ROLLING STONE COLUMN #73: REFLECTIONS ON AMERICA’S FIRST TEENAGER

“Dream as if you’ll live forever, Live as if you’ll die today. . . .” –James Dean

When I had just turned eight years old, I was riding along the perfect new L.A. freeway in our ’48 Ford, my head in my mama’s lap and my feet in my daddy’s. It was dusk and the sky was turning pale violet, and this little girl didn’t have a care in the wide, wide world. Frank Sinatra was crooning on the radio when suddenly a voice broke through, shattering the perfection, “I am sorry to have to report that actor, James Dean was killed in a highway accident this evening on route 446.” It was September 30, 1955. My mom shook her head sadly, “Oh, how sad, he was so young…”

“Who was James Dean, mama?”

Good question. People have been trying to figure that out ever since. At such a tender age, I had not yet experienced death, and was instantly curious about the young actor, this shooting star who was important enough to stop Sinatra in mid-croon.

For the next few weeks, all the silver screen magazines had James Dean’s glorious high-cheekboned puss plastered on their covers and I bought every one of them. The stories inside held intriguing facts about this audacious outsider from a tiny town in Indiana, who came to shake things up and change acting forevermore. He had only been in 3 films, “East of Eden,” Rebel Without a Cause” (which cemented his eternal teen rebelhood) and “Giant,” which he had barely finished before his little silver Porsche Spyder was hit head-on by a big bulky station wagon driven by a sorry fellow with the hapless name of Donald Turnupseed.

There are only a handful of icons that continue to make zillions after their demise – Elvis (of course), Marilyn Monroe…and James Dean. His moody visage brings in about 5 million every year. He still inspires creative souls to take chances, take risks, take the bull by the horns and climb on. Apparently Elvis was such a massive fan that he knew every single word of Dean’s films, and whenever he uttered a line, the King expected his cronies to respond with the very next line-or they were in Trouble with a capital T. So besides raising the bar in acting, it’s very possible that James Dean also helped create rock and roll.

In 1956, the first book (of many) about Dean was released, “James Dean” by his former roommate, William Bast. I chewed and swallowed every word about his short, troubled, determined life and stared at the photos with bleeding teenage sorrow until I couldn’t breathe. I was devastated by this huge loss and carried a tattered photo of his headstone around in my pink plastic wallet for years, dreaming of the day I could put flowers on his grave in the small Midwestern town of Fairmount, Indiana. The goofy, gangly boys at my Junior High School could never measure up to the dead, holy perfection of James Byron Dean. 1931-1955.

Long before every household had a VCR, I would set my alarm whenever one of his movies played on TV in the middle of the night, and swoon all by myself in the dark, wishing I could be Julie Harris or Natalie Wood. “I Looo-ooove somebody” she whispered, gazing into the rebel’s dreamy blue eyes. And so did I.

I have always felt a cosmic connection to James Dean. When my son was born in 1978, we called him Nicholas Dean Des Barres, not even realizing that the day he came into the world was September 30.

It took me decades, but ten years ago, I finally made it to Fairmount, Indiana. I had finished three books, and decided to do some kind of James Dean project, which eventually turned into a short story in the collection, “Carved in Rock,” and a screenplay called “Kills the Cat.” I had interviewed many of his friends, even spending an entire week with his best chum, Lew Bracker, in Kansas City. By this time I was calling him “Jimmy,” like all of his pals did. I had been having intense dreams about him, in which he invited me into his psyche, divulging his acting technique in a very personal, humorous and vivid way. I had his signature tattooed on the back of my neck, and it felt like I’d been branded.

When my friend and I pulled up at the small graveyard in front of Jimmy’s small headstone in Fairmount, it was dusk once more, and there were two people tending the grave, who turned out to be his cousin, Marcus Winslow and his wife Mary Lou. Marcus takes care of Jimmy’s estate and still lives in the house where Jimmy grew up. The timing was impeccable which didn’t really surprise me. It was Jimmy at work. I could just see his sly dimpled smile up there in rebel heaven. Marcus invited us to the farmhouse where I got to sit in Jimmy’s childhood room. With my heart pounding I held his record albums, (One was “Hello Young Lovers” by Sinatra) and looked through his writing and artwork. Touching his things, my hands throbbed and felt like they were on fire. It is one of my fondest memories in this lifetime or any other. I had finally made it to James Dean’s bedroom.

Since that first trip, I have been to Fairmount at least 20 times. I can’t get enough. I have made forever friends with many of the locals, and actually consider the town my home away from home. I’m making another trip there next week, for the annual celebration of his short life. I’ll check out all the 50s cars, don my dancing frock and hang out with all my Dean pals–but when evening falls, I’ll walk through the violet dusk to Jimmy’s gravesite, I will lay down in the grass and commune with the ghost of my favorite rebel, America’s First Teenager.

“I think there is only one form of greatness
for man.  If a man can bridge the gap
between life and death. I mean, if he can live
on after he has died, then maybe he was a great
man. To me the only success, the only
greatness, is immortality.”

–James Dean

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