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(Credit: Far Out / Pixabay / Annie Spratt / Jazmin Quaynor)

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Rebel Without a Cause: Was James Dean the first pop culture punk?

@TomTaylorFO

When Yukio Mishima, the Japanese novelist, actor 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.” 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 dangerous 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 determined to avoid the beset of wrinkles. 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. 

A decade earlier, the leading Hollywood frontman had been Humphrey Bogart. When he starred in Casablanca, he was 43. This was standard fare for Hollywood in that era. Society was stern, kids were being shipped off to slaughter in their droves in wars beyond reconciliation and there was very little cause for playfulness. Men in smart suits with furrowed brows and well-dressed women with their wits self-evidently about them were almost a comforting reflection of the backbone of society for the beleaguered masses in need of some gentle entertainment. 

However, when the Second World War ended, society was flushed with new technologies, a surplus of drugs and a generation of kids with new ideals and every reason to believe that they were better than the old hat traditions that had failed them so fatally. In came the cultural movement of the beats. When asked to define the ‘Beat Generation’, Jack Kerouac simply used one word: “Sympathetic.” The era of stern folks in nice hats seemed to be over, in came pop culture and the zeitgeist of bohemians. And as William S Burroughs wrote: “Artists to my mind are the real architects of change and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact.”

By the middle of the 1950s, sexual liberation became a force that challenged the ideologies of sex. The arts in all of its guises were at the forefront of this. Rock ‘n’ roll played such a hand, in fact, that when the snake-hips of Elvis Presley were in full swing in 1956, it led CBS towards the decree that he was only to be filmed from the waist up following his gyrating antics on The Ed Sullivan Show in order the limit the glare of his illuminating bulge. 

Elvis’ appearance, however, was predated by almost a year exactly by another youthful poster boy, James Dean in the ever-iconic Rebel Without a Cause. Now, the plot of the film might not seem too dissimilar from your average episode of 90210, but in 1955 the Teddy Boys sent top hats into a tizzy. Not only was this a daring teen movie that debased old morals, but it was one that came with the backing of Warner Bros. Openly rebellious art, for almost the first time, was proving profitable. 

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The film was fierce, sexy and sleek. The kids sported haircuts that Tom Thumb could surf on, branded flick knives and proudly disobeyed parents and the law. The liberated sexual undercurrent was palpable to proceedings and ‘Live fast and die Young’ may as well have been the tagline. Instead, the producers opted for: “James Dean, the bad boy from a good family. Warner Bros.’ challenging drama of today’s teenage violence!” Now there’s a proto-punk line if you’ve ever heard one!

Twenty years later, when punk dropped the proto and entered full swing, a young Patti Smith working as a journalist went to review the up-and-coming band Television. In her critique afterwards, she wrote: “Confused sexual energy makes young guys so desirable; their careless way of dressing; their strange way of walking; filled with so much longing. Just relentlessly adolescent.” Unbeknownst to her, 20 years earlier a critic had used the phrase “relentlessly adolescent” to describe Rebel Without a Cause, albeit in a disparaging sense. 

The footnote, of course, is that there was simply nothing that critics could do or say to stop the rising tide of pop culture. James Dean’s swaggering outlaw protagonist marked the grand youthful rebellion of pop culture that was arriving alongside technicolour technology and stereo sound to blow the old ways out of the water and extinguish the tired lesson of their forebearers under a scuffed-up sauntering bootheel like a discarded cigarette.

Naturally, not everything related to adolescence in the dawning of youth culture can be dubbed punk, but James Dean seemed to go about his role in Rebel Without a Cause so riotously that it is hard to see him as anything other than being simply three days without a wash away from fronting The Stooges. 

Following the success of his performance, movies like Blackboard Jungle would also come to light. One day fellow proto-punk Bob Dylan would see that feature. “Bob couldn’t believe it. We were walking home past the Alice School,” his school friend Leroy Hoikkala recalls, “and he kept saying, ‘This is really great! This is exactly what we’ve been trying to tell people about ourselves!’” Less than ten years later, Dylan would extol the same revealing virtues of a generation determined to go about things their own way.

When the punk movement burst into bloom and disavowed the virtuosity of art making it less about elitism and more about having something to say, Patti Smith declared that punk was about the following: “Freedom to create, freedom to be successful, freedom to not be successful, freedom to be who you are.” It is a message that James Dean screams throughout in his Promethean maelstrom of punk attitude.

What’s more, I haven’t even mentioned the name of his protagonist (Jim Stark) because quite frankly, exhibiting a tenet of punk, the performance was a reflection of himself. As Martin Sheen said: “All of his movies had a profound effect on my life, in my work and all of my generation. He transcended cinema acting. It was no longer acting, it was human behaviour.”