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Honoring the teen rebel heart of Dick Clark

"The World's Oldest Teenager?"

Well, OK if you insist. If that's the epithet you're happiest pinning to the life of Dick Clark -- now dead at 82 -- it's best not to argue. But there's a catch to that epithet and a very big one at that.

It doesn't merely refer to Clark's eerie inability to age as the decades piled up, it refers to the angry teen rebel that may well have survived surreptitiously within him to the end of his life.

In 1973, Lester Bangs published one of Clark's interviews with him in Creem Magazine. It was called "Screwing the System With Dick Clark

To me, Dick Clark remained, right to the end, a great whistleblower of American culture, a bearer of major cultural news that was never going to sit quite right with the American mainstream, no matter how much of a canny, super-capitalist he became.

I first interviewed Clark on the phone five years after Bangs. It was before the premiere of "Dick Clark's Live Wednesday," a little-remembered, short-lived TV show. Its ringmaster (remember that word) promised it would bring back the beloved "trainwreck quality" of live TV.

I asked Clark at the time the most trivial question I have ever asked a celebrity in 43 years. No question ever made me happier to ask.

On his late-1950s "Saturday Night With Dick Clark" show sponsored by Beech-Nut gum, he used to do the gum commercials himself, live sans trainwreck. There always was the inevitable moment when "American Bandstand's" embodiment of in loco parentis held the gum up himself for a camera close-up. The camera would zoom in as tightly as possible -- pure gum surrounded by perfectly manicured fingernails. The hand never moved. You couldn't detect a single micro-tremor.

So dead still was that pack of gum on camera that I wondered as a kid if Clark were even human. He might as well have been Martian.

I asked Clark on the phone if that was indeed his hand. No, he answered. It was some guy with buffed fingernails hired exclusively for the gig. Clark reported, in fact, that he had just run into the guy back in 1978. "Remember me?" the fellow said to Dick. "I'm the guy who held the gum."

Dick didn't remember him.

That phone interview also set a personal record for me -- for the number of off-the-record stories Clark told me about then-living celebrities.

Of the damaging payola investigation into his own affairs, "the world's oldest teenager" still had enough pure, uncut attitude at the age of 49 to tell me on the record "I was boiled in the crucible and came out alive." What he learned about the average politician in Washington, he said, is that "the morals of a pimp or a streetwalker are on a higher plane."

And he was jolly well going to blow the whistle on them everywhere he could. But then that -- one could argue -- is what Clark always did, even when he became one of the smoothest, richest moguls in TV history, a combination, as I thought in 1978, of Steve Allen, Ed Sullivan and Louis B. Mayer (with a winking Abbie Hoffman buried deep in his heart).

Consider the great Little Richard hit "Good Golly Miss Molly," which, according to Wikipedia, last clocked in at No. 94 in Rolling Stone Magazine's Top 500 Songs in the rock era.

I was watching "American Bandstand" in 1958 the day Clark introduced the brand-new song by Little Richard, already of "Ready Teddy," "Rip It Up" and "Tutti Frutti" fame.

"Good golly Miss Molly/ you sure like to ball/ Good golly Miss Molly/ you sure like to ball/ You like to ball in the morning and stay out late every night. From the early, early morning/to the early, early night/ when you see Miss Molly/ Miss Molly's rocking/ at the House of Blue Lights."

One view of the song is that Dick Clark -- and every other American deejay -- announced it on his Saturday show as a Top 10 hit long before anyone really knew what Richard Penniman was actually singing. I've never entirely believed it. By 1958, Clark had had too many black performers on "American Bandstand" not to be familiar with the exact meaning of inner city slang. He knew that the song wasn't about dancing but the basic, life-generating activity for which dancing is a glorious metaphor -- just as that phrase no one thinks about, "rock and roll," is about that same elementary activity.

"Rock and roll" itself, is a PG-13 expression.

That, I submit, was Dick Clark, even long after "the World's Oldest Teenager" was producing award shows and all manner of things people really wanted to watch, whether they were proud of the fact or not.

The greatest whistle Clark blew in America was on race. He -- along with Buffalo's George "Hound Dog" Lorenz -- was one of the earliest and most important bearers of news about this extraordinarily powerful music that was being born everywhere in the mid- or late 1950s.

Way back in 1958, Clark told the Buffalo Evening News' TV columnist Sturgis Hedrick that he hoped to originate a Saturday night broadcast from Buffalo. "We had planned at first to open WKBW-TV with a telecast from Buffalo, but it just didn't work out. Anyway Buffalo is just about my favorite town. The last rating statistic I saw showed us higher in Buffalo than any other city."

Much has been made of the caution Clark showed fully integrating the dancers on "American Bandstand," but far too little -- even now, after his death -- has been made of the matter-of-fact large-scale featuring of black performers on "Bandstand" and his Saturday night show, long before anyone else.

Clark understood -- as did Lorenz, Alan Freed in Cleveland and Sun Records' Sam Phillips in Memphis -- that the phenomenal energy of this teen-conquering music came from black culture and that the combination of that music and white middle class kids would cause a national combustion.

What they couldn't imagine back then is that the world would follow. All of Western civilization rocked.

Clark never stinted in his display of the great black R&B and rock performers, from day one. I remember one Saturday on the Beech-Nut show, seeing Bobby Freeman, as was customary, lip-sync his hit "Do You Want to Dance?" (later torched beautifully at half tempo by Bette Midler). Freeman was a tall, very thin, very dark-skinned black singer, songwriter and producer who was far away from the ebullience of performers like Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. He was a superb figure in R&B's working class.

The mime, as he lip-synced his hit, was that he was a lion-tamer. He was dressed as a circus ringmaster -- a terrific little joke to convey that their working-class ghetto hitmaker now had the power position inside music's center ring.

In 2004, 75-year-old Dick Clark still had enough attitude to be, perhaps the most powerful whistleblower on TV. He had a severe stroke, which affected his speech and his gait.

To a lesser man -- who didn't blow whistles on little-acknowledged truths for a living -- it would have been a career-ender.

Not Dick Clark.

He kept on doing his "New Year's Rockin' Eve" every year, now next to fluent Ryan Seacrest, the 21st century Dick Clark (sans teen attitude).

Clark was now blowing the whistle on the oldest and least popular human truth of all.

Memento Mori, as Tertullian and the ancient Romans used to put it.

Remember, you must die.

Some day. Whoever you are.

Even if you're the World's Oldest Teenager.

Our fate is universal -- as is the physical act that created us all.

It was Dick Clark's business -- among so many others of so much greater profit -- to make sure we never forgot.

One at the beginning of his career.

And one at the very end.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com