Rock: What Happened?

The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977
By James Miller
Simon & Schuster 415pp $26

Rock 'n' roll is the guilty pleasure you couldn't outgrow if you wanted to. Lug your records out to the garage, and they'll follow you back to the living room--disguised as jingles for bathroom cleansers and requiems for dead royals. Hit the car radio, and your choices are rock, rock, rock, and country that sounds like rock.

How did the soundtrack to your adolescence, so choked with epiphany and meaning, dissipate to an annoying background hum? How did rock get here, and why won't it go away? Here with a few good guesses is James Miller, a former rock writer for Rolling Stone and Newsweek who quit in 1991 when he ''no longer felt able to feign enthusiasm'' for the music that sent tingles up his nine-year-old spine. In Flowers in the Dustbin, Miller attempts a sort of ''The End of History: The Rock Years'' premised on the idea that the genre exhausted its creative possibilities by 1977, signaled by the ''stunning ugliness of punk rock'' and the death of Elvis. What followed was an endlessly recombinant, and globally marketable, repertoire of gestures and postures.

A year-by-year chronicle of rock's significant moments, Flowers in the Dustbin draws upon the best writing on pop music--Peter Guralnick on blues man Robert Johnson or Dave Marsh on the mass-marketing of Bruce Springsteen--and looks to the likes of Norman Mailer and John Steinbeck for the Big Picture. Miller's graceful writing does full justice to his sources. When he delves into the nuts and bolts of rock 'n' roll--tracing the origin of the Top 40 radio format or detailing the studio craft behind ''Strawberry Fields Forever'' or Patti Page's version of the ''Tennessee Waltz''--Miller exposes bizarre linkages and unsuspected influences.

Unfortunately, Miller is apt to recycle the pet enthusiasms of other rock pundits along with their research, making this ''work of synthesis'' read like a history with most of the chapters missing. Thus, the Beatles get five subchapters, while the Beach Boys and Phil Spector are shoehorned into ''as well as'' lists. There's more about Dick Clark than even Dick Clark probably wants to read, while Buddy Holly rates the briefest of passing nods--because a Fender Stratocaster graces his tombstone and the Beatles chose their name in tribute to the Crickets, Holly's band. Woodstock never existed, and the Seventies are shrink-wrapped into 60-odd pages--which may be for the best.

Be advised that Miller's idea of what rock 'n' roll is or should be may not jibe with yours. There's no sympathy for the devil here, for example. He's troubled by ''the centrality of 'bad' white boys'' in rock, going so far as to put in a good word for Pat Boone and devote a chapter to painting Jim Morrison of the Doors as a dimestore Dionysus. Elsewhere, he despairs of rock's future, tsk-tsk'ing that today's acts are ''musically crude or gleefully obscene or just plain silly.'' Well, duh. Like the Coasters said, ''Baby, that is rock and roll.''


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Rock: What Happened?

PHOTO: Cover, ``Flowers in the Dustbin''

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