James Dean, Bob Dylan, and the Spyder’s Curse

Fred Bals
Fred Bals
Sep 12 · 15 min read

James Dean, man. Three movies, and then he was gone, just like that. Dead before Rebel Without a Cause was even released.

There was a time when James Dean was the embodiment of teenage angst and juvenile delinquency, thanks to Rebel. That staid grey lady, The New York Times, flipped out in its review of Rebel, calling it “a picture to make hair stand on end,” “violent, brutal and disturbing,” and “an excessively graphic depiction of teen-agers” complete with scenes depicting a “horrifying duel with switchblades,” and a “shocking presentation of a ‘chicky run’ ” in stolen automobiles.”

Teenagers of 1955 loved the movie, not least because whether the “graphic depiction of teen-agers” was accurate, it didn’t matter. Rebel depicted how the average disaffected American teenager of 1955 felt.

In the basement den, Bob tried to explain that he had stayed to see part of the movie over again. He talked about James Dean and waved his hand towards the walls covered with pasted-up photographs of the dead actor.

“James Dean, James Dean, James Dean,” his father repeated. He pulled a magazine photograph of the actor off the wall. “Don’t do that,” Bob yelled. The father tore the picture in half and threw the pieces to the floor. “Don’t raise your voice around here,” he said with finality, stamping upstairs. Bob picked up the pieces of the photograph, hoping he might be able to paste them together. ~Robert Shelton, No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan


Birth of the Cool

BOB: So he actually did have a cause then?

SAM: I don’t know.

BOB: “Rebel with a Cause.” See, that’s the devil’s work.

SAM: What?

BOB: Words have lost their meaning. Like rebel. Like cause. Like love. They mean a million different things.
~ “True Dylan: A One-Act Play,” Sam Shepard

“… And they both came from good families!”

Even words like “adult” and “child.” Once upon a time, the American world consisted of children and adults; you were one or the other. You were a child, then you got a job and you were an adult, no matter your age.

The idea of “teenager” as something neither adult nor child didn’t exist then, and wouldn’t until the invention of the automobile, which changed literally everything in America, including teenage dating and schooling.

Thanks to motorized transportation, small one-room schools close to the farm or town began to fade away, replaced by consolidated county high schools complete with a large population of teens. Between 1920 and 1936 the number of teenagers in high school more than doubled, from about 30 percent to more than 60 percent. As they spent more time with their peers, teenagers established their own unique mores and culture, much of which was a mystery — and often an abhorrence — to their elders.


Overhearing a doctor calling her a “goddamn juvenile delinquent” after a drunken night out with Dennis Hopper and subsequent car accident, sweet 16-year-old Natalie Wood hissed at Rebel director Nicholas Ray, who was dithering on casting her in the movie, “Did you hear what he called me, Nick?! He called me a juvenile delinquent! Now do I get the part?”

From 1950 to 1955 crimes committed by teenagers jumped by 45%. Juvenile arrests more than tripled in New York City between 1950 and 1959, while juvenile court cases more than doubled nationally between 1948 and 1957.
~ A Cycle of Outrage: America’s Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s

In a public opinion poll, juvenile delinquency ranked behind only national defense and world peace as the American public’s top three greatest concerns.
~ Saturday Evening Post
January 15, 1955


“i’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent”

You can’t run around with those wild boys anymore… Kemp, Kegan, and Zimmerman, they’ll get you into trouble.”

“Maybe you’re getting an inkling of why the three of us were every counselor’s worse nightmare — not quite juvenile delinquents, but close enough… and proud of it…” ~ Louie Kemp, Dylan & Me: 50 Years of Adventures

From an adult perspective teenagers seemed to be ripping apart the social fabric of America itself by the mid-1950s. Comic books, movies and the insidious “Rock and Roll jungle music” were all blamed. And what could be worse than those last two damnable poisons being mixed together? You got Blackboard Jungle and “Rock Around the Clock.”

Although 1955’s Blackboard Jungle was marketed as serious adult social commentary featuring teachers in an interracial inner-city school, it was a smash among the teenage set, who saw it as their movie. Teens flocked to the film, dancing in theatre aisles — like Hottentots on Benzedrine— as “Rock Around the Clock” played over the opening credits.

Dancing, that is, when the theatre didn’t kill the sound at the movie’s opening or put the kibosh on dancing. Some cities banned the movie altogether, as it was in Memphis and Atlanta, although that was probably as much due to Blackboard Jungle featuring a young Sidney Poitier in a prominent role as it did one lil ol’ rock-and-roll song.

“Lou Levy, top man of Leeds Music Publishing company, took me up in a taxi to the Pythian Temple on West 70th Street to show me the pocket sized recording studio where Bill Haley and His Comets had recorded “Rock Around the Clock”… ~ Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One

The better-known B-Side of Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town)”

Bill Haley and His Comets first recording session for Decca Records was April 12, 1954 at Decca’s Pythian Temple studios in New York City. Their producer was more interested in getting a clean cut of a Cold War ditty called “Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town)” than what would go on the B-side, but late in the day the band would finally get rockin’ with a song that they had been performing live since 1953, “Rock Around the Clock.”

“Rock Around the Clock” was issued in May 1954 as the B-side to “Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town).” The single didn’t see much action on the charts and probably would have faded away into obscurity if not for a 10-year-old bopper named Peter Ford… or so the legend goes.

The son of actor Glen Ford, who would play the lead in Blackboard Jungle, Peter’s 45 record collection would be raided by the movie’s producers. Apparently having no other access to teenagers, they still wanted a song representative of what the youth of America were listening to. Happily, while several years away from teendom, young Ford’s musical tastes were eclectic, Catholic, and included “Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town).”

Blackboard Jungle was released on March 25 1955. Four months later, on July 9 1955 “Rock Around the Clock” became the first rock and roll recording to hit #1 with a bullet at the top of Billboard’s Pop charts. The song stayed at #1 for eight weeks. Billboard ranked it as the overall #2 song for 1955, only behind the instrumental mambo, “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White.”

Columbia Pictures quickly cashed in on the kid’s rock craze by hiring Haley and his band to star in a quickie movie,1956’s Rock Around the Clock, where the band would again perform the title song. With and without the original Comets, Haley would re-record Rock Around the Clock a half-dozen times, including a new version for the Happy Days television series, which featured a bowdlerized juvie clone of James Dean, Arthur Fonzarelli, better known as “The Fonz.”

“All these things are connected,” as Bob Dylan liked to say on his Theme Time Radio Hour show.

The James Dean Gallery, Fairmount Indiana

“This is James Dean’s Town”

In 1988 Bob Dylan, with an entourage of 15 in tow, made an unscheduled visit to Fairmount, Indiana, the town where James Dean grew up. An unpublished memoir by Dylan longtime friend, Larry Kegan, relates that after a Friday night concert on a hot summer night in mid-July 1988 Dylan ordered his tour bus to take a detour through Fairmount.

It was probably the morning of July 16 1988, the morning after a concert at the Indiana State Fairgrounds of the 23rd show of the first year in the first leg of Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour, which now totals over 3,000 shows.

“Bob had already gotten out of his bus and was heading down the main drag,” Kegan writes. “Dave, the bus driver, came over to the van and I asked him what we were doing here. ‘This is James Dean’s town, where he grew up and where he’s buried.’ ‘Where’s Bob going?’ I asked. ‘He’s going to check out the High School where he attended,’ he said. We hung out for a while around my van and Bob’s bus.”

According to Kegan, Dylan learned that there was a James Dean museum in town, and, even though it was 1:30 in the morning, somehow convinced the local gentry to open it for him and his group.

The museum may have been the Fairmount Historical Museum, founded in 1975, or it might have been the the James Dean Gallery, which had just opened in 1988. Both have rooms filled with Dean memorabilia. As Kegan writes, “The place was a real trip into the Fifties. James Dean stuff everywhere. Posters from all three of his movies, EAST OF EDEN, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, and GIANT. Clothes he wore in the movie and around town, They even had his basketball trunks he actually used in high school.”

James Dean, 1955, in front of the Winslow Farm

Larry Kegan’s story ends there, but the impromptu pilgrimage continued with a trip to the farm where Dean grew up, a few miles north of Fairmount.

It was 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning,” said Marcus Winslow, one of Dean’s cousins, about the visit. “He’d had a concert in Indianapolis, and he came with a bus to Fairmount. He came out here for a few minutes. … ‘I don’t remember [Dylan] saying anything. He had a group with him. My wife recognized one of the ladies with him. The others were just band members, I suppose. They seemed nice enough.”

James Dean is buried in Park Cemetery, about a mile from the Winslow farm. Bob Dylan would have passed the gravesite as he continued on to Rochester, Michigan and resumed the Never-Ending Tour.


SAM: So you didn’t have any big burning desire to get to New York or anything?

BOB: Naw. The only reason I wanted to go to New York is ’cause James Dean had been there.

SAM: So you really liked James Dean?

BOB: Oh, yeah. Always did.

SAM: How come?

BOB: Same reason you like anybody, I guess. You see somethin’ of yourself in them.
~ “True Dylan: A One-Act Play,” Sam Shepard

James Dean by Roy Schatt, 1954

In 1955, Bobby Zimmerman was 14 years old. Like hundreds of other teenagers he would see Rebel multiple times, and bought Rebel’s iconic red jacket… just like James Dean’s.

During the 1963 cover shoot for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Dylan reportedly wanted to re-create Roy Schatt’s 1954 photo of James Dean walking down West 68th in New York City.

Several Don Hunstein photos from the session have Dylan, striking a variety of Dean-likes poses with cigarette in mouth and girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, braced on his arm.

We all emulate our heroes.


The Death of the Cool

“The life you might save might be mine”

BOB: Oh, you know where I just was?

SAM: Where?

BOB: Paso Robles. You know, on that highway where James Dean got killed?

SAM: Oh yeah?

BOB: I was there at the spot. On the spot. A windy kinda place.

SAM: They’ve got a statue or monument to him in that town, don’t they?

BOB: Yeah, but I was on the curve where he had the accident. Outsida town. And this place is incredible. I mean the place where he died is as powerful as the place he lived.

SAM: Nebraska?

BOB: Where’d he live?

SAM: He came from the farm, didn’t he? Somewhere.

BOB: Yeah, Iowa or Indiana. I forget. But this place up there has this kind of aura about it. It’s on this kind of broad expanse of land. It’s like that place made James Dean who he is. If he hadn’t’ve died there he wouldn’t’ve been James Dean.
~ “True Dylan: A One-Act Play,” Sam Shepard

“If He Hadn’t’ve Died There, He Wouldn’t’ve Have Been James Dean”

On September 30 1955, James Dean’s Porsche Spyder 550 flew over the road headed west on Highway 46, bearing down like a freight train on the downgrade to a bump-in-the-road town called Cholame.

Dean and the “Little Bastard””

At the intersection of Highways 46 and 41, Dean would collide with a Ford Tudor, driven by a 23-year-old with the unlikely last name of Turnupseed. It was 5:45 in the early evening. The sun was just setting.

Turnupseed would survive the accident and live for another 40 years. He would never speak publicly about what had happened. Dean’s one passenger also survived.

James Dean lived for a few moments after the crash, but was pronounced Dead On Arrival at Paso Robles Hospital.

Rebel without a Cause would premiere about a month later.


“Please do not get into that car, because if you do… if you get into that car at all, it’s now 10 o’clock at night and by 10 o’clock next Thursday, you’ll be dead if you get into that car.” ~ Alec Guinness to James Dean a week before Dean’s death

The mangled Porsche Spyder 550, nicknamed “Little Bastard” by Dean, was a bad-luck car, more Christine than speedster, according to legend, or maybe just according to George Barris. But Dean’s one-time friend Maila Nurm, better-known as horror movie host Vampira, did claim to have a premonition of his death in the “Little Bastard,” as did actor Alec Guinness.

Nearly everything about the “Little Bastard’s” past, present, and future is open to debate. Most stories have it that Dean had the car customized by legendary King Kustomizer, George Barris, who would go on to build television’s Batmobile and Munster Koach, although at least more than one account claims that Barris’ only involvement with the Bastard’s customization was to point James Dean at Dean Jeffries. Jeffries, who would later go on to build the Monkeemobile, was another well-known Los Angeles car customizer, and is usually only credited with painting the racing number and name on the Bastard.

According to legend, the Bastard’s wreck was purchased by George Barris who then sold the Bastard’s engine and drivetrain to two racing enthusiasts. A year and a month after the crash, a car using Dean’s engine spun out of control and hit a tree, killing the driver instantly.

Or so the legend goes. There were various other stories about death, injuries, and blown tires connected to the “Little Bastard” pieces and parts, almost all traceable back to Barris himself.

Actually, after the Porsche was written off by Dean’s insurance company, it was sold for $1,092 to a Dr. William F. Eschrich, who removed the engine and other drivetrain components for use in his own racer. Eschrich’s family still has the Porsche’s engine, as well as the car’s pink slip.

“This Accident Could Have Been Avoided”

It’s unknown how he did so, but somehow George Barris took possession of what remained of the rest of the car, and between various promotional schemes, loaned the wreck to the Los Angeles Safety Council as a mobile teaching moment to discourage teenage speeding.

Over the years, Barris claimed to be rebuilding — or at least had an intent to rebuild — the Bastard back to running order… but never did. The closest he came was in 1997 when, using a kit Spyder sports car fiberglass body mounted on a Volkswagen chassis, Barris created a replica of the “Little Bastard” which he promptly sold at auction for $125,000.

The real “Little Bastard” had been gone for almost four decades by then. According to Barris, the car’s remains went missing from a locked shipping container while the car was being transported from California to Florida or, in other stories, from Florida to California, in 1960.

One story has it that for reasons unknown the “Little Bastard” may have been hidden by Barris or other parties behind a false wall in a building in Washington State and is still there to this day. Another that, for more reasons unknown, Barris had what was left of the wreak crushed; still another that Barris sold the wreak to a collector who wanted to stay, ah, “masked and anonymous.”

Out of the various theories that last one probably makes the most sense, as there’s always been a question about whether Barris legally owned the “Little Bastard’s” shell.


A True Ghost Story

In the early ’70s I spent the good part of one Fall season driving back and forth between Northern and Southern California, down the Grapevine on Route 5 from Los Angeles, through the San Joaquin Valley and back to the college I was in the long, slow process of leaving.

There was a girl in Los Angeles. There’s always a girl somewhere in every story. She was in the long, slow process of leaving me too, but I didn’t know that then. Every Thursday I would take my Volkswagen, loaded with whatever passengers I could find who were willing to pony up $10 bucks for a round trip to LA and back and leave around 11 or so at night to go stay with my girl over the weekend. On Sundays, I’d make the reverse trip… 350 miles back.

On one trip back — by myself that time — I detoured off 5 after passing Bakersfield and headed west on Highway 46, pulling off at the intersection of 46 and 41. It was a little before 6 pm on September 30th, 19 and 71.

On the 50th anniversary of Dean’s death, the state of California put up a sign at the intersection, naming it the James Dean Memorial Junction. If you travel about a quarter of a mile west, you’ll find a memorial put up in 1977 by a Japanese fan. It’s engraved with Dean’s name, date of birth and death, an infinity symbol, and what was reportedly Dean’s favorite quote, “What is essential is invisible to the eye,” from The Little Prince.

The James Dean crash site in 2016, with bra, beer bottles, Chesterfield cigarettes, some coins, playing cards and a pair of Ray-Bans. “The undergarments don’t usually last too long,” said a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol.

Back in the early `70s, none of that was there to see at the junctions of 41 and 46 — not even the candles, scrawled notes, pictures, even bras and panties that fans leave behind these days — just a lonely, dusty patch of California road.

I sat on the hood of my car for awhile, watching the sun go down. Eventually I got back in the VW, pulled onto the road, blinded by the explosion of the sunset’s glare, not able to see a thing.

And a car came out of the sunset light, engine screaming, horn blaring, swerving inches from my left bumper, and then was gone.

I think it was a silver Porsche. It looked like a silver Porsche. But except for a lone, dark patch of rubber from its braking, there was nothing left for me to see.

I had stalled the VW in my fright. I started it up again and drove on.


A homemade gravestone at the James Dean crash site, since stolen.

Coda

Rebel Without a Cause co-star Sal Mineo was stabbed to death in 1976. His murder remains unsolved.

Gig Young, who interviewed James Dean for his “Drive Safely” PSA, died in 1978 by his own hand after murdering his wife of three weeks.

Rebel Without a Cause co-star Natalie Wood drowned in 1981 under mysterious circumstances.

Alec Guinness, who starred in Bridge Over the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, would become best-known to a new generation of movie-goers as Obi-Wan Kenobi. He died in 2000 of cancer.

Larry Kegan died in his van of a heart attack at age 59 on September 11, 2001, reportedly on his way to buy a copy of Bob Dylan’s just-released album, ‘Love and Theft.’

Maila Nurmi, aka “Vampira,” died of natural causes at age 86 in 2008.

George Barris died in his sleep in 2015, still insisting that he knew nothing about the “Little Bastard’s” whereabouts.

The latest leg of Bob Dylan’s Never-Ending Tour was announced in September 2019.

The “Little Bastard” was never seen again. Maybe.


Fred Bals

Written by

Fred Bals

Corporate Storyteller. Tech enthusiast. Mini Cooper fanboy. One-time chronicler of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour. Husband of Peggy. Human of Lily Rose.

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