The date was September 30, 1955. Rising young actor James Dean was killed in a traffic accident in California at age 24. Although his life overlapped what we consider to be the rock era by only a few months, he was a rock star before there was such a thing.
James Dean had The Look. Do a Google Images search and you’ll see it. Photos of a smiling Dean are comparatively rare — more often he seems to be sullen, brooding, skeptical, even tortured. It’s the look of the outsider. In early-’50s Hollywood, Dean was an outsider, too young to remember how things had always been done in the film capital, and in the forefront of the new “method” style that was changing the actor’s craft. He wanted success and fame, but he intended to get it his way.
The rock-star parallel is that the greatest musicians have always viewed themselves as outsiders. In early photographs of [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Bob Dylan[/lastfm] and [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]John Lennon[/lastfm], James Dean’s outsider look is there. Dylan and Lennon would have grown up with Dean’s famous films, and as children of the ’50s, they weren’t the only ones. The 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause set an enduring template for the alienated teenager. Millions of teens watched the film and either realized what they were, or became what they saw. So The Look is not merely a look musicians have worn from [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Elvis Presley[/lastfm] forward. It’s a look teenagers have worn from James Dean forward. (You may have seen it across your own breakfast table this morning.)
During the last months of his life, Dean became fascinated with auto racing. The director of what would be his final film, Giant, forbade him from racing while filming went on. He was driving his car to a race in northern California when he crashed it into an oncoming car. The Indiana native was 24 years old.
Dean’s iconography inspires not just Dylan and Lennon but rockers everywhere, even those who hadn’t been born when Dean took his last ride. His image has been evoked by dozens of performers from [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Lou Reed[/lastfm] and [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Billy Joel [/lastfm]to [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Jay-Z[/lastfm] and [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Madonna[/lastfm]. You can probably guess our favorite, recorded live at the California Jam concert in 1974.