Tommy James and the Shondells – I Think We’re Alone Now (1967)

“And here we go with American Bandstand on a Saturday,” TV icon Dick Clark with the American Bandstand audience in 1967.

You ever seen that movie “Somewhere in Time,” where Christopher Reeves desires to go back to a certain time and place so badly he basically wills himself into the past by focusing on a coin and hypnotizing himself?  I find myself holding onto a copy of Tommy James and the Shondells 1967 album “I Think We’re Alone Now” and trying to do the same thing.  I want to send myself backwards to a time and a place I’ve never been before.  The date – May 6, 1967.  The place – The ABC-TV studios in Hollywood, California.  The set – “American Bandstand.”  The song – “Mirage.”  This album is a physical relic of that time that I can hold in my hand, “Mirage” is the song that has crossed through time.  I want to be one of those kids dancing on the crowded studio floor as Dick Clark stands at his podium, holding court to his little piece of television kingdom.  For some reason that I’ve never quite understood, I think that little sliver in time is the most desirable moment in the history of the universe.  It might seem insignificant or even corny to most people, but to me it’s perfect.

Screen shot of American Bandstand from May 6th, 1967. The most perfect sliver of time in history? Maybe.

Am I crazy?  I just might be.  One night in late 2020 I came home after some art event, and I’m plucking away on my computer and I want to listen to some Paul Revere and the Raiders, which leads me to a YouTube video of Mark Lindsay being interviewed on “Bandstand.”  As I putter away with whatever work I’m doing, the video ends and  segways into  more “Bandstand” videos including a three minute video which captures my imagination.

“And here we go with American Bandstand on a Saturday,” Dick Clark announces.  “Tommy James and the Shondells!”  A vaugly familuar song plays, an audience of kids, looking slightly bored at first, get to their feet from the studio seating and take the dancefloor like its serious business:

Various Artists – Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock n’ Roll (1973) To celebrate 20 years of “American Bandstand.” Buddah Records released this double lp and had Dick Clark choose one song for each year that “Bandstand” had aired up to that date. Representing 1968 Clark picked Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover.”

“I see you standing in the alleys and the hallways
(Wait a second)
You’re gone now
I run to touch you, but you vanish through the doorway
And, oh, how
Hard it is to live without you
I love everything about you

Now I know you’re really gone
But my imagination is so strong
That I see you coming into view
And your face is telling me that you”

I recognize the song, but I feel like I’m really hearing it for the first time.  Honestly, its never been one I’ve ever paid any attention to it but now it’s the best song in the world.

“Oh, yeah, oh, want to be by my side
Oh, yeah, oh, now it’s finally time
(Wait a second)

Mirage, that’s all you are to me
Mirage, something I only see.”

After the three minute video is over, I press play again.  Dick Clark and announcer Charlie O’Donnell have their lame unfunny banter, which seems to go on for so long, and, once again, those kids hit the dance floor.  The girls are pretty, the boys are slick.  They are dressed so smartly.  They look like a dancing vintage Sears catalogue.  I stare at each dancer’s facial expressions, dance moves.  Some of those kids are really good dancers.  Others are pretty awkward.  There are the kids who try to get the attention of the camera, the kids who nervously look away, the kids who try so hard not noticing that the camera has noticed them.  Some are taking it very seriously, some seem like they are having the time of their life.  Its quaint, kind of dorky, almost sweet.  The kids are all good looking, but not models.  This isn’t Canterbury Street.  These kids could be the ones that lived on our street, went to our school.  These could have been my friends in a different place in time.

The studio audience on May 6, 1967 look almost bored, but when Tommy James and the Shondells start they hit the dance floor and its all business. Who are these kids? What are their individual stories?

And I start to wonder, “Who are these kids?  What are their names?  What is their story?”  For three minutes they are just black and white images of kids on a Saturday afternoon dancing on “Bandstand,” but this was way over fifty five years ago.  Today the average kid in this clip, if they are even still alive, would be between 72 and 75 years old.  Each one of them lived an entire lifetime and had an entire story of their own.  An entire lifetime that I’ll never know beyond this little three-minute moment in time from 1967.  But in the video they are forever dancing, forever young, forever alive.  As the video ended, I pressed play again. 

I watched the video again and again that night, well into the small hours of the morning.  I was filled with some sort of emotion, but it was hard to determine what it was or why I was having it.  It was just some sort of longing for a moment in time I could never have.

The guests on “American Bandstand” on May 6, 1967 were The Electric Prunes and Brenda Holloway, and on the Hot Line was Jeff Beck promoting his first solo single, “Hi Ho Silver Lining.”

As the weeks continue I found myself going back to that YouTube video again and again, studying every aspect of it.  I must have watched it over a hundred times.  I also went on to watch other “Bandstand” videos too, and cultivating a love for it.  Honestly, until this moment I wasn’t a “Bandstand” watcher.  I grew up in the 80’s, and I didn’t relate to the big haired and perfectly tanned kids with their bright teeth and even brighter eyes, dancing to the camera for attention, and seemingly never with anyone else.  They looked like the kids who attempted to bully me in school.  I didn’t like those kids.  As I grew older and began to study vintage music videos and performances I watched pretty much everything except “American Bandstand.”  I preferred “Top of the Pops, “Shin-Dig,” Hullabaloo,” “Soul Train,” “Beat Club” and “Midnight Special.”  These shows were more hip.  More cool.  There was something cutting edge about them compared to what my perception of “American Bandstand” was.

“American Bandstand” regulars Peggy Waggoner and Frank Vanderpul, who won the 1967 edition of the dance contest. Frank and Peggy have become my defacto favorite dancers to look for when watching “Bandstand” videos.

And now, here I am in my late 40’s, watching “Bandstand” videos between the key years of 1966 to 1970 through the night on my laptop long after Griz has gone to sleep beside me.  Thank god Griz can sleep through anything, and puts up with my strange flights of fancy.  As I watch these grainy clips I scour the dance floor for the same faces in the “Mirage” clip, and I pay attention to their names in roll calls, Rate the Record and Spot Light dances.  Slowly I start be able to put some names to some faces- Frank Vanderpul, Peggy Waggoner, Marcia Silverman, Judy and Mark Gordon, Judy Prentiss, Becky Murphy, Stan Soburn, Roni Menaker, Don Sanuskar, John Pollard, Mark Santos, Pat Moriarty, Maureen Cohen, Leonard Smith, Jim Miranda, Norm Mull, Sue Rose, Kathy Greenwalt, Famous Hooks, June Strode, Olivia Favela, Eddie Sanchez, Frank DiVirgilia, Sharon Bell, Mike Kline, DeeDee Decampos, Lauren Montgomery.  Its just a list of names, meaning little to anyone else, but their faces and expressions burn into my brain.  Soon I have a list of my own favorites who I love to watch dance.  I’m a forty-seven-year-old man watching fifty seven year old “American Bandstand” clips at one in the morning, but in my heart I’ve become 60’s era fifteen year old watching “Bandstand” on an old console TV unit in my parents wood paneled family room.  I’ve become a person I never was in a time I didn’t exist in in a place I’ve never been. 

I found myself filled with a desire to find out everything there was to know about that day on “Bandstand.”  The guests in the studio were The Electric Prunes and Brenda Holloway.  Jeff Beck was on the Hotline.  The top song on the American Bandstand chart was “The Happening” by the Supremes.  Dick asks the kids about their opinion on abstract art with much cynicism.  Theres a demonstration of a strobe light.  The kids dance to The Animals, The Music Explosion, Ronnie Dove and The Bob Crewe Generation.  But the center piece for me keeps going back to “Mirage.”  Of course, I do the deep dive on the song.

Although The Shondells had many line up changes through their existance, in 1967 thier lineup included Tommy James, Pete Lucia, Mike Vale, Ed Gray and Ronnie Rosman.

During the recording of “I Think I’m Alone Now,” the album’s producer Bo Gentry goes to play the master tape, which is on a reel to reel recorder, but accidently plays it backwards.  The band thought that the backward chord progression sounded really groovy, and they start jamming that out.  Contacting “I Think We’re Alone Now” writer Ritchie Cordell, they get him to write lyrics for the new song.  “Mirage” became the second single from the album and had moderate success, going all the way to #10 on the Billboard charts.  Although a successful single, the song never became as popular as some of the Shondelle’s monster hits like “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Crimson and Clover,” “Mony Mony,” or “Crystal Blue Persuasion.”  While I never paid attention to it before, “Mirage” has managed to pin itself tightly to my soul as a conduit to that moment in time.  I change my phone ring tone from Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” to “Mirage.”  Now, every time my phone rings I am suddenly being sent back to May 6, 1967 and its time to dance.

If I could dance with any of the girls, it’d have been with Judy Gordon. I like her spunk, and she looks like she’s having fun. The irony is that I don’t like to dance. I never have.

The irony of this is that I’ve never liked to dance.  Ever since the other  kids laughed at me at a seventh grade school dance  I’ve hated dancing.  I feel awkward and stupid and I don’t know what to do with my legs or arms.  The only time I dance is when nobody is there to see me.  For someone who loves music as much as I do, you’d think I’d love to dance, but I don’t.  But when watching the kids on “Bandstand” I realize that, hey, maybe I could dance like that.  I might not be one of the good dancers, but I bet I’m better than the worst of them.  Theres just enough guys bouncing round looking awkward that maybe I’d fit in.  This isn’t “Soul Train.”

As my obsession with “American Bandstand” increases, I start writing down my thoughts, feelings, and observations about these clips.  I’m trying to get an interview with Tommy James and The Electric Prunes. I’m reaching out to the people on the “American Bandstand” social; media groups, and writing to the small handful of “Bandstand ’67” regulars that I could track down.  I eventually write about a hundred pages of material.  It doesn’t translate well.  I can’t find a narrative, and it sounds more like the delusional rantings of a madman watching YouTube long through the night and longing for a place and time he never knew.  Is this what I’ve come to?  Am I mad?  I decide that it’s better that this document never sees the light of day.

American Bandstand regular Don Sanuskar takes to the dance floor in the opening moments of the “Mirage” video.

Then, one night in early 2022 I am on the phone with someone who was actually there.  As Griz is on a conference call in the living room, I’m sitting in an unheated storage room and wrapped in my favorite blanket with my phone propped on boxes and a digital recorder taping a conversation with  longtime “Bandstand” regular Don Sanuskar.  He’s not heavily featured in the “Mirage” video, but I can point him out at one point.  He’s now In his 70’s, as my math figured, and he lives in Nevada.  He talks fondly about dancing on “Bandstand” and says it was some of the happiest times of his life.  I don’t doubt it.  I can easily find him in other videos and he’s one of the best dancers.

A song I previously barely paid attention to “Mirage” has become one of the important songs of my life. A hit for Tommy James and the Shondells, it peaked at #10 on the Billboard charts, but failed to become on of thier best known songs.

We have a lovely conversation but Don says something that really sticks with me.  He points out that the way the kids in the studio are dressed and act and wear their hair is a saturated version of who all of them really were.  Everybody is dressed in their finest clothes as if they are going to church, or a wedding, or a bar mitzvah or something.  The boys have short hair, the girls’ skirts are a respectable length.  There is no bangles or beads, political gestures, or radical symbols.  But in reality, its 1967 and America is on fire.  Boys are being killed in Viet Nam, there are riots in the streets, protests on campus, civil rights movements in cities across America.  These are the things that the kids on the dance floor, just like kids all over the country, are concerned with, but showing this reality is not the mandate of ABC-TV.  They want to create their own reality, which is clean cut, non-threatening kids who just want to dance on a Saturday afternoon.  Is this saturated version of 1960’s America what I dream about?  I’d like to think I’m not that conservative or shallow.  But it reveals something to me, Perhaps I just long for an innocent time that doesn’t even exist where all there is to do is listen to 60’s pop music and dance.  As I continue to watch “Bandstand” for the next year, I have to remind myself of this constantly. Even if I could go back in time, this perfect moment never was as innocent and perfect as it seems.  It’s just a façade of its own.  It’s  just a mirage.

“Just a mirage, that’s all you are to me
Just a mirage, something that I only see.”

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