Grantland logo

Remembering Dick Clark

The long, beautiful life of America’s oldest teenager.

Dick Clark

Dick Clark died of a heart attack Wednesday at St. John’s Hospital in Los Angeles. He was 82. (Weird how in this context 82 seems surprisingly young, no?) His long-running teenage dance-party series American Bandstand did more to make rock music (and its myriad offshoots and mutations) a part of mass culture than any other television show in history, introducing American viewers to everyone from Chubby Checker to Madonna to the Beastie Boys. Over the years, Dick welcomed acts as varied as Talking Heads, X, R.E.M., LL Cool J, Devo, James Brown, and Cheech & Chong, while also finding time to have Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon on the show an astounding 110 times.

But by the end, he was arguably better known for counting backward. As the host of Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve on ABC, he presided over a TV party that served as a nondenominational midnight mass for New Year’s revelers, albeit one that everyone showed up to around 11:55 and ducked out of shortly thereafter. Scrambling for the remote to find Dick before the calendar turned over was a pop-cultural sacrament. For decades, one of the last thoughts that passed through people’s minds before the year ended was invariably, Man, Dick Clark is well preserved. It was as if the years whose coming and going he’d celebrated so dutifully hadn’t laid a glove on him. He was a news anchor who inevitably had only one story to report: Time has passed.

He hosted some version of New Year’s Rockin’ Eve almost every year for 40 years; even after he suffered a stroke in 2004, he only took one year off, although he gradually delegated more and more of the work of hosting to Ryan Seacrest, who as a mogul/toothpaste spokesman is essentially if not literally his son. He was increasingly tragic on television after the stroke; his final NYRE appearance had a strong Weekend at Bernie’s quality. His life had become a joke about a man who refuses to die, even more so than, say, Keith Richards’s life.

But by then he was also a cultural institution in a way that no TV personality will be again. He’s mentioned in both Waiting to Exhale (“If I didn’t see this Lionel in the next 20 minutes or if nobody decent asked me to dance, I was going home and watch Dick Clark”) and Robert Olen Butler’s science-fiction novel Mr. Spaceman, in which the Christ-figure-ish extraterrestrial narrator imagines revealing himself to the people of Earth on New Year’s Rockin’ Eve 2000 and being dismembered by an angry crowd: “[A]nd there are hands on me, ten thousand heartless hands and I am plunged into darkness and there is only Dick Clark’s voice saying, ‘Now that the spaceman has been torn to bits, it’s time for our spotlight dance.’ But the music does not begin.” His career as a public figure began before integration and lasted beyond the advent of hashtag rap. He was an astronaut.

In 1973, he found time between $10,000 Pyramid tapings to sit down with Lester Bangs. Bangs zinged him a little, asked him what he made of “fag-rock” — Bowie, Lou Reed, et al. Dick said, “Bisexual … what’s the other word, AC/DC? I think it’s partially fad and partially goldfish swallowing, as protest was.” That’s the part of the interview everyone remembers — Dick, who described himself in his 1976 autobiography as having “the heart of a cunning capitalist,” equating bisexuality and political activism with goldfish swallowing. But he went on to say other, smarter things to Bangs: “We all know Alice [Cooper] is a put-on, a shuck. But what’s funny is when you read the sociological commentators and how torn up the whole straight world is over this craziness. I can’t attach any significance to that.”

He liked how he came off in Bangs’s piece, published in the November ’73 issue of Creem as “Screwing the System With Dick Clark,” felt Bangs had quoted him accurately. I like the piece, too. I like how Clark comes off in it, square and shrewd and unapologetic about being both.

“I’m always distressed by the supposedly bright people who don’t know what they are,” he tells Bangs, citing the Monkees as an example. “They could have had a very nice thing going in their area for another couple of years, despite the fact that it was a shuck. It was a commercially built commodity for which there was an audience from which they could have made a great deal of money and retired and passed it on to their children. Instead Mickey Dolenz thought he was Paul McCartney. He went up to Monterey and they laughed at him.”

Clark never had a moment like that, where he tried to punch above his weight class, coolness-wise. He was described as the World’s Oldest Teenager, but he never acted anything but his age. He was a cultural chaperone, a reassuring presence who convinced generations of parents that Iron Butterfly or Run-DMC or whoever might actually be (as he’d invariably say) nice young men with bright futures ahead of them, despite the threat they might have seemed to present to common decency.

In that Bangs piece, asked how he felt about hipsters who disdained him, he said he understood himself to be “a good institution to play games off of,” but avowed that he’d outlast his detractors in “the underground press … I’ll be here longer than you will, is my attitude.” And he was. He outlived Lester Bangs. He also outlived Don Cornelius, and Solid Gold, and Club MTV, and Total Request Live.

In 1960, Clark was called before the House Special Subcomittee on Legislative Oversight to answer allegations that he’d grandly enriched himself by using Bandstand to promote acts in which he had a financial stake, via his investment in the Philadelphia record labels Swan and Jamie, giving most-favored-nation airplay to Jamie artists like Duane Eddy. I haven’t read a lot of Life magazine stories from the early ’60s, but the one they wrote about Clark when this happened, in May of 1960 — under the headline “MUSIC BIZ GOES ROUND AND ROUND: IT COMES OUT CLARKOLA” — goes pretty negative for a Life magazine story.

This is the lede: “Back in September 1958, a roly-poly Tulsa boy named Billy Jay Killen came home from high school and wanted to watch Dick Clark’s television program, American Bandstand. His mother, who didn’t particularly care for rock music, was all set to watch a different program so she told Billy ‘No.’ He seethed the whole night long. Then in the morning Billy took out a rifle and shot his mother dead. Millions of American teenagers feel just as strongly about Dick Clark.”

Which is weird, because the story isn’t actually about Dick Clark being Bad For Kids in any way; it’s about him possibly having engaged in unethical but common music-industry practices. The author of the 1959 teen self-help book Your Happiest Years (dig that totally unironic title!) took the witness stand at his own hearing, Life writes, “giving off the same air of proper respectability he does on TV. He wore a blue suit, button-down shirt and black loafers. Every strand of his hair was neatly lacquered into place. His voice had the bland, dulcet tone of the TV announcer that he is.” There’s also a sidebar of chummy quotes from artists he helped break (“One time I put snails down the back of his shirt,” says Fabian), with Jerry Lee Lewis the only dissenter: “Mr. Clark has done me bad … I got some unfavorable publicity and he hasn’t played a record of mine since.”

He survived this, too. At ABC’s urging, he’d divested himself of all his record-industry holdings one year earlier, including stakes in companies that did talent management, publishing, merchandising, and distribution; he got off with a wrist slap, and insisted to the end that he’d never taken money to play a record, while admitting, “I made money other ways. Horizontally, vertically, every which way you can think of, I made money from that show.”

Even in 1983 he was already kind of grandfatherly — here he is taking a moment, while introducing a performance by Morris Day and the Time, to explain to the 16-year-olds he’s sitting with in the audience that there used to be these things called zoot suits. But because he was never cool and never sold himself as an arbiter of cool, he could never become uncool. Time never left him clinging to an outmoded frame of reference. Although he held the line against letting women dancers wear pants on Bandstand for a long time, because skirts were more visually appealing, he seemed to have no real aesthetic criteria; he seemed to like things that were popular, or seemed like they could be. But that meant that his show was a space in which anything could happen; symbolically, by having someone on the show for kids to frug along to and then exchanging post-performance pleasantries with them, Dick Clark was presenting people with the idea that this was pop music, whatever it was.

I found this clip of Public Image Ltd’s 1980 performance on Bandstand a few years ago, via WFMU’s Beware of the Blog. When Dick says “the critic in New York” gave them great reviews, we can laugh, because he sounds like he’s describing a hot nightclub combo who’ve been held over at the Copa thanks to boffo notices, rather than an abrasive and confrontational post-punk band fronted by a former Sex Pistol. But on the other hand, he says Public Image Ltd are “something interesting and special,” and even if he’s only saying that because someone’s written that on a cue card for him, the end result is that PiL, who really were something interesting and special back then, are presented as such to an unsuspecting audience, rather than as something weird and out there and not for everyone. So for at least a second the possibility is raised that PiL might actually be for everyone, that they were already popular. Which is crazy.

That’s Point 1. Point 2 is that, yes, when John Lydon decides that instead of even trying to lip-synch “Poptones” plausibly, he’s going to elbow his way into the crowd and start pushing and pulling people down off the bleachers, it’s the kind of action that’s traditionally cited in the art-hero narrative as a bold statement about the fakeness and hollowness of showbiz, a lone punk trying to shake the sheeple out of their stupor, that kind of thing. Which I guess it is; there’s something really cool about the way Lydon sort of leads people by the hand down off the bleachers and across the barrier separating artist from audience, and then lets them go, to figure out for themselves what they’re going to do up there. But you could just as easily make the argument that if Dick Clark’s show wasn’t so square, there would be no point to what Lydon is doing — that Lydon needs Dick Clark, that Dick Clark actually created the conditions that make what he is doing seem important as opposed to just obnoxious.

I also love how much everyone in the audience seems to be enjoying this performance. I love the way people smile and laugh when Lydon enters their personal space. They have gone on the pop-music show and the guy from the pop-music group came up and acted weird and they’re going home with a great story to tell their friends. By the end of the song, Lydon has made his way to a scaffold above the stage. He’s not miked, so Dick Clark says “Hi” to him and then asks the rest of the band their names. (“Jah Wobble,” says bassist Jah Wobble, then adds, “The Jah Wobble.”) Clark asks if the audience should remain onstage; the band says yes, let everybody up there. And so everybody comes up and everybody dances to “Careering,” as if it’s a totally natural thing to do — which it eventually was, in Williamsburg in 2002, but this was 1980. We’re supposed to believe that nobody really got bands like Public Image Ltd, that the world was even less ready for their blast-furnace-baked meat-locker dub than it was for punk. In some ways, PiL’s whole reputation as a band depends on this idea. And yet here’s a crowd of people shaking it to “Careering,” because that’s what you do in Dick Clark’s house, in the magic context he created. The spaceman has been torn to bits. Everybody dance now.