The defiance of rock and roll: child's play as true happiness?

August 29, 1999|By Michael Pakenham

Rock and roll rules. That's liturgy among millions. Fine. But in truth, its job is to smash rules. That's what it's for. Always has been. The genre is now a half-century old. Sure, some of that music has been musically innovative, interesting, even occasionally intricate. A rather larger portion of the best of the lyrics has had genuine -- certainly memorable -- poetic qualities. But neither of those is the real point or purpose.

Rock and roll began, prospers and prevails as a ritual of defiance. The music and words are ornamentation. Its heart and its mission forever roam somewhere between the Declaration of Independence and throwing Cream of Wheat at Mommy from the insufferable confines of a high chair.

Rock and roll is about being young, feeling your oats and breaking away -- often in anger.

Rock and roll characteristically has been too busy breaking even its own rules to gain the perspective to contemplate itself. That is probably the main reason that so very little that is written about it is either insightful or instructive. With precious exceptions, most of the analysis, criticism and scholarship about the subject is either transparent promotion or preening blather.

(In a joyful episode of my life, I was executive editor of SPIN. Some deliciously rich rock journalism was published there, and in a handful of other venues -- but these are the rarities.)

Now comes "Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977" by James Miller (Simon and Schuster, 406 pages, $26), a splendid exception.

Miller has long and seriously written about pop music, including 10 years for Newsweek. He had major roles in producing the original, valuable "Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll" and the 1995 Warner TV/Time-Life "History of Rock and Roll," an impressive home video package. This is his fifth book.

The title is well taken from a 1977 lyric of the Sex Pistols, a band Miller detests: "we're the flowers in the dustbin/we're the poison in your machine."

Miller is ecstatically more positive than that grimness, a shameless romantic. He writes with the apparently easy fluency and effectively invisible stylishness one should expect of a successful veteran of first-rate magazines.

His facts, so far as I could determine, are meticulously researched and presented. The narrative is chronological, but not limitingly, rigidly so. He assumes no previous knowledge. He's a guide, not a celebrant. His 45-page "Notes and Discographies" is punctilious and useful.

At its best, this is a history not only of rock and roll, but of American and British popular culture. The music and its industry and human conventions were -- more perhaps that anything else in the United States then -- biracial. So the book contains an illuminating exploration of whites and blacks coming together over barriers that seemed perpetual until rock began to smash them.

Miller goes respectfully to rock's roots: "It was an old story, really, a saga of erotic fantasies and racial conflict, of cultural stereotypes and collective self-expression, with black music as the pretext and sexual freedom as the prize, all the more exiting for seeming taboo, at least to the God-fearing white farmers who joined in the dances of their slaves."

He is writing there not of the late 1940s but of the 1770s, relating that "the first widely popular form of American entertainment associated with this hybrid musical idiom was minstrelsy."

Moving swiftly to rock and roll Miller cites many theories of the term's origin, but finds its first formal expression in a 1922 recording by Trixie Smith, a blues singer, titled "My Man Rocks Me Tonight (With One Steady Roll"). He begins the rock era on Dec. 28, 1947, the day Wynonie Harris recorded "Good Rockin' Tonight" in a Cincinnati studio. Despite efforts to euphemize, there is no dispute that "rock" refers to the sex act.

Miller's defining rock heroes are Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Otis Redding, Buddy Holly -- and, on the dark side, the Rolling Stones and Jim Morrison. Important status goes also to Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan and -- for his powerful influence on the entire genre -- Andy Warhol.

In the 30 years Miller chronicles, much happened -- but even more evolved. And that, in Miller's judgment -- and mine -- was not for the better. He is virulent in his scorn for the abusive vulgarity and nihilism of latter-day rock forms, most prominently at the end of the 1970s. The Sex Pistols, followed by many punk and grunge imitators, represent the corrupting exhaustion of the genre.

So, finally, Miller is unrepentantly disillusioned with what transpired in the late 1970s and what that appeared to have spawned. But it is, he affirms, here to stay. Rock and roll has become -- Miller puts it deliciously -- "the Muzak of the Millennium."

"How could such a simple and sometimes nihilistic type of music," Miller asks, "strike such a deep and essentially religious chord among so many listeners?

"Perhaps the answer lies ... in a much older story: the emergence of music in the modernizing West as a substitute for religion." And, finally, "In the world turned upside down by Elvis Presley, it was as if the sinners had become saints, ignorance had become bliss, and the freedom of a child at play was the very image of true happiness."

If you have never understood rock and roll -- never quite got it -- read this book and you will know. If rock and roll is woven deep in your mind and heart, if it's shaped and nourished you as long as you can remember, read this book and you very well may appreciate it -- and thus yourself -- with a fullness and clarity you have not known before.

Pub Date: 08/29/99

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