I was probably from the last generation of kids to watch American Bandstand. On a Saturday morning, I’d be at my grandma Mac’s house, watching cartoons. The earliest morning show came on at about 7:30 a.m. and was 90 minutes long – The Bugs Bunny Road Runner Show on CBS. From there, I would manually switch channels over the three major networks and catch stuff like Superfriends, Jabber Jaw, Scooby Doo.
At 11:30 a.m. I would see people dancing on TV, the huge train track-like letters appeared on the screen and I heard Barry Manilow’s jumpin’ voice singing about going “hoppin’ today in Philadelphia way.” (Actually, the show had long left its Philly roots and moved to Los Angeles by the time I saw it.) The music signaled that the cartoons were over, but that was okay. I got to see these grown up looking people disco dancing.
I remember watching the Sylvers perform “Boogie Fever.” This was in the ‘70s, an excellent decade to be a kid in, and I saw other neat shows of the era at Grandma’s house – The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour and Donny and Marie, for example.
In the early ‘80s, I saw Kim Carnes lip sync “Bette Davis Eyes”, minutes after having talked to Dick Clark about how she’d received a friendly letter from Ms. Davis. I had Grandma come out of the kitchen where she was baking cookies to watch Rick Springfield sang “Jessie’s Girl.”
“Noah?” she said, surprised to see Dr. Noah Drake from General Hospital (one of her stories) as a rock n’ roller.
Grandma would say, “Vickie and David (my mom and uncle) used to watch the Dick Clark Show. He’s been on for years.” I wondered what the show was like with the Doo Wop groups, old dances like the Stroll and the Twist, all that excitement over a show in black and white. But American Bandstand adapted to my childhood and I figured my kids would watch it and people would be buying 45 records forever.
I had no idea that Mtv, tape cassettes, compact discs and all that came after would render Bandstand passé. No more enjoying the music, just from watching people dance to it on TV. No more excitement over lip syncing singers and Clark – surrounded by teens, a microphone in his hand, Colgate smile as he held up the act’s latest album. No more of my favorite Bandstand feature – “rate a record.”
As a more cynical adult, I saw Clark act like a jerk in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine. In the same film NRA spokesman Charlton Hesston looked a little more flawed, human and less like Moses. It was the same cut-the-celebrity-down-to-size technique Moore had used back in Roger and Me, keeping the camera rolling as old Newlywed Game host Bob Eubanks told tasteless, bigoted jokes about Jewish people and AIDS.
(Sigh.) Sometimes I wish we could just let it be – the old celebrities held up to their illusionary public faces. At the same time I wish all the tweeting and morning talk show gabbing about some Hollywood hunk proposing to his do-gooder live-in would sink like a ship tapping an iceberg.
I remember when it was so cool that the host of American Bandstand also hosted $20,000 Pyramid. I remember innuendo being funny. Host Bob Eubanks: “Who was the last person to catch you making whoopee?” (I wasn’t sure what sex was, but the TV dropped hints.) I remember when staying up late on Friday nights to watch Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show was cool. Heck, just seeing Starsky and Hutch make a cameo on Charlie’s Angels was waaay cool.
At one time, New Year’s Rock n’ Eve was the coolest -- hot celebrities, a huge party. Not obligatory. Not more of the same. No way! To see John Schneider (the Dukes of Hazzard’s Bo Duke) co-hosting with Marie Osmond – that was cutting edge! Mega-celebrity, party all night long coolness.
Sure my tastes were bubblegum. Sure, I wasn’t listening to Velvet Underground in jr. high as I would in college. But isn’t that …………a beautiful thing? The same day Clark died, it came over the news that Levon Helm, drummer and lead singer of that phenomenal roots rock band, The Band, died. The Band is where my musical taste went later. Music From Big Pink is, in my estimation, one of the greatest albums ever.
Now, that really crosses back over my parents’ generation and back to my grandparents. In the middle of Vietnam War protests, riots, assassinations, acid flavored and classical music infused rock, a rootsy rag-tag mess of musicians, steeped in rockabilly and Dylan -- so aware of the here and now -- would revive the southern gospel, country and folk like my people had heard 30 years earlier among the oil drilled fields, wooden churches and dustbowl farms of the Depression.
The Band must have been on Bandstand in their late 60s or early 70s heyday. All I remember is Tom Wopat (Luke Duke on The Dukes of Hazzard) on the main floor chatting with Dick Clark, then doing a cover of “Up on Cripple Creek” on some Saturday morning in the early ‘80s.
In his final years, Helm, his voice coarsened by throat cancer, recorded a brilliant roots album, Dirt Farmer, which took the music further back – over the woodsheds, humble prayers and farm fields of time. Levon Helm on The Midnight Special singing "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." Grandma’s people fought for the South in the Civil War. Grandpa’s grandparents were Yankees. Sleep with the angles, all.
RIP, Levon Helm.
Dick Clark, we’ll miss you.
Grandma, I miss you every day.