FLOWERS IN THE DUSTBIN:
The Rise of Rock and Roll 1947-1977
By James Miller
Simon & Schuster
400 pages, $26
The pundits' predictions in the 1950s that rock 'n' roll wouldn't last have turned out to be half-right.
The music, or more specifically its many mutations over the past 50 years, remains a dominant presence in popular culture. The message -- that rock had the power to transform -- has been lost, swallowed up by commercialism, calculation and cynicism.
The joy in "Flowers in the Dustbin," a history of sorts by former Rolling Stone and Newsweek music critic James Miller, is that Miller presents the rise and fall of rock with a deft combination of appreciation and disdain, at times reverentially passionate, at times archaeologically analytical.
"Flowers in the Dustbin" is a chronology in which Miller presents what he feels are the key moments in the birth, growth and decline of the music that has been a life soundtrack for many people under 60.
It begins in December 1947, in a dingy studio in Cincinnati, with the pioneering recording of a man who, though popular among blacks at the time, was unknown -- and remains that way -- to nearly all of the rest of America.
Wynonie Harris, 32 at the time, was billed as "Mr. Blues." One of the first of the "shouters," he delivered his songs with a muscular bellow that filled the clubs he worked.
The voice matched the lyrics, which reflected Harris' hedonistic lifestyle. And it matched the music, a swaggering jump blues patterned after another of rock's grandfathers, Louis Jordan.
Harris' recording of "Good Rockin' Tonight" may not have been the first use of the word "rockin'," perceived at the time as a code word for sex, but it was the first to become a hit.
The song and the singer, Miller writes, became models for future generations of rockers: "Organized, like jump, around the single-minded pursuit of simple musical pleasures, rock, too, would hold out the promise of wealth, of fame, of physical gratification without measure or limit." It's not a coincidence that "Good Rockin' Tonight" was one of the first songs covered by rock 'n' roll's first superstar, Elvis Presley.
With his hip-wiggling stage antics, Presley helped cement the 1950s image of rock as the music of rebellion, but Miller cites the Moondog Coronation Ball in Cleveland in 1952 as the beginning of this relationship.
Pioneer rock 'n' roll DJ Alan Freed oversold the ball/concert, prompting a riot that made rock 'n' roll dangerous. That image was reinforced in the 1955 movie "Blackboard Jungle." With its overamplified opening featuring Bill Haley's "(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock," the movie linked rock with juvenile delinquency.
The movie "defined the cultural essence of the music that Alan Freed had just named," Miller writes. "It would be all about disorder, aggression, and sex: a fantasy of human nature, running wild to a savage beat."
The relationship between the music and the message was solidified in the 1960s by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, who initially billed their music as "unrepressed R & B."
Miller believes the Doors signaled the beginning of the end of rock as music with a conscience, describing frontman Jim Morrison as a "tragic hero (who) turned himself into a pitiable clown."
The packaging of rock continued in the 1970s with David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen.
"With the successful mass-marketing in the United States of Bruce Springsteen, American Superhero (the very image of redemptive innocence), following on the heels of the successful mass-marketing in England of Ziggy Stardust (the very image of redemptive self-destruction), the age of innocence in rock was well and truly over -- probably forever."
Miller ends the book with Presley's death on Aug. 16, 1977. "In the world turned upside down by Elvis Presley, it was as if the sinners had become the saints, ignorance had become bliss and the freedom of a child at play was the very image of true happiness," Miller writes.
"Even better, the feeling of bliss conveyed by the music, like the image of freedom the idol embodied, could be bought and sold and shared. For the faithful -- the young and forever young at heart -- attendance at concerts and the collecting of recordings functioned as sacraments, the key elements in a novel kind of consumer religion."
"Flowers in the Dustbin" is attractive reading, both for those interested in the origins of the hybrid that came to be known as rock and for those who know the timeline and maybe lived through some of its glory days but aren't quite sure where or how it lost its steam.