Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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James Miller Tries To Control What He No Longer Loves

There's a rare unguarded moment in the impressive discography-bibliography to James Miller's Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll 1947-1977, when he comes upon "a really esoteric item featuring Jimi Hendrix playing with a UK group called Eire Apparent, `The Clown.' Wow." By ordinary standards of rockcrit wild-ass, that "Wow" may not seem like much. But for all Christopher Hitchens's dustjacket praise of Miller's "vivid and ironic prose," Flowers in the Dustbin doesn't exactly sparkle with bright informalities. From The Real Paper to Newsweek, Miller was never the most demonstrative of rock critics, and nothing in his current perch as a New School dean is liable to bring out the lover in him. For reasons of personal proclivity and professional decorum, he means to keep his cool about an art form that was once his passion. And it is this, more than the deliberate selectiveness of its historiography, that renders Miller's rockbook dangerous and dislikable.

Miller says he wanted to come to terms with the disenchantment with rock that made him quit Newsweek in 1991, but it's hard to imagine he wasn't also attracted by a commercial and intellectual vacuum. For while academia has spawned a spate of would-be textbooks, the only writer of Miller's skill and stature to attempt such a thing since before his cutoff date is the late Robert Palmer, in Rock & Roll: An Unruly History. Like Palmer, Miller concluded that the sane way to organize a subject so vast was not to tackle all of it. So from secondary sources and his own experience he assembled 45 quintessential vignettes, 14 of them Elvis-Beatles-Stones-Dylan. This method assumes major omissions. Anyone tempted to infer musical biases from narrative judgments should bear in mind that in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, which Miller originally edited and which remains the finest rock overview extant, he himself grabbed the entries on the Beach Boys and Led Zeppelin, and that his desert island disc in Greil Marcus's Stranded is a Phil Spector album. Nevertheless, one omission seems inextricable from the other formal peculiarity of Flowers in the Dustbin, which is that it ends with the Sex Pistols and Dead Elvis.

Miller lists James Brown among the artists he was sorry to pass by, and I'm sure he's some kind of fan. Who isn't? But his failure even to reference JB's infinitely fruitful rhythms does facilitate Miller's 1977 cutoff. If you want to argue that the Sex Pistols inaugurated a system in which bizzers exploited a never-ending procession of "bands so new they could hardly play," well, you're twisting facts, but Christopher Hitchens will never know. Were you to hint that "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and its progeny have been renewing rap and r&b for two decades, however, people might start asking questions. Did your chewing gum lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight? Whither disco? And how come you don't get to 1960 till halfway through? Why so fascinated with beginnings, Jim?

It's about time I noted that "Jim" isn't just Miller's abandoned rockcrit byline. It's what I've called him during an intermittent professional relationship in which he's often been my benefactor. But as I've gotten older I've come to see how feuds among old allies develop, and I do sense danger in this book--not the cheerful irresponsibility of Palmer's overstated Unruly History, which is a good kind of danger, but the pall of hegemony. Except perhaps for Simon Frith, Miller wields a cultural authority exceeding that of any other rock critic. He's held down prestigious jobs in both journalism and academia, and has published three well-regarded works of history and political theory. The two I've read--the award-nominated SDS chronicle Democracy Is in the Streets and The Passion of Michel Foucault, a quietly obsessive biocritical tour de force that gets double points for outraging Foucauldians and cultural reactionaries alike--are lucid, balanced, and credible, deeply respectful of their subjects even when faulting them. Flowers in the Dustbin is also lucid, balanced, and credible. But too often its dry tone comes out cynical and belittling. While Miller asserts his affection for the music, he rarely explains it and seems unwilling or unable to express it--perhaps because that's not the way of authority, perhaps because he's sick of the stuff.

From the episodic structure a thesis emerges, a piecemeal theory of innocence ever more irretrievably lost. Miller keys his origin myth to Wynonie Harris's 1947 "Good Rockin' Tonight," but in a nation where show business began as minstrelsy he's suspicious of the comforting notion that rock and roll opened up a new era of racial crossover. As culture, he judges the music fundamentally white, its defining magic more a matter of youth than of race: "the surprise of untrained amateurs, working within their limits, finding a voice of their own." But Miller completes this thought in a typical turnaround: "Without an air of ingenuous freshness and earnest effort, rock as a musical form is generally coarse, even puerile--full of sound and fury, perhaps, but characteristically spurning the subtle creativity and seasoned craftsmanship that is the glory of such other mature vernacular pop music genres as jazz and the blues, country and gospel." Relieve the language of its overtones, pretend that "coarse" leads to "puerile," and the generalization has truth value. A lot of exciting rock is "coarse" in the sense of "unrefined," of consciously rejecting refinement; properly inspired and/or realized, its "puerility," taken to mean merely the "childishness" or (better) "childlikeness" of "untrained amateurs," is something to treasure. Problem is, the sentence's weight is all in its connotations. It's a measured insult, a calm criminal charge that should have been a lament.

This kind of rhetorical device pervades the book. Over and over Miller deploys pejoratives like "crude," "ugly," "brutal," never with any backspin; "nihilism" is adduced more loosely than is suitable in a poli sci professor; straddling the Velvets' reach, or reggae's morality, or even the Beatles' impact, the tired "for better or worse" always seems to land on the downside. The tone remains detached, authoritative, as if crudity were as objective and value-free a quality as color or chart position. This is how the controlling discourses Foucauldians bitch about operate. Despite some lovely countervailing passages--describing the first Beatles records ("the sullenness and sweetness, the aggression and nostalgia, the country plaintiveness and the bluesy bravado . . ."), summarizing what teens got from '50s rock ("their own brand of Dionysian revelry, watered down and trite, but genuinely uplifting at the same time")--the irony of a mandarin who has put away childish things prevails.

As with style, so with content. Manifestly less original than the SDS book, with its many interviews, or the Foucault, with its sustained immersion in the philosopher's texts and lives, Flowers in the Dustbin has its acute moments nevertheless--discussions of Fender guitars and "The Tennessee Waltz," surprisingly fresh insights into Elvis and the Beatles, sharp references to Talcott Parsons and "The White Negro," the almost tossed-off and unpejorative final account of rock and roll as "a novel kind of consumer religion." And usually it recycles the old stories deftly enough. But sometimes it's wrongheaded or just wrong. No way did W.C. Handy invent the fox trot (Handy said it was James Reese Europe) or Pat Boone "croon" "Ain't That a Shame" (he has the hernia to prove it). No way is the nostalgia quotient of individual pop songs determined by airplay saturation--"Home Sweet Home" was the original golden oldie, and if musical quality weren't a prime factor, Boone's "April Love" would be more famous than "Hey, Bo Diddley." The most telling botch of all is the Velvet Underground chapter, rotely unperceptive on music and influence and a flagrant example of Miller's tendency to be overimpressed by behind-the-scenes conceptualizers (Andy Warhol, here counted a "rock and roll Svengali") and classical training or pretensions (John Cale, in the club with Wagner buff Alan Freed, Sex Pistols producer Chris Thomas, and fifth-through-eighth Beatle George Martin, among others).

This is significant because it prefigures Miller's disregard for the alt-indie subculture that has engendered most of the good white rock since his cutoff date. It's also significant because it typifies the elitism that powers his book. At one level Miller is another tragic victim of Sixties Syndrome. He thought his generation was going to revolutionize the world, and instead of moving on has devoted his life to figuring out how he could have been so wrong--how the Port Huron Statement led to the Weathermen, how "Green Door" and "Night Train" led to Marilyn Manson and the Wu-Tang Clan (whom he equates in the epilogue). Beneath the surface of his books he's tormented by this question. This torment renders The Passion of Michel Foucault a mind-blower, because while Miller's politics have evolved/degenerated from principled anarchism to a cautious liberalism whose outlines he leaves obscure, he continues to half-share Foucault's Nietzschean conviction that all morality is constructed on a terrifying, thrilling, unknowable void. But Foucault was both well-educated and a genius. SDS adventurist Jeff Shero, the bete noire of Democracy Is in the Streets, was merely clever, and so exemplifies how Tom Hayden's fellowship of humane intellectual seekers was wrecked not just by the intractability of the capitalist order but by the self-indulgent incomprehension of their recruits. And when we get to Jim Morrison, well, he was "a monumental jerk," simple and plain.

Right, Morrison was a jerk--it wasn't me who thought "The End" "seemed bold and brave" in 1967, it was Miller. But The Doors, where the jerk is finding "a voice of his own," remains a redolent piece of music, and so do the multihued contributions of thousands of arty guys and gals who came after. The strange thing isn't that overexposure undermines "wonder and surprise," that chewing gum loses its flavor on the bedpost overnight. It's that reinventions and redisoveries continue in an aesthetic realm whose "subversive social significance," which Miller claims is all that makes the rock critic's job "interesting," inheres largely in their living insistence that mandarin refinement and the wisdom of controlling discourses are never enough--that uncomprehending jerks must be heard. Especially since this ongoing miracle isn't at its most magical right now, the line that its "general patterns" are "perfectly predictable" is precisely the sort of thing that can discourage arty guys and gals from giving it a whirl. God, does this mean I have to write my own textbook? Somebody help, please.

Village Voice, Sept. 21, 1999