Thursday, April 19, 2012

Dick Clark, in Black and White

I had to turn off Yahoo Safe Search to find this image, I’ll have you know!

This morning I went down to our large garage (an extremely rare Bay Area phenomenon) and dug out the March 1977 issue of Playboy magazine.

I’d bought that issue, used, for author Jules Siegal’s memoir about his strained relationship among him, his wife, and Thomas Pynchon. (Really! Honest! I did! I’ve never even looked at the pictures . . . well, maybe a couple times . . . . ) 

I only noticed quite a few years later, after I moved to San Francisco, that the same issue also contained a profile of Dick Clark by superb San Francisco Chronicle columnist and humorist Jon Carroll.

It was a funny portrait of Mr. Clark, written in Mr. Carroll’s bouncy, vivid and peppery style, though, reading it now, it seems a bit more acidic and frustrated than I recall. Carroll portrays Clark as fixed in his affability as he was in his youthful looks. 

Try as he might, Carroll the journalist was unable to exhume even a decent odor of deep impropriety about a man who often dominated a field rocking with unseemly behavior. The most scandalous details that slip are the mirror over Clark’s bed and his dislike for the English. Oh, and he would pass the marijuana pipe at parties without ever taking a toke himself.

Dick Clark even overpaid his taxes.

Like most celebrity profiles I’ve read, it plumbed no depths beyond the public face. Maybe Clark was too thickly armored. Maybe there wasn’t much there beyond what he did in his very busy life. Maybe both.

(Amusing side note: While searching for an image for this article, my Yahoo search actually road-blocked me: “Results for Dick Clark may contain adult oriented content. Safe Search must be turned off to display these results.” There’s a reason no one’s nick-named “Dick” anymore.)

I only remember Dick Clark in black and white and prefer it that way. I grew up watching him on American Bandstand on our black-and-white, black metal RCA TV, in the early 1960s, in the afternoon after I got home from school, in the little den off the kitchen.

American Bandstand  was a major event in our house, at least on the day that my next oldest brother, Jeff, actually appeared on it, live. He went with his girlfriend all the way to Philadelphia from Mohegan Lake in upstate New York, as far off as the moon to my young mind.

Not only did Jeff join all the other teenagers on the dance floor, he was interviewed by Clark during the “rate-a-record” segment. I don’t remember the song, but I do recall Jeff saying that he didn’t like slow songs (and how we all clucked about that).

It was awesome moment for me, to see my brother, who was ten years older and so much bigger and so handsome, actually on TV!  It made him even more of a hero to a boy lacking them.

On reflection, though, Jeff didn’t belong on American Bandstand because he didn’t like one single note of rock n’ roll or teen music. He was a fierce country music fan, with a large collection of Johnny Cash albums. To this day, I don’t know what drove him to drive all the way to Philadelphia.

Thinking about it 50 years later, I wonder if he didn’t find the whole experience frightening. In my memory of that segment, he looks frozen, his normally sharp personality blunted to a tinny murmur, encased in wavering gray dots. Maybe he said what he did about music he didn’t care for because he had to say something, with the whole world watching through the piercing eye of the camera. He never appeared in public like that again, so far as I know.

For many decades, Jeff stayed as young-looking as Dick Clark and growing gray only made him better looking, even as he inhaled cigarettes by the carton and downed beer by the barrel.

We eventually drifted apart, as more families do these days. (Only recently have I learned that he died in 2007.)

As for Dick Clark, I never became a fan, even after he waved his microphone wand over my brother. I never once watched his Rockin’ New Year’s Eve special, because--insert Gabby Hayes voice here--by cracky, I was a Guy Lombardo man to the great, deep chasm of my soul, dagnabbit!

Sometimes, nostalgia tastes sweet only in the memory and nowhere else.

Text Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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