“…Rock ‘n’ Roll is here to stay/it will never die
It was meant to be that way/though I don’t know why
Rock ‘n’ Roll will always be/it’ll go down in history…”
—Danny and the Juniors, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Here to Stay” (1957)
Last week, Dick Clark, often called “America’s oldest teenager,” died of a heart attack at age 82.
Thinking of Clark made me nostalgic for 1957 — the year Clark’s “American Bandstand” was one of TV’s hottest shows and must-watch fare for teens while introducing Rock ‘n’ Roll to a huge and mainstream American audience.
For most Americans, “Bandstand” was the first place they saw rock artists like Chuck Berry, Bill Haley and the Comets, James Brown, Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers. Years later, Clark’s “Bandstand” gave major boosts to the Mammas and the Papas and Madonna. And if the performers were lip-syncing their records on the show, nobody cared.
The heyday of “Bandstand” was 30 years before most students on this campus were born, but the magic of YouTube can help bring back the music, clothes and feel of a simpler time of innocence that some of us can actually remember.
Guys danced in jackets and ties on the show — with hair that featured “ducktail” cuts or piled-high pompadours. Girls, who were not called rapper-tag “hoes” and “bitches” — wore tight wool skirts with pony tails and pointy sweaters to stoke already-racing teen hormones. Tunes about teen romance were often sappy, but at least showed some respect for women that’s mostly missing now. And if Ricky Nelson was a sanitized version of Elvis — whose risque touch of white trash was part of Elvis’ appeal — squeaky-clean Dick Clark convinced lots of wary parents that Rock ‘n’ Roll couldn’t be all that bad for their kids.
Clark had a long career after Bandstand, that included hosting Times Square soirees on New Year’s Eve from 1972 on. For me, though, Dick Clark will always be preserved in the amber of early American Bandstand.
Tunes from that era buzzed in the back of my mind when, last January, I walked into Dr. Gregory Walker’s “Real History of Rock ‘n’ Roll” class (PMUS 3852) in the Tivoli. It seemed less a historical perspective than a memoir of music that took in the ‘50s Rock ‘n’ Roll I listened to as a teen. The class, still in progress, exceeded expectations. Most of it turned on what I thought I knew, but didn’t. As legendary Baltimore Orioles coach Earl Weaver once said, “it’s what you learn after you already know it all that matters.”
Tracing the roots of rock from turn-of-last-century blues and jazz to “Swing” era sounds (Glen Miller and Bennie Goodman in the 1940s, along with young Frank Sinatra) to “hillbilly” music that was the forerunner of “country” all set the stage for ‘50s Rock ‘n’ Roll. It was followed by the “British Invasion” of Beatles, Stones and others, prior to late ‘60s Psychedelia/Acid Rock and subsequent musical genres. From the “Folk music” era onward, Walker’s class covered a chronology of my own life.
I spoke to the class about rock “festivals” I’d been to: Woodstock II in 1993; the “Summer Jam” that drew nearly 500,000 to Watkins Glen, New York in 1972 and even the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 when Bob Dylan was jeered for abandoning unamplified guitar in favor of singing with a backup band. Scanning the class of 20-something students, I could see the window shades of interest closing. Some had barely heard of Dylan; maybe the Beatles. Elvis was as ancient as Sinatra.
I felt seriously old and “out of time,” to use a Stones’ line, and even more so in later classes when I noticed that — during musical clips played on the big screen – I was the only one tapping my feet. Out of time and out of sync. Disco I recall vividly – and not simply because the 1978 “Saturday Night Fever” movie with John Travolta took place in my Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, neighborhood. But when we moved from Punk and Heavy Metal to Post-Punk and Hip-Hop; to rappers like Snoop Dog, and Dr. Dre, I grew less and less in touch while the students got more and more into it and began showing some passion that had been missing all semester.
With their new enthusiasm, the kids instructed me. Among other epiphanies, I began to think of Rap and Hip-Hop as maybe a bit more than noise blaring from the next car when I’m stopped at a red light.
The affable Walker’s class also repeated a lesson I’d learned in many other Metro and UCD classes as a late-in-life academic freeloader milking what I call “the GI Bill for seniors.” For all of their short memories, minimal attention spans and addiction to communication toys, “the kids” – to borrow a line from The Who’s Roger Daltrey, – “are all right.”
And maybe that process of continued learning, even after you know it all, is the whole point of education — higher or not.