Wednesday, April 18, 2012

From the Books: Lester Bangs on Dick Clark

Awww, dammit, Dick Clark is dead.

I'm not old enough for Dick Clark to be a rock-n-roll icon for me; he was a game show host first, and such is how I'll default to remembering him. "Audience please, may we have absolute quiet. All right. For one hundred thousand dollars, here is your first subject. GO!"

I don't have a lot to say about Dick Clark. The guy was an omnipresent fixture, and even in the much-derided appearances of his on New Year's Rockin' Eve the last few years, even as he struggled to form words, I could really see the spark in his eye, the one that said, "Yeah, I'm on teevee and how cool is that!"

But here is an excerpt from an interview that Lester Bangs did with Dick Clark for Creem, back in 1973. After some intro, Bangs notes that Clark's thoughts spring from his head fully-made. (Keep in mind, folks, this interview took place 39 years ago, and is a product of its time.)

How wired would you have to get, for instance, to compete with this natural life stylin' poppa's rap: "There was a lady the other day that gave a fascinating speech in acceptance of an honorary degree she got at some college somewhere. Dolly Cole, she's the wife of the chairman of the board of General Motors, so you know obviously where her politics lie and where her thinking goes, but she came up with a great line, she's a self-educated lady and very charming, I did five television shows with her once, I got to know her reasonably well – she said to the graduating class, she apologized for her truck-driver language in front, she said, 'All of you here attending this school who are complaining of the materialistic world can be assured that there are a couple of parents home working their ass off to keep you here.' Which is an interesting thought. The other great line I read, and this is fabulous, is that in this generation of young people who all wanta be individualistic, the line is, 'Look, I wanna be different just like everybody else!,' we are really coming into a carbon-copy generation. It's really unique. As a student of young people, I've never seen such a one-dimensional group of people in all my life – in thinking, in dress, even in music habits."

I mean, did you ever! What I wouldn't give to talk, hell, write like that – what incredible organization, what lucidity. But I suspected the facile flash of the superficial, generalized savant, so I lammed into him: Just why are you so interested in young people, Dick?

"Sheer unadulterated greed. That's a facetious answer; it's mostly true. It's been a very good livelihood secondarily, and I would appreciate it if you wouldn't excerpt it and just publish that part. I enjoy it. If I didn't, there's no amount of money in the world could make me do what I do. And let's face it, it's a hell of an interesting way to make a living. You never know from day to day what young people are gonna do next."

That reminds me, Dick. Whadda you think of fag-rock?

He gets a worried look. "Do you think this is going to be widespread?"

Sure! David Bowie, Lou Reed, all those guys at the top of the charts, the queers are taking over the country!

He chews on that one a minute, and comes back typically unruffled, reflective: "Anything that's new takes a while before it gets disseminated across the country. You get the JC Penney versions of fashions of what the style leaders are wearing. There's an interesting premise in all of this, in the youth world, you take the lunatic fringe, the avant-garde, the style leaders, the nuts. And if you are careful enough to determine what they come up with that's a legitimate trend, then you'll be able to figure out eventually what the people in the middle, I don't mean necessarily geographically but in the case of our country it is pretty much the middle, will be doing in the next number of months.

"Bisexual...what's the other word, AC/DC? I think its partially fad and partially goldfish swallowing, as protest was. A lot of kids got into protest because it was 'the thing'. It was not popular to criticize legitimate protest at the time, but I used to make the joke about the kid who had the sign in the bedroom closet that said 'SHAME', and would at any given moment take the sign and go out and march. The sign was apropos to anything. That may be what's happening with the fag-drag crazy transsexual rock scene. I think that's a quickie. I think more importantly that's an indication of the desire to have show business return to music. That's why you have an Elton John, a Liberace, an Alice Cooper. That's show biz. We all know Alice 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."

Does he then see the hope of rock's future in relatively wholesome groups like Slade, or the bubblegum androgyny of Marc Bolan? Nope. "I don't think Slade will make it in the States for the same reason T. Rex didn't make it. He thought he was Mick Jagger. He was Donny Osmond. Print it. The schmuck. I went over there at the time that there was a necessity to fill our subteen gap of idols, to try to convince [Bolan's] people that it would be a good time to move on the American market in that area. The trouble was, the poor fellow believed his own publicity, when you had Ringo Starr running around taking pictures of him with an 8-mm camera. He believed he was going to be Mick Jagger, which he is not. He's been so many things in his career I don't guess he knows who he is. And he has been so ill advised – this happens with so many artistic people – a man of obviously great talents, but no business acumen. And so therefore never the twain shall cross and he went into the sewer.

"I'm always distressed by the supposedly bright people who don't know what they are. Take the Monkees, who thought they were the Beatles. 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.

"Again statistically, look at the record books and you'll see that every ten years in the middle of the decade some sort of freak superstar arises. You can take it back to Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby, through Frank Sinatra and Perry Como, then you had Bill Haley and Elvis, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, so now you're upon it again. Sometime in the next two years there'll be an individual who will be a white, male, single performing artist. Probably American."

Changing the subject to his show, I wondered if he consciously strived to put forth a certain image of American youth in the kids that appeared on "American Bandstand".

"Well, I dunno. They're kind of middle-of-the-road kids, I guess. It wouldn't be a typical concert audience because they're dressed differently. The only dress requirements we have are that the girls can't wear pants suits. It's only because of the visual thing, because it's a hell of a lot more interesting to watch a girl in a skirt. And with long hair in closeups it's very difficult to distinguish male from female, so you use that attractive element. That's only a matter of practicality," he adds. "it's not a prejudice on my part. I'm not a big leg man or anything."

For some reason, Dick, hippies and counterculturites seem to think you're stodgy. I asked him if he had a clue and he came back with both barrels. "That was very predominant about three or four years ago, but it's become passe now. It was a good institution to play games off of. Than it suddenly dawned on a lot of them that I'd been around for twenty years and was carrying the ball for them and that's the reason they were in business. I'm very cynical toward the underground press, of which you are one. I'll be here longer than you will, is my attitude. I will be very happy to have you make fun of me or do whatever you want, I really don't care.

"They have found now that there must be some semblance of order to stay alive. That's why FM underground freeform radio died. Because you can't turn seven freaky guys loose on the air to do whatever they wanta do whenever they wanta do it, play the same cut seventeen times or play some obtuse album, 'cause who cares?

"A lot of the whole world that kids don't understand is politics and money. When you learn politics, money, the advertising world, where the skeletons are buried, you have then matured enough to stay alive. It's part of the game. And a lot of kids don't learn until they're out wandering around saying, 'Hey, I wonder why the place I was working at went out of business.' They told too many people to shove it. That's what happened to the Smothers Brothers. What a wonderful tool they had, except they painted one of the three major networks into a corner and said, 'There's no way for you to get out and we'll win.' They're winning minor dollars, but it won't amount to much by the time they pay the lawyers. So one must learn to screw the system from within."

Okay, Dick, but just for the record, what did you do when you were a kid? "I was a student of the black arts. I was a hypnotist at thirteen. I lived all the way through that, my whole life I had bookshelves full of this stuff. And then when it got very big in the late sixties I said I better get out of this, I can't stand listening to all of this again. I was a big hit at all the parties, reading palms, putting people out...."

So now how do you see yourself, the adult Dick Clark? As a moral leader for youth?

"I'm just the storekeeper. The shelves are empty, I put the stock on. Make no comment pro or con. Irving Berlin said, 'Popular music is popular because a lot of people like it.' That doesn't mean it's good or bad – that's the equivalent of arguing the merits of hot dogs versus hamburgers. What the hell difference does it make?"

(From the collection Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, by Lester Bangs.)


Neil said...

This is awesome, thanks.

Roger Owen Green said...

HAD to add this to my piece.