in his current perch as a New School dean is liable to bring out the lover in him. For reasons of personal proclivity and professional decorum, he means to keep his cool about an art form that was once his passion. And it is this, more than the deliberate selectiveness of its historiography, that renders Miller's rockbook dangerous and dislikable.

Miller says he wanted to come to terms with the disenchantment with rock that made him quit Newsweek in 1991, but it's hard to imagine he wasn't also attracted by a commercial and intellectual vacuum. For while academia has spawned a spate of would-be textbooks, the only writer of Miller's skill and stature to attempt such a thing since before his cutoff date is the late Robert Palmer, in his 1995 Rock & Roll: An Unruly History. Like Palmer, Miller concluded that the sane way to organize a subject so vast was not to tackle all of it. So from secondary sources and his own experience he assembled 45 quintessential vignettes, 14 of them Elvis-Beatles-Stones-Dylan. This method assumes major omissions. Anyone tempted to infer musical biases from narrative judgments should bear in mind that in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, which Miller originally edited and which remains the finest rock overview extant, he himself grabbed the entries on the Beach Boys and Led Zeppelin, and that his desert island disc in Greil Marcus's Stranded is a Phil Spector album. Nevertheless, one omission seems inextricable from the other formal peculiarity of Flowers in the Dustbin, which is that it ends with the Sex Pistols and Dead Elvis.

Miller lists James Brown among the artists he was sorry to pass by, and I'm sure he's some kind of fan. Who isn't? But his failure even to reference JB's infinitely fruitful rhythms does facilitate Miller's 1977 cutoff. If you want to argue that the Sex Pistols inaugurated a system in which bizzers exploited a never-ending procession of "bands so new they could hardly play," well, you're twisting facts, but Christopher Hitchens will never know. Were you to hint that "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and its progeny have been renewing rap and r&b for two decades, however, people might start asking questions. Did your chewing gum lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight? Whither disco? And how come you don't get to 1960 till halfway through? Why so fascinated with beginnings, Jim?

illustration: Steven Cerio

It's about time I noted that "Jim" isn't just Miller's abandoned rockcrit byline. It's what I've called him during an intermittent professional relationship in which he's often been my benefactor. As I've gotten older I've come to see how feuds among old allies develop, and I do sense danger in this book— not the cheerful irresponsibility of Palmer's overstated Unruly History, but the pall of hegemony. Except perhaps for Simon Frith, Miller wields a cultural authority exceeding that of any other rock critic. He's held down prestigious jobs in both journalism and academia, and has published three well-regarded works of history and political theory. The two I've read— the award-nominated SDS tale Democracy Is in the Streets and The Passion of Michel Foucault, a quietly obsessive biocritical tour de force that gets double points for outraging Foucauldians and cultural reactionaries alike— are lucid, balanced, and credible, deeply respectful of their subjects even when faulting them. Flowers in the Dustbin is also lucid, balanced, and credible. But too often its dry tone comes out cynical and belittling. While Miller asserts his affection for the music, he rarely explains it and seems unwilling or unable to express it— perhaps because that's not the way of authority, perhaps because he's sick of the stuff.

From the episodic structure a thesis emerges, a piecemeal theory of innocence ever more irretrievably lost. Miller keys his origin myth to Wynonie Harris's 1947 "Good Rockin' Tonight," but in a nation where show business began as minstrelsy he's suspicious of the comforting notion that rock and roll opened up a new era of crossover. As culture, he judges the music fundamentally white, its defining magic more a matter of youth than of race: "the surprise of untrained amateurs, working within their limits, finding a voice of their own." But Miller completes this thought in a typical turnaround: "Without an air of ingenuous freshness and earnest effort, rock as a musical form is generally coarse, even puerile— full of sound and fury, perhaps, but characteristically spurning the subtle creativity and seasoned craftsmanship that is the glory of such other mature vernacular pop music genres as jazz and the blues, country and gospel." Relieve the language of its overtones, pretend that "coarse" leads to "puerile," and the generalization has truth value. A lot of exciting rock is "coarse" in the sense of "unrefined," of consciously rejecting refinement; properly inspired and/or realized, its "puerility," taken to mean merely the "childishness" or (better) "childlikeness" of "untrained amateurs," is something to treasure. Problem is, the sentence's weight is all in its connotations. It's a measured insult, a calm criminal charge that should have been a lament for innocence lost.

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