Rock 'n' roll is here to stay - kind of

Try this as an 80-word history of rock 'n' roll:

In the beginning, there was "good rock" - simple-minded silly love songs and a beat that demanded that you get up and dance and just plain have fun.

Then came folk-music-inspired "social rock." Forget the fun: Think deep thoughts, find your inner self, save the world.

Finally, almost before anyone realized it, came "nihilistic, destructo-rock." Don't push the boundaries of acceptable behavior: explode them, annihilate them (and, in a good number of cases, destroy yourself in the process).

Have I missed anything? All these strands - and much more, of course - are woven into whatever remains of the tattered fabric of rock music on the verge of the new millennium. Not that it isn't still changing: News reports note that the recent "Woodstock '99," for example, featured groups pulling rap and heavy-metal together in new ways.

But rock historian James Miller would argue, I think, that this is just more rearranging the furniture, not building a new wing onto the House That Rock Built.

In his new book, "Flowers in the Dustbin - The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977" (Simon & Schuster), Miller doesn't claim that rock is dead - or even dying. It's still "The closest thing we have to a musical lingua franca." But it's sort of caught in a feedback loop - repeating itself like the reverb from a Fender guitar.

So Miller, a former rock critic for Newsweek magazine and editor of "The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll," just isn't interested anymore. He doesn't say what music does inspire him these days, but it apparently isn't "oldies," either. For him, Elvis, the Beatles, and the rest have been processed into pabulum. Rock has achieved "a new, and terrible, sort of immortality," he writes. "These musical traces of youthful inspiration, products of whimsy preserved on tape, were fated to be repeated over and over again, in film after film, in ad after ad, aimed at the young, and at those who wished they still were, until nobody, young or old, could any longer experience the core feelings - of wonder and surprise - that rock and roll had really excited, once upon a time."

Miller is probably vulnerable to the charge of being an "old fogy" who just doesn't get it anymore. But he writes so beautifully, and so persuasively, that he's a joy to read. You can fight with his interpretations and choices - for example, he dismisses the original Woodstock festival in a single sentence - but you have to admire a historian willing to part from the pack.

How's this for a nifty description of the new "sound" invented by the Beatles? It combined "virtually every ingredient of vintage rock and roll - the sullenness and sweetness, the aggression and nostalgia, the country plaintiveness and the bluesy bravado, the disarming amateurishness and the painstakingly acquired craftsmanship - all of this, brought to life by a band of buffed-up British beatniks...."

Or a 1950 invention by the "Thomas Edison of the rock era," acoustical engineer Leo Fender: "Powerful, flashy, unspeakably loud, a handy tool for those with little in the way of previous musical experience, the electric guitar became the archetypal weapon in rock's attack on the decorum and orderliness of previous forms of fine music, profaning its empire of well-tempered tones and refined artistry, and allowing a new spirit - of deliberate musical brutishness - to ring in listeners' ears."

Rock evolved from attempts by performers and their backers to make a buck, Miller says, but it sporadically and unexpectedly has carried messages that far transcend the marketplace. Now it's on an unknown trajectory into a clouded future.

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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