“If a man can bridge the gap between life and death, if he can live on after he is dead, then maybe he was a great man”.
– James Dean
At a dusty and isolated crossroads in Central California on the outskirts of nowhere, James Dean’s crash course with destiny came to an end. It was Friday, 30th September, 1955. Dean was just 24 years old. Dean made just three films in his lifetime, East of Eden (1955), Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and Giant (1956), which was still in the production stages at the time of Dean’s death.
In April 1954, in celebration of securing the lead role in Cal Trusk in East of Eden, James Dean purchased a 1955 Triumph Tiger T110 650cc motorcycle and later, a used red, 1953 MG TD sports car. Earlier in 1955, Dean had traded his MG in for a brand new 1955 Porsche Super Speedster, purchased from Competition Motors in Hollywood. He traded his Triumph sports car in for a 1955 Triumph TR5 Trophy three days after the end of filming on East of Eden. Shortly before starting to film Rebel Without A Cause, Dean entered the Palm Springs Road Races with the Porsche Super Speedster on March 26 -27. He finished first overall in Saturday’s novice class and second overall in the Sunday main event. Later in the year, Dean raced the Speedster at Bakersfield on May 1 – 2, finishing first in class and third overall. His final race with the Speedster was at Santa Barbara on Memorial Day, May 30, where he started in eighteenth position, worked his way up to fourth, before over-revving his engine and blowing a piston. He did not complete the race.
During the filming of Giant, from June through to mid-September, Warner Bros. had placed a ban a ban on Dean competing in racing. After finishing the filming of Giant, Dean traded his Porsche Super Speedster in for the brand new, more powerful and faster 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder and entered the upcoming Salina Road Race, scheduled for October 1 – 2. Dean proudly named his new car “Little Bastard”. On introducing himself to British actor Alec Guinness outside the Villa Capri restaurant in Hollywood, he invited Guinness to view his new car. Guinness has since said that he found the car ‘sinister’, telling Dean: “If you get in that car, you will be found dead by this time next week”. Guinness’s prediction was scarily and sadly accurate: James Dean’s fatal car crash took place seven days after this encounter.
On the day of the crash, Dean and his Porsche factory-trained mechanic Rolf Wutherich travelled to Competition Motors in Hollywood to prepare the Porsche 550 Spyder for the weekend sports car races at Salinas, California. The original intention was to tow the car to the race site but because the Porsche did not have enough break-in miles prior to the race, Wutherich recommended to Dean that he drove the Porsche to Salinas. Wutherich accompanied Dean on the journey. Whilst travelling to Salinas, they were stopped by a California Highway Patrolman at Mettler Station on Wheeler Ridge, just South of Bakersfield, for driving 65 mph in a 55mph zone. A few hours later, a black and white 1950 Ford Tudor Coupe was travelling at high speed east on Route 466. Its driver was a student named Donald Turnupseed. Turnupseed made a left turn onto Route 41 headed north, toward Fresno. As Turnupseed’s Ford crossed over the centre line, Dean, who was driving at a reported speed of 85 mph, apparently tried to steer the Spyder in a “side stepping” racing manoeuvre, but with insufficient time and space, the two cars crashed almost head on. Dean’s Spyder flipped up into the air and landed back on its wheels in a gully, northwest of the junction. The impact was of such force that Turnupseed’s Ford was sent broad-sliding 39 feet down Route 466 in the westbound lane.
California Highway Patrol Captain Ernest Tripke and his partner, Corporal Ronald Nelson, had been finishing a coffee break in Paso Robles when they were called to the called to the scene of the accident at the Route 466/41 Junction. Before the officers arrived, James Dean had been pulled from the wreckage of the Porsche Spyder. Dean had taken the brunt of the horrendous crash and suffered a broken neck as well as several internal and external injuries, including his foot being crushed between the clutch and brake pedal. The unconscious and dying Dean was placed into an ambulance, whilst a barely conscious Wutherich, who had been thrown from the Spyder, was lying on the shoulder of the road next to the wrecked car. Wutherich and Dean were taken in the same ambulance to the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital 28 miles from the crash site. James Dean was pronounced dead on arrival at 6.20pm.
Ironically, shortly before that fateful day, whilst he was filming Giant, Dean had filmed a short Public Service Announcement with fellow actor Gig Young for the National Safety Council. Dean, dressed as his Giant character Jett Rink, spoke of how driving fast on the highway could be more dangerous than racing on a track. At the end of the Public Service Announcement, instead of saying the intended catchphrase, “The life you save may be your own”, Dean said, “The life you might save might be mine”.
There have been many songs written about or mentioning James Dean over the years, many of which either portray Dean as the ultimate all American hero or a Hollywood poster boy. Take for example, Electrolite by REM, from the album New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996), with the line “Hollywood is under me, I’m Martin Sheen, I’m Steve McQueen, I’m Jimmy Dean”.
Occasionally some centre on Dean’s crash, usually in a metaphoric sense. One that springs to mind is Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side, from Transformer (1972), which features the lines, “Jackie is just speeding away, Thought she was James Dean for a day, Then I guess she had to crash, Valium would have helped that bash”.
However, the most powerful retelling of James Dean’s death is Daddy’s Speeding by Suede from their second album Dog Man Star (1994).
Daddy’s Speeding was inspired by a dream that Brett Anderson had about James Dean’s death. He told suede.co.uk: “I was immersing myself in overtly clichéd Hollywood iconography at the time. I guess it was an extension of the isolation / pornography themes where I saw people forming relationships with fantasy figures rather than real people; Our new communities were soap operas, our new friends were characters in American sit-coms”.
The first lines of the song tell of how “Whiplash caught the silver son, Took the film to number one”, of course referring to Giant, which was released posthumously, gear us up for a song which manages to evoke a feeling not dissimilar to one you would get from reading Crash by JG Ballard with images of “death machines” in a barren landscape of “green fields”. There is something of a hero worshipping homoerotic quality to Daddy’s Speeding, with Anderson telling of how the leader (the “daddy”) of the gang of car obsessed teenagers “crashed the car and left us here” and how “Daddy turned a million eyes, Took the teenage dream to bed”.
Anderson’s drug of choice at the time was Acid, and its influences on the song are quite evident. Daddy’s Speeding is a drug induced dream of a song, a tale of a doomed car race and a Hollywood star undone by destructive self-decadence in the dark underbelly of existence.
The song’s macabre but strangely beautiful depiction of James Dean’s death is aided by its stunning music. Slow paced, starting with little more than a solitary guitar and Anderson’s mournful voice, building and building into a cacophony of white noise and feedback which is probably the greatest musical depiction of a car crash ever put on record. The song ends with what sounds like the grim aftermath of the crash, fading away with the narrator, the ‘child’ of the “Daddy”, in his dreaming state, realising what has happened on that dusty and isolated crossroads. This is a highly disturbing song of Ballard-like proportions, one which seems to be coming through the stereo speakers from another dimension or more accurately, from Brett Anderson’s drug fuelled dreams.