Two of my life's guideposts, American Bandstand and The Band, drew their last breaths a week ago with the deaths of Dick Clark and Levon Helm. Now the bandstand is less full, the songs less soothing, the beat a little harder to dance to...
I realize that has a lot to do with my growing up in Philadelphia and being born in 1947. The latter designates me, demographically, as an official "baby boomer." There were millions upon millions of us inoculated with rock and roll, and we were going to dance our way into the future. Along the way, we'd push our parents aside, change the world, and leave our fingerprints on everything and everyone.
Two out of three isn't bad, I guess.
The Bandstand part, even though it's further away time-wise, somehow seems more clear. Maybe that's because I was too young to be a participant, so I became a watcher, an observer, tuning in after elementary school to see my 15 year-old cousin Ruth jitterbugging with one of her girlfriends from West Catholic High School for Girls.
"Look there she is, there's Ruth," I'd holler to my mom, who'd always come back into the room too late to see her young niece shaking and shimmying. Ruth was living with us in our tiny Philadelphia row house at the time, much to the dismay of my 16 year-old brother who was attending West Catholic High School for Boys and thought he was "too cool" to be on Bandstand.
Ruth and her female partner were dressed in their white blouses and blue jumpers, the uniform of all West Catholic girls. It was their non-Scarlet Letter, but they didn't seem to mind, nor did they mind the fact that some of the other girls, the ones who lived closer to the West Philadelphia studio, had changed into more comfortable/stylish clothes.
I can still see that look on Ruth's face when she and dance partner would slide briefly in front of the camera, both wiggling their derrieres, Ruth doing her female version of the white man's overbite. Dancing as if that was the only thing left to do. The only thing worth doing.
Bob Horn was the host before Dick Clark. He'd really given the show its name, field position and cachet. But he had a drinking problem, and before you could say "Sh-Boom," the young smiling, pseudo-teenager Dick Clark was there, preppy and polished, smiling that Dick Clark smile and making all the kids from Philly feel like they were the most influential teenagers in the world.
And they were. Dick Clark did that for them. Or so they believed. And still believe.
I stopped tuning in to Bandstand a few months before we moved to Ohio in 1959. But once I landed on the unsophisticated sidelines of Hubbard, Ohio, I'd watch wistfully at a distance, wishing like hell I'd catch a glimpse of Ruth or someone else I knew. But I never did. Dick Clark's smile seemed even bigger now. He was a hit maker and a star maker and appeared to have absolute authority in determining what was cool and popular.
He's credited with integrating television and letting black kids on his show, but that's not the way I remember it. He played it safe, which means he played it white. Which I guess is how Ruth and her girlfriends got on Bandstand so much.
Ruth, like Dick Clark, isn't dancing any more. She passed away last fall, unexpectedly, non-familially, but bravely, in Florida. I wonder if during her last moments she remembered herself on Bandstand, remembered Dick Clark, remembered the songs she danced do, relived her 15-20 seconds in front of the camera...
"And they'll be rocking on Bandstand, Philadelphia, PA... "