When Yukio Mishima, the Japanese novelist, actor, bodybuilder, government overthrower and eternal enigma, was reflecting on the death of James Dean, he wrote: “The beautiful should die young, and everyone else should live as long as possible”. It’s as pithy as it is problematic.
Mishima elucidated his point further, adding: “Greek mythology tells of how Achilles was forced to choose between a long life void of glory and a glorious young death. Without flinching, he chose the latter. Surely all but the most prosaic men, if given the choice at the start of life, would do the same”.
Aside from the obviously nettlesome and condemnable elements of his staunch statement, it does seem to contain within it the prognosis for punk. It was a movement determined to live fast and fated to die young. It looked like nothing the world had ever seen and was more determined to avoid the onset of wrinkles than a Nivea advert.
In 1955, pretty much at the birth of pop culture, James Dean embodied a character who seemed to have all of the tenets of punk already in place, when he starred as the collar-popped pretty-faced proto-punk Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause. This was 20 years before it would be fully worked out by music, but aside from the sound, the attitude was there.
For millions of youthful movie-goers watching on amazed, the film seemed to herald what novels like Catcher in the Rye had hinted at a few years earlier: kids wanted their own realistic stories. But kids also had their own ideals. They might not have been certain what these ideals were just yet, but they were certainly after something. James Dean gave a cool, commercial face to this notion of iconoclasm.
As such, James Dean inspired a legion of onlookers who later worked his trailblazing style into their own youth movement in the pop culture explosion that changed the world forever. When that wellspring unfurled into the future, Dean remained relevant owing to his undeniable level of ‘cool’ and he has been reflected on ever since. He was punk in the same way Blondie was punk, in a seized notion of youthful vigour.
Their anthem ‘Fade Away and Radiate’ might not mention James Dean but the line “Dusty frames that still arrive, die in 1955” gives a hint at the star in question on Debbie Harry’s TV screen who is still illuminating the future long after his death on September 30th, 1955. As Dean once said himself in a worrying portent of his life: “If a man can bridge the gap between life and death, if he can live after he’s died, then maybe he was a great man. Immortality is the only true success.”
This eerie early Blondie anthem might be about falling asleep in front of the TV on the surface, that idea doubles up as a handy poetic metaphor for the lasting impact of pop culture. While in the song the TV beams might enter Harry’s dreams, in reality, the same could be said about the way that millions aspire to be like their pop culture heroes. The attraction of fame was in the airways and radiating.