The New York Times Book Review Engrosses and provokes....You can almost feel the wondrously dizzying pace at which rock rose.
The Washington Post Miller is both an astute writer and a serious cultural historian, packing each of his nuggetlike chapters with insightful analysis and absorbing musical and sociological lore as well as vivid, shrewdly chosen detail.
Entertainment Weekly Does the world really need another history of rock and roll? It does when it's as insightful and energetic as Flowers in the Dustbin....Grade: A.
Spin James Miller cross-fades academic chops and musical passions in dazzling combination....A work that seems deservedly destined for the canon itself.
The Sun (Baltimore) If you have never understood rock and roll never quite got it read this book and you will know.
The Philadelphia Inquirer A fabulous, can't-miss tale of simple musical pleasures and outsized gratifications....A review can only hint at its richness and breadth....Let James Miller spin his 45s while you search your own memory; then argue back or just dance a few steps in the silence of your room.
The New York Times Mr. Miller's new book is an observant, meticulously researched survey of rock's first decades....He writes with loving precision.
The New York Review of Books Efficient, compact...movielike....Miller is unmistakably one who tasted fully the string of conversion experiences that once made rock and roll so exciting.
The Boston Globe Into this engaging tapestry of musical lore Miller expertly weaves cultural and intellectual strands....Miller distills that essence, as much with exhaustive and ingenious synthesis of source material as with plain old good storytelling.
Los Angeles Times Book Review An intelligent, unhysterical account of the Rise and Fall of the Rock "n" Roll Empire. Miller reminds us that rock no matter its deluge of sales is not a single, mighty river charging through the heartland of the country but a veritable tangle of streams.
The Barnes & Noble Review David Lee Roth said that the beauty of rock and roll is that "they're no rules and no schools. You just make it up as you go along." Certainly, the history of the plugged-in genre seems more like a mad romp than a logical development. James Miller sets out here to capture the evolution of early R&R as an industry and as a force in American life. Without descending into diatribe or veering towards critical theory, this former Michel Foucault biographer writes about the metamorphosis of casual basement jamming into a sometimes devious multi-million dollar business. Strewn along the way are epiphanies of music history: Bob Dylan turning the Beatles onto marijuana at their first meeting in 1964; Berry Gordy producing his first big hit by instructing Jackie Wilson to imitate Elvis Presley; the less-than-endearing first appearance of the Sex Pistols on British TV. Both literate and unpretentious, Miller catches the frantic surrealism of the rock scene. As Jerry Garcia said, "By comparison, real life is very dull." Jules Herbert
Miller's new book is an observant, meticulously researched survey of rock's first decades that turns crankier as it approaches the present. He declares that rock's glory days ended nearly 25 years ago....Although the book offers some glimpses of the world outside rock, it can be curiously rockocentric; it rarely suggests that the music might be affected by political and economic events....[A]s
Flowers in the Dustbin marshals facts to back up its cynicism, it misses the sheer pleasure that rock can deliver... The New York Times
When a book comes sailing in looking the way
Flowers in the Dustbin does -- flaunting a trash-art cover, named with a Sex Pistols lyric, written by a noted cultural historian and bearing the dedication "For Greil" -- you naturally expect the author to have some ideas up his sleeve. "Greil" is, of course, Greil Marcus, whose own trash-jacketed work of Sex Pistology, the 1989 Lipstick Traces, is so dizzy with ideas it makes your head hurt. Marcus' book sets a demanding precedent for anyone who wants to write seriously about rock 'n' roll as cultural history, and James Miller should be up to the task: He's the author of The Passion of Michel Foucault, the most vivid, muckraking book on the French philosopher ever to go to press. But -- to steal another Pistols lyric -- don't judge the book just by the cover.
Flowers in the Dustbin starts with a brilliant treatment of the late pre-rock era, knitting together various threads of influence that would later emerge in rock 'n' roll. But the book soon turns into a chronological jaunt past all the familiar guideposts of rock history. Elvis steps into view, shaking his famous pelvis. The '60s happen. The Beatles disembark in New York, right on time, and Miller tells the familiar Joplin, Hendrix and Morrison stories. He reaffirms that "Sgt. Pepper" was great and notes that members of the Velvet Underground were on drugs. Altamont was the end of innocence. David Bowie dressed in drag.
And throughout you're forced to wonder: Why is he telling us all this? There are some great light-handed essays along the way, including an inspired treatment of the rise of the Fender guitar. For once Jimmy Cliff and Marvin Gaye get the attention they deserve. But as the stars and the hit records and the pivotal moments stream past, the impression you get, at least at first, is of one more rock 'n' roll "Lives of the Saints," only vamped up with new detail and an especially fine sensibility.
In the end, though, the detail and sensibility are enough to turn
Flowers in the Dustbin into a substantial book. Once you stop waiting for Miller to tell you something big and important about rock 'n' roll, the history sweeps past with the unimpeded fluidity of a good short-story collection -- and each of Miller's stories, no matter how familiar it is on the surface, turns out on closer examination to be a subtle, dynamic work of portraiture constructed from just the right facts and just the right quotes.
Miller tends, in his Foucault book as well as here, to walk along paths laid down by previous thinkers. But he can be a gifted synthesist and summer-upper. He has the sort of intellect less drawn to pinning a spotlight on the big picture or to shining a penlight on the close detail than to brightening up the middle distance with a consistent 60-watt glow. As a survey alone, the book covers everything the casual reader really needs to know about the music's first three decades. But don't expect much beyond the late '70s -- Miller remarks in the introduction that while newer music will sometimes catch his ear, he believes that rock 'n' roll's "essential possibilities have been thoroughly explored, its limits more or less clearly established." Having reached his own, he lays down his pen with the death of Elvis Presley, growling a throaty harrumph.
Miller likes the breadbox-sized idea, the human-scale event. He calls himself an intellectual and cultural historian, but he's really something of an imaginative reporter -- he can transport himself to a concert hall or Alan Freed's radio show or Elvis Presley's Sun sessions and talk about it with authority. (Imagining Marvin Gaye in the studio recording "What's Going On," he writes, "One pictures him at a microphone, eyes closed, enveloped in a cloud of marijuana smoke ...") That's a rare and valuable talent, and while
Flowers in the Dustbin is essentially a small sort of book, it's one of the best of its kind ever written: a definitive collection of rock 'n' roll anecdote and back-story. Salon
Flowers is a chronological account of the highs and lows of a certain style of music: in Miller's case, rock 'n' roll. Flowers is made up of short, personal essays whose subjects often demand (and, in some cases, have already inspired) books of their own. Miller's mini-essays are thoroughly researched, extremely well-written, and often informative, finding fresh details in even the most familiar of popular folklore.
Flowers is a book that, for all intents and purposes, works and works well. It's Miller's own history of rock 'n' roll, his own history of rock 'n' roll listening, but it barely acknowledges that life and music have moved on without him.
The Onion's A.V. Club
Wynonie Harris's 1948 hit, "Good Rockin' Tonight," popularized the term "rock" but was confined to Billboard's "race" charts and never crossed over to the larger white audience (though a contemporary African-American performer, Louis Jordan, sold millions of singles). The reason, according to Miller (a 1994 NBCC finalist for The Passion of Michel Foucault), is that "rockin'" wasn't merely teenage slang for "having a good time"; it meant "having sex." For Miller, rock and roll's development is best understood as a succession of such contradictions, not as a smooth and continuous progression. Crisply written and carefully contextualized, Miller's story takes into account both the technological and social forces that helped cement rock's position in Western popular culture. In Miller's view, Leo Fender's invention of the solid-body electric guitar and the adolescent restlessness of the baby boom generation played equally important roles. While many of the pivotal moments Miller cites are perhaps too obvious--Elvis Presley's first visit to Sam Philips's Sun recording studios, Brian Epstein's discovery of the Beatles at the Cavern, Bob Dylan's electric set at Newport--there are plenty of less celebrated happenings and characters to keep even the most jaded rock critic turning pages. (The white R&B songwriting team of Leiber and Stoller--who wrote "Kansas City"--loom almost as large here as Lennon and McCartney.) Particularly refreshing is Miller's attention to the place of such movies as Richard Brooks's Blackboard Jungle and Perry Henzell's The Harder They Come in the development of rock. The portentous subtitle of the book points to rock's "fall"; in Miller's view, this is part and parcel of its cultural acceptability, which has robbed the music of its original revolutionary energy. For him, the genre's bestselling album, Michael Jackson's Thriller, was possible only after the original thrill of rock and roll was gone. Photos. (Aug.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The author, a historian and former pop music critic for Newsweek, explores the cultural underpinnings of Fifties and Sixties rock'n'roll. In dozens of brief chapters, he identifies turning points in rock history: the rise of jump blues, the introduction of Top 40 radio, Alan Freed's rock'n'roll dances, Dick Clark's American Bandstand, and the payola scandal. Miller pays special attention to Elvis Presley and the Beatles, rehashing such oft-told tales as the flurry over Beatlemania, Elvis's first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, and his death in 1977. Despite his claim to have written a social history of rock'n'roll, Miller only superficially links rock events to larger forces in American culture. He ignores entire musical genres--the Beach Boys and the California sound, soul music, funk, heavy metal, and fusion--and acts as if rock reached a creative dead end after the 1960s. The result is a fast-moving, well-written, entertaining, but superficial and incomplete account that will appeal to a popular audience unfamiliar with rock'n'roll. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/15/99.]--David P. Szatmary, Univ. of Washington, Seattle Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
In his monumental account of popular music, Miller, a music-journalist-turned-educator (Political Science/New School; Democracy Is in the Streets, 1987, etc.), ties together several intellectual and cultural strandsNorman Mailer's myth of the White Negro, Tom Wolfe's radical chic, H.G. Koenigsberger's theories on music and religion, Wagner's significance to Bismarckian Germanyall without bleaching out the raw essence of the music. Beginning with what he calls the first rock 'n' roll record, "Good Rockin' Tonight," by Wynonie Harris, Miller traces the development of the techniques, technologies, and ethos that would synthesize a mishmash of "race music" (as songs recorded by African-American artists were called in the late '40s), teenage angst, and old-fashioned medicine-show hucksterism into a sophisticated medium that, more than a half-century later, serves as "the closest thing we have to a musical lingua franca." While ordered chronologically, the narrative jumps from place to place. Rather than appearing discordant, the structure takes on the insistent beat of its subject. As a work of history, this effort appears to contain little original scholarshipmost artists' quotes come from secondhand sources, albeit strictly authoritative ones. As social commentary, however, few books, if any, come close to this one. Miller re-creates the listeners' exhilaration upon hearing the first bars of truly revolutionary music. And, possibly most important, he seems to have little trouble reconciling that a largely manufactured (or, at least, highly manipulated) form of expression had such a profound effect on individuals, even those who knew they were perhaps more a target marketthan a genuine social movement. Or, as the author observes about the unruly antics of performers from Little Richard to the Rolling Stones to the Sex Pistols: "What was ‘unruly,' in short, was not rock 'n' roll as a cultural form, but rather the central fantasy it was exploiting." A work both stunningly cogent and thoroughly enjoyable.