James Dean and A Manchester Record Store

James DeanMany years ago in my mid-teens I was in Manchester doing pretty much what I have always done, then and now, whenever I have free time on a Saturday, either looking at records in a music store or looking at books in a book shop.

In 2015 there are not many record stores left; the whole culture of buying records is a different ball game these days, downloading instead of taking home a hard physical copy. Anyway, that’s a whole different blog. To get back to this one, back in that record shop I’d thumbed through the discs, checked out all the cheap records and then began flipping through the posters. This must have been mid-seventies so the posters were people like David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Elton John, Rod Stewart but there was one poster of a man in his mid-twenties wearing a white t-shirt and jeans. He was pulling a moody sort of look but there was something about him that was interesting. Anyway, he turned out to be an actor that I’d never heard of and the shop assistant pointed out a book about him in the store, a paperback, so I picked it up and read about the actor’s life. He was called James Dean.

James Dean courtesy wikipedia.

James Dean courtesy wikipedia.

Dean was born in Indiana and his mother died of cancer when Dean was only nine years old. There is a haunting passage in that paperback I bought that tells of how Dean’s father, Winton, sent little Jimmy Dean back to his Aunt and Uncle’s home in Indiana on the train carrying his mother’s coffin. Jimmy was brought up in Marion, Indiana by his Aunt Ortense and Uncle Marcus and later went to college to study acting.

His first movie was East of Eden directed by Elia Kazan who had introduced method acting to the American stage and had worked with Marlon Brando in ‘A Streetcar named Desire’. ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ was Dean’s second cinematic outing. Directed by Nick Ray it is probably Dean’s most iconic film. This is the movie in which he wears his famous outfit of red jacket, white t-shirt, and jeans.

His third and final movie was ‘Giant’ in which he stars with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson and plays Texan bad boy Jett Rink. Dean was killed in a car crash only days after finishing shooting. He was a keen amateur racer and had bought a new Porsche speedster only days earlier. The car, nicknamed ‘little bastard’ had collided with another vehicle, a station wagon at the junction of route 41 and 466. Dean suffered a broken neck and was declared dead on arrival at a hospital in Paso Robles.

I was looking through my old VHS videos the other day and I came across a documentary called ‘James Dean’s last day’. It’s an interesting film and a sad one too as it counts down Dean’s last hours, his leaving Hollywood and his departure for a racing event at Salinas. There are so many ‘if onlys’ that unfold before me as I watch the film: I keep thinking if only Dean had left the Porsche on the trailer instead of driving it to the race track. If only the speeding ticket he was given a few hours earlier had made him slow down. If only a man called Donald Turnupseed had seen Dean and not turned across him. Such a shame, such a tragedy. Dean, I’m sure, would have gone on to make so many more great films and perhaps would even have directed some too.

I’m not sure why a council house boy from Northern England should connect so closely with James Dean, an American actor but back in the seventies Dean became one of my personal heroes. I remember going to a cinema in Oxford road to see back to back showings of East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause on a very hot summers day. I bought a soundtrack album of those movies too, in the days before video and DVD. Dean was a counterpoint to actors like Richard Burton; he mumbled and mispronounced things. I think that was what I liked about him, he was natural and imperfect. He had an image more rock star than 50’s actor. There was a great documentary about him made in the 70s and the music of the times, Bowie and Elton John featured heavily. Anyone remember that eagles track ‘James Dean?’

Today, years later, thousands of fans make pilgrimages every year to see Dean’s home in Fairmount, Indiana, and to the intersection on highway 466 where he died. At his graveside in Fairmount fans chisel away bits of his gravestone for mementos and a bust of Dean by the sculptor Kenneth Kendall was ripped from its plinth. In 1977 a Japanese businessman named Seita Ohnishi had a chromium sculpture erected at the crash site on highway 466 in memory of Dean.

So why do people still hanker after James Dean all these years later? Well, I simply don’t know. As a young man I thought Dean was the epitome of cool and like many others I made him into my hero. Whilst doing some research about Jimmy Dean I came across this line on another site: “Some people are living lodestones. They get under the skin of people. You can’t explain why.” I can’t disagree.

Still, heroes come and heroes fade away. My heroes today are not the ones I used to love and worship thirty years ago. The thing is though, after writing this essay about Jimmy Dean I felt that I must find the time to look at some of his films again. Did I happen to mention what I bought in the HMV sale not long ago? The James Dean Box Set. Perhaps old heroes never completely fade away.


If you liked this blog, why not try my book, Floating in Space, set in Manchester, 1977? Click here to go to my amazon page or click the links at the top of this post for more information.

 

 

 

 

10 Things you didn’t know about American Pie

71WZbVhqbkL._SL1300b_Well, here’s the first thing that perhaps you didn’t know; The lyrics to American Pie, or more correctly, writer Don McLean’s sixteen page original draft of the song was sold recently at an auction in the USA for 1.2 million dollars, that’s £806, 000 for us here in the UK. That’s a hell of a lot for a few song lyrics but to be fair, American Pie has the most interesting and fascinating lyrics of any pop song ever.

American Pie debuted in 1972 and reached number 2 in the UK charts. I didn’t really get interested in music until 1973 when I started buying singles but also, in that same year, a magazine was launched in the UK called ‘the Story of Pop’ and in one of the issues there was a lengthy article about the song and what it meant and ever since then I’ve been fascinated by the lyrics and what they may or may not mean.

The day the music died

This is generally thought to refer to Buddy Holly’s sad death in 1959 at the age of 22. Holly was only at the beginning of his career and would have gone on to greater success. Even so, he was inducted into the rock n roll hall of fame in 1986.

The Jester

The Jester is Bob Dylan and the coat he borrowed from James Dean can be seen on the cover of Dylan’s album ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.’

The King

The King is of course the King of rock n roll, Elvis Presley, and it was his crown that the Jester stole when the King was looking down.

The beginning of the song looks back to a golden time for Don McLean, the fifties and the birth of rock n roll and artists like Presley and Holly. The sixties gave birth to a new freedom for young people and it was expressed in music and in the use of drugs like marihuana. No wonder the ‘half time air was sweet perfume!’

The Sergeants played a marching tune

The Beatles are the Sergeants, fresh, no doubt, from their Sergeant Pepper album.

I saw Satan laughing with delight, the day the music died

Jack Flash is the Rolling Stone’s Mick Jagger and it is he that Mclean sees as Satan. ‘No angel born in hell could break that Satan’s spell.’

This part of the song refers to the Rolling Stones’ concert at Altamont Speedway in northern California. The event was a free one and was anticipated as a sort of ‘Woodstock west’. Various bands played including Santana, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and The Grateful Dead. The fans however, were stoned on drugs and drink and the atmosphere deteriorated, so much so that the Grateful Dead declined to play. The local chapter of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang were hired, supposedly, to take care of security but they later denied this and said they had been promised $500 dollars’ worth of beer merely to keep people away from the stage.

During the concert a fan by the name of Meredith Hunter was killed by a Hells Angel. Hunter had tried to get on the stage during the Stones performance and the Hells Angels had pushed him away. Hunter returned and pulled out a revolver from his jacket. Hells Angel Alan Pissaro charged Hunter; pushed the gun aside and stabbed him. The incident was caught by a film crew which helped Pissaro’s self-defence plea later on in court. Pisarro was acquitted. The clock had turned full circle from the innocence of the fifties to the disillusionment of the late sixties and Don Mclean’s classic song is a wonderful and lyrical evocation of the times.

Click on the video below and enjoy American Pie for yourself.


Floating in Space is a novel by Steve Higgins set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

If Only . .

Just looking through my old videos the other day and I came across a documentary about James Dean called ‘James Dean’s last day’. It’s an interesting film and a sad one too as it counts down Dean’s last day, his leaving Hollywood and his departure for a racing event at Salinas. If you don’t know much about Dean then you won’t know he was an amateur racing driver and was killed in a car crash in his new Porsche.There are so many ifs and as I watch the film I keep thinking if only Dean had left the Porsche on the trailer instead of driving it to the race track. If only the speeding ticket he was given had made him slow down. If only a man called Donald Turnupseed had seen Dean and not turned across him. Such a shame, such a tragedy. Dean, I’m sure, would have gone on to make so many great films and one day he would have directed some too.

Racing driver Ayrton Senna is a man would have gone on to greater things too, more world championships and more race wins. I even read something by Ron Dennis the other day in which the McLaren boss said that Senna had political ambitions too. Could he have run for the Brazilian Presidency? We’ll never know because Senna was killed at San Marino in 1994 and we are left only with the on car video pictures of him as his car slipped from under him and hurtled towards the crash barrier. The on car pictures fail before the final moments of impact when a suspension arm was flung back and pierced his helmet, causing his death.

A video that did show someone’s final moments was one I saw the other day. I was lying outside in the sun and I could hear a video playing on Liz’s I-pad. It was a woman talking about her son’s motorbike crash and hoping the video would help other road users, particularly car drivers who need to look out for bikes. I was reading a book at the time and the video distracted me, then I heard the sound of the bike, the rushing of the wind and then the impact.

“What was that?” I asked, “Was the crash filmed?”

Indeed it was. The rider was wearing a helmet camera and his fatal crash had been recorded. Later I took a look for myself. The rider was a relatively young man, only thirty eight years old and the video starts off as he waves goodbye to his friends at an air base and immediately he leaves the car park he is gunning his bike very, very, fast. As his mother talks sadly about her lost son, holding back the tears we cut again to her son, riding extremely fast and passing cars quickly on a single carriageway road. He pulls out and slips quickly past a car. As he pulls back in front of the car he reaches a junction, another car pulls across to turn right in front of him and he has only time to shout ‘No’ and he hits the car and tumbles onto the verge. The impact is shocking, so shocking I awoke last night still thinking off it. The rider had been doing 97 mph and had no chance whatsoever of surviving or avoiding the crash. Why was he going so fast? If only he had tucked in behind the car at the junction he would have avoided the crash altogether.

These are questions without answers. Riding a bike very fast is exhilarating and exciting but a rider needs to be so very aware of what he is doing, what is happening ahead and he must react so much quicker than a car driver as he is so much more vulnerable. Listening to the video, as I first did when it played on Liz’s I-pad, it seemed to me that the clip was aimed at motorists who do not look properly, who do not check properly for other vehicles before turning. After actually watching the video it is clear that the speed of the rider, 97mph on a sixty mph road, was the main factor in the accident and it meant that the rider had no time almost to react other than to hit his brakes. Still, if the car driver had taken a second look up the road, a second glance, he might have seen the bike and stopped. If only.

I’ve had a few scary moments on my motorbikes but I don’t think I ever hit 97 mph, even on the motorway but then I’m not sure the 125 and 250cc bikes I had could go that fast. At work they used to call me the fair weather rider because if it was raining I would always get the bus to work. When I bought  my first car I hung up my helmet for good apart from a brief fling with a Kawasaki 500 when I had split up with my girlfriend.

The car driver was prosecuted and had his licence suspended for 18 months and was also sentenced to 130 hours of community work. The Bike rider lost his entire life, his whole future that was ahead of him, gone, just like that of James Dean and Ayrton Senna. He wasn’t a famous man and wouldn’t have, I suppose, made any great movies or won any motor races but he would have married, perhaps had children and gone on to live a happy, contented life. All lost in a single moment.

A Manchester record store and James Dean

Many years ago in my mid-teens I was in Manchester doing pretty much what I have always done, then and now, whenever I have free time on a Saturday, either looking at records in a music store or looking at books in a book shop.

In 2014 there are not many record stores left; the whole culture of buying records is a different ball game these days, downloading instead of taking home a hard physical copy. Anyway, that’s a whole different blog. To get back to this one, back in that record shop I’d thumbed through the discs, checked out all the cheap records and then began flipping through the posters. This must have been mid-seventies so the posters were people like David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Elton John, Rod Stewart but there was one poster of a man in his mid-twenties wearing a white tee shirt and jeans. He was pulling a moody sort of look but there was something about him that was interesting. Anyway, he turned out to be an actor that I’d never heard of and the shop assistant pointed out a book about him in the store, a paperback, so I picked it up and read about the actor’s life. He was called James Dean.

James Dean courtesy wikipedia.

James Dean courtesy wikipedia.

Dean was born in Indiana and his mother died of cancer when Dean was only nine years old. There is a haunting passage in that paperback I bought that tells of how Dean’s father, Winton, sent little Jimmy Dean back to his Aunt and Uncle’s home in Indiana on the train carrying his mother’s coffin. Jimmy was brought up in Marion, Indiana by his Aunt Ortense and Uncle Marcus and later went to college to study acting.

His first movie was East of Eden directed by Elia Kazan who had introduced method acting to the American stage and had worked with Marlon Brando in ‘A Streetcar named Desire’. ‘Rebel Without a cause’ was Dean’s next movie. Directed by Nick Ray it is probably Dean’s most iconic film. This is the movie in which Dean wears his famous outfit of red jacket, white t shirt, and jeans.

His third and last movie was ‘Giant’ in which he stars with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson and plays Texan bad boy Jett Rink. Dean was killed in car crash only days after finishing shooting. He was a keen amateur racer and had bought a new Porsche speedster only days earlier. The car, nicknamed ‘little bastard’ had collided with another vehicle, a station wagon at the junction of route 41 and 466. Dean suffered a broken neck and was declared dead on arrival at a hospital in Paso Robles.

I’m not sure why a council house boy from Northern England should connect so closely with James Dean, an American actor. but back in the seventies Dean became one of my personal heroes. I remember going to a cinema in Oxford road to see back to back showings of East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause on a very hot summers day. I bought a soundtrack album of those movies too, in the days before video and DVD. Dean was a counterpoint to actors like Richard Burton, he mumbled and mispronounced things. I think that was what I liked about him, he was natural and imperfect. He had an image more rock star than 50s actor. There was a great documentary about him made in the 70s and the music of the times, Bowie and Elton John featured heavily. Anyone remember that eagles track ‘James Dean?’

Well, after writing this quick essay about Jimmy Dean I must find the time to take a look at some of his films again. Did I happen to mention what I bought in the HMV sale not long ago? The James Dean Box set, but I’m sure you had guessed that anyway. .