Tag Archives: pop music

Dick Clark and Levon Helm

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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.

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One Less Monkee

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Davey Jones is dead. He died of a heart attack. It is hard to imagine Davey Jones as anything other than young. I loved the Monkees. Daydream Believer still takes me back to the summer of 1967, when I was a kid. When everything was candy, comic books, and crushes on cute girls (which Daydream Believer captures perfectly). Those of you that really know about the Monkees realize there was far more to this band than met the eye. They were a pretty savvy bunch of guys. They made a movie in 1968 named ‘Head’ which included a Frank Zappa cameo. They satirized their teenage idol success. If only Justin Bieber could do the same! But the Monkees music was excellent pop, written in large part by Neil Diamond and other top notch songwriters. True, they weren’t the Beatles, but they didn’t try to be. They just wanted to be a fun band, and they played their roles with their tongues firmly lodged in their cheeks. The tv show was fun, too. Beatles fans at that time were a bit nostalgic for the early Beatles, when they were full of innocent fun. and the Monkees gave them that. Davey Jones had a sweetly comic quality, never really losing that baby face, even in his fifties. That time seems so long ago, and just yesterday, at the same time. I can imagine in my mind the fun that the Monkees would have had with that sentence. “Just yesterday?” “No, man, it was long ago!” “But he just said….” “It’s called a metaphor.” “No it isn’t!” “Well, it’s one of those literary devices!” “Devices?” “Well, nothing’s changed for us, we’re still the same, right Davey?” “Hey, where’s Davey?”

The songs drew from many sources. (not your) Stepping Stone could have been an Animals song. I’m a Believer is as strong a song as any Beatles song, and sounds like one. It was written by Neil Diamond. Daydream Believer sounds a lot like the Lovin’ Spoonful. There were a few more obscure songs which hold up fairly well. Michael Nesmith wrote many of the Monkee’s songs (he was the one with the wool cap), and he never really received the accolades he deserved. Johnny Cash was a big fan of Nesmith. ‘The Girl I Knew Somewhere’ and ‘Mary Mary’ were as good as the bigger hits. Although it wasn’t written by Nesmith, Last Train to Clarksville holds up really well as a country song, as well as pop. The Monkees specialty were well-crafted pop songs which are as much fun now as they were then.

This is yet another unwelcome reminder of how things change for us baby boomers. Our childhood heroes die of heart attacks reminding us of our own mortality. I guess that’s not very funny, huh?