Reflections on a childhood spent with Dick Clark and his unforgettable advice
My childhood had two DJs: Casey Kasem and Dick Clark.
Long before I started to develop my own musical taste, it was dictated to me weekly by these musical titans: Clark through my weekly dose of “American Bandstand” on TV and Kasem via “American Top 40” on radio, which started at noon on Sundays (which meant I inevitably missed hearing Nos 40-36 since we wouldn’t be home from church yet when the countdown started, but that’s a story for another time).
When word came down of Clark’s passing today from a massive heart attack at 82, my memory immediately turned to Saturdays at 12:30 p.m. in my living room in our house in Raleigh, N.C. My older sister, Jeannie, and I would plunk down in front of the TV and watch Dick Clark and his long white microphone. We knew all the star dancers by name (I vaguely remember a Louis and a Karen), and wondered if they were couples off-screen. We’d ooh and aah as they gyrated in a very G-rated fashion—unlike on “Soul Train”— in their polyester prints (this was the ‘70s, after all). The boys/men all had their hair parted in the middle, with their shirts unbuttoned down their chests, and the girls’ hair was straight as a stick, until “Charlie’s Angels” debuted, and then imitating Farrah Fawcett’s feathered locks became all the rage—for both the guys and girls. When The Village People craze began, there were cowboy and construction worker wanna bes strutting their stuff on “AB.” As much as “American Bandstand” set trends, it picked up on them just as quickly, especially during the “Saturday Night Fever” days.
[More after the jump...]
The dancing was great, but my favorite weekly feature was “Rate-A-Record,” even more so than the performances. Clark would pull up a couple of teens from the audience and they’d listen to a hook of a new record by the flavor of the moment (or sometimes a really big act) and rate it. Almost without fail, the teenager would say “It’s got a great beat, you can dance to it” and Clark would look at them with benevolent, and ever so slightly, disdain...as if he couldn’t quite believe the future was in their hands.
Clark presided over it all with unflappable calm. He got tagged, unfortunately, “The World’s Oldest Teenager,” but to me, he was much more like a slightly stern, surrogate father. He wasn’t trying to be hip. Instead, he was the parent who would always let you throw the party in his basement, as long as the music didn’t get too darn loud and no one tried to sneak in a beer, but he felt no need to join you, leer at any of your friends, or relive his youth.
Before the days of MTV, “American Bandstand” was often the first place I’d see a band and be able to put a face with the name. The acts almost always lipsynced or sang to tracks, as Clark, dressed in a suit and tie, sat on tightly-packed high school bleachers, surrounded by the dancer. You got the feeling that making bunny ears behind his head or a goofy face was the fastest way to Exitville. You may be a dancer, but Clark was the host and you were expected to behave in his home.
I met Clark several times years later while I was at Billboard. The American Music Awards, which his company produces, always threw a party after the ceremony that was usually a pretty staid affair and seemed to consist mainly of a lot of people roaming around looking for someone they knew or for the occasional artist. Clark would usually hang out there for a bit and I’d always go up and introduce myself and see how he felt the show had gone. The most memorable exchange we had there came one year when he warned me to stay away from the ribs at the buffet. I’m still not so sure what that was about...but I avoided the ribs, because he told me to. As approachable as he was, I was never really able to conjure up a meaningful conversation with him because he loomed too large in my mind; there was no easy place to start or finish when whole sections of your childhood seemed to have been defined by his presence.
In late 2002, I spent an afternoon with him at his office in Burbank. Billboard had started a (thankfully) short-lived feature called “Desk Job,” where we went to high-profile executives’ offices and took pictures of their desks and wrote about them. Of course, his office reflected far more than “American Bandstand”: it featured memorabilia from throughout rock history and from many of his other ventures, including the “American Music Awards,” his “Bloopers” series, “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve,” and “The $10,000 Pyramid” (before it got upped to $25,000). My favorite was a framed, orange rectangular sign that read, “Things That Taste Like Lima Beans,” from an April Fool’s edition of “Pyramid.” Clark was fretting because a mouse had gotten into a Michael Jackson chocolate bar on one of the many shelves of collectibles. “If we don’t catch him, some of the edible memorabilia will be in terrible condition,” he laughed. None of the original “AB” set was there: it was already behind glass at the Smithsonian.
Clark was gracious, but brusque —willing to give me all the time I needed, but not any more. He was focused more on future projects than traveling back through time.
Sadly, slightly more than a year later, Clark suffered a debilitating stroke. “American Bandstand” has long gone off the air, but he was still hosting “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.” Regis Philbin subbed for Clark as 2004 turned into 2005, but then for the 2005/2006 program, he joined new host Ryan Seacrest for a brief moment. It was touching and hard to watch at the same time. But each year he returned, still feeble, but able to speak a little clearer, gesture a little more. Despite the fragility, it was clear that his fighting spirit was strong.
Clark always closed “American Bandstand” with the words “For now, Dick Clark...so long.” For Now, Dick Clark, Forever.
Follow Melinda Newman on Twitter @HitfixMelinda