As a chronicle of rock and roll, Flowers in the Dustbin wears its cynicism on its sleeve. The bleak title harks back to what the author, James Miller, considers the days of rock and roll's death throes — the late 1970's, when the emergence of the anarchic punk scene signaled the end of rock's creative evolution. The original lines speak of crass pessimism: "When there's no future how can there be sin? We're the flowers in the dustbin. We're the poison in your machine. We're the future. Your future." Not surprisingly, Flowers in the Dustbin is a tale of decline. James Miller shows how rock burst upon the world scene, and also how it became standardized into a predictable, established culture. Miller argues that rock and roll, by combining various white and black American musics, created a global youth culture that extolled youth, sex, rebellion and money and extended a thrilling, if vague, promise of liberation to millions. Miller also demonstrates how rock matured as an art form and, eventually, settled into a clear pattern of cultural and commercial characteristics by the time of punk rock's emergence in the 1970's.
James Miller has a lot of experience with his subject matter. Miller grew up during the 1950's and 1960's, and first heard rock and roll on late night radio at an older cousin's house. He quickly became an enthusiast, buying records, reading about his favorite stars in teen rock magazines, and even playing in local rock bands. This fascination with rock turned into a profession when Miller began publishing record reviews in 1967. He continued to cover rock and pop music for respected publications, like Newsweek and The New Republic, throughout the following decades, personally helping to affirm the sense of rock's legitimacy that developed during those years. The rock world lost its appeal for Miller over time, however, and by 1991 he had left his post at Newsweek. Subsequent years have found him teaching at the New School and acting as director of liberal studies at that institution. As the 1999 publication of Flowers in the Dustbin indicates, of course, his involvement with rock and roll has not yet ceased.
In tackling the complex history of rock and roll, Miller chooses to chart the arc of its story through a series of episodes, ascending from the late 1940's and descending into the late 1970's. The first of these moments is December 28, 1947, when Wynonie Harris recorded "Good Rockin' Tonight," the song that would initially popularize the word "rock" in American music. From this inauspicious beginning, Miller shows how black blues and R&B music edged closer and closer to the white mainstream, until savvy producers and entrepreneurs finally managed to push the music into the lap of white America. In the hands of white performers, traditionally black music was shaped into a style of music suitably outrageous and palatable to find mass success. The process worked both ways, though, as Miller shows in his chapter on "Maybellene." Chuck Berry, "the black hillbilly," reworked an old country folk tune, "Ida Red," into one of the signature tunes of early rock and roll. As whites appropriated black musical idioms and vice-versa, rock and roll swept the nation. This early music, according to Miller, was filled with simple joy and gave millions of teenagers a larger than life screen on which to project their fantasies about love and rebellion. Miller shows how the Beatles converted rock and roll into a single, monolithic youth culture around the world and, with the help of visionaries like Bob Dylan, opened rock up to greater aesthetic complexity. The dream of love, freedom, and revolution enchanted millions, and perhaps billions, but Miller argues that this dream collapsed with the onset of the 1970's. The commercial machine of rock sought new stars, who became increasingly contrived (as in David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust routine) or helplessly overhyped (like Bruce Springsteen). By the time the Sex Pistols emerged, Miller suggests, meaningless gestures of brutality came to replace the joy of rock and roll, and the commercial production of the music became completely predictable from then on. Springsteen, the author says, was thought to be the future of rock, but there was really "no future" to be had. James Miller ends his chronicle on the dark note of the Sex Pistols' lyric. Though the book's full title is Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll 1947-1977, the book could just as easily have been called "The Rise and Fall of Rock and Roll 1947-1977."
The chief weakness of this text lies in its vaguely autobiographical nature. James Miller undermines the effectiveness of his critique by consistently tying the relevance and vitality of rock music to his own personal development. When he is young, rock is young and exciting; when he is older, rock is withered and exhausted of its possibilities. It is all a little too easy, too tightly paralleled. "The most thrilling moments," he writes, "all came early, in the Fifties and Sixties, when the music was a primary focus of my energy, shaping my desires, coloring my memory, and producing the wild fantasy, widely shared, that my generation was, in some inchoate way, through the simple pleasure we all took in rock and roll, part of a new world dawning." Much of Miller's book is about that collective experience, but the preceding quote suggests that Flowers in the Dustbin is as much about his own state of mind as the state of rock music as a cultural form. Any author is bound to filter his material through his own subjective perceptions, especially when one has been personally involved with the subject matter, as Miller was in his career. Nonetheless, Miller perhaps goes too far in nearly equating the arc of his own life with the story of rock and roll. In describing his own adolescent joy of collecting records and reading about rock stars in pop magazines, Miller seems to preclude the notion that such an experience has been possible in any time other than 1956 — or, perhaps more generally, the Fifties and Sixties. Miller limits the meaning of his analysis by viewing rock and roll too narrowly through his (admittedly profound) personal experience with it.