Two very different men died recently. Dick Clark and Levon Helm were almost opposites. One epitomized pop culture’s star making machinery, the other a pop culture which avoided the star making machinery. Both are important, and have left an indelible mark on our culture.
Dick Clark, at first glance, seems trivial and unimportant. Just a talking head introducing the latest teen idols. A pleasant voice, face, and demeanor calculated to not offend, unless of course you found that very inoffensiveness offensive. But this isn’t fair. Dick Clark cared about popular music. At a time when rock n’ roll was being derided by Frank Sinatra as a vile aphrodisiac Dick Clark showed that this new music wasn’t about crime and immorality, or at least, it didn’t have to be. Dick Clark saw that if teenage music was to survive it had to change, lest it be driven underground where it might just fade away into oblivion. He also loved rhythm and blues, and although he is remembered for Fabian, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Vee and other vanilla squishy soft rockers, he also contributed to the success of Sam Cooke, Smokie Robinson and the Miracles, Chubby Checker, and other black artists. If Dick Clark had been as conservative as some believe, he would have allowed rock n’ roll and r & b to die, leaving us with the rat pack. I think Dick Clark wanted to be hip, but he just couldn’t make it work. That actually added to his charm. He remained the upbeat dj with the perfect teeth, perpetually young until his death. His message was simple. Pop music is good clean fun. He was never taken seriously by anyone, and that is the way he liked it. You couldn’t really knock him because he had no pretensions. He knew he was just a familiar face introducing us to the imaginary world of pop music. That is the key thing to understand about Dick Clark, American Bandstand, and Rockin’ New Years Eve, it is all a show. It is a pop music version of Disneyland. None of it is serious. It is selling us the modern American myth of malt shops, drive-in’s, fast cars, and a sweet innocence. None of it was real and almost no one was fooled. Of course not all of it was imaginary. Teenagers had the opportunity on American Bandstand to watch teenagers just like themselves dancing to the same songs they listened to. You could root for the song you wanted to see make it to number one. It provided a shared experience which really doesn’t have a contemporary equivalent. Pop music today tends to be fragmented, and the whole idea is to celebrate decadence and irony. Innocence? It never really existed except in the imaginary universe of places like American Bandstand. It is true that by today’s standards Dick Clark seems bland, but his blandness made a revolutionary new trend in music acceptable to the parents, and the moguls of the music industry. Because of that, the way was prepared for the arrival of the Beatles and everything that followed. For that, we owe Dick Clark a debt.
Levon Helm has a very different story. Levon is the real deal. He was a musician and songwriter who lived to create. He was the drummer for the Band, for which he sang songs which feel as though they had always been there. ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, ‘Rag Mama Rag’ and ‘Up On Cripple Creek’ are timeless pieces of Americana. He didn’t care about commercial success. He wasn’t looking to be famous. He was the Everyman. He sang for all the nameless men who populated the American landscape from it’s very inception. You can hear Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Jesse James, Mark Twain, and James Dean in his voice. He managed to achieve that universality, that anonymous timeless quality that Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson aspired to but whose vivid personalities prevented. Levon Helm is a ghost. He was totally devoted to the music and evoking the spirit of America with his work. Levon Helm wanted to blend into the background and be remembered by other musicians. He could care less about anything more than that. He will be missed because the honest ones come along infrequently. Most artists are swayed by the star making machinery, and it affects their artistry, Levon Helm stayed true to his muse.
We need both kinds of men. We need people like Levon Helm to keep us honest and remind us of what true artistry is about, and we need people like Dick Clark to prevent good music from fading into obscurity. For any of us to hear the good stuff we must endure the superficial and realize that nothing gets heard if it isn’t promoted. Dick Clark was the master at promotion, at letting you know about music. His taste was mainstream, but he still managed to put some major talents on the map. Some artists kid themselves that they don’t need to play the game, but a certain amount of that is required if you want to make a difference, and help steer the course of popular music.