The Ghost of James Dean’ by Roy ‘Oily’ Phillips
In episode 1 Roy Phillips talks about his memorable visit to James Dean’s grave and childhood home. This is the full account of that amazing pilgrimage in the early 80s.
The world was so, so different then in the early 80s. It was still a big adventure for anyone to travel to some remote, odd places and lap up all the feelings at that particular time and place. It’s been over 30 years since that time. And it’s a strange, blurry, even surreal thing — with pictures coming into my head and other things flashing by like, you say, the smell of something, etc. But it really is the mystery of it all that still means the most. I went there, I stayed there, and I’m still here. Memories come back again, be it they are very shadowy … a bit film noir, in fact …
‘Oily’ is how I sign my cheques and everybody calls me ‘Oily.’ It came from my messing with Triumph motorbikes as a kid, so it was ‘Royly Oily’ and it stuck. In fact, I was born Roy Terence Phillips in Isleworth, London on the 14th of October 1957. I grew up in a very musical environment. My dad was a professional drummer, my mum a singer, and music was everywhere — in all shapes and forms and sounds around the house, all the time. From Elvis, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard … then, of course, into The Beatles, Dylan, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin … then into the whole punk thing of The Clash, Elvis Costello and so on … and so on and on … mostly ‘rebel’ music.
I knew I was a musician from a very early age. Drumming at 5, guitar at 8 and having absorbed thousands of records into my early teens, I had enough ammunition firing from everywhere to create my own music and, indeed, bring ideas very quickly to artists or bands I played with and still do, in fact. I have recorded and played / written music all my life and toured with many great artists — The Clash, especially. My old friend Joe Strummer was a big Dean fan, too.
All the time this was going down, there were also films — which meant just as much to me. I loved Robert Mitchum, Bogart, Robert Ryan, Cagney, etc. But this one chap stood out a million miles away from anyone else I’d ever seen on a screen. I knew instantly, as a very young kid, I wanted to be HIM — James Dean. The images and characters he created are the truest mark of an incredible actor.
James Dean seemed to me to be like a rock musician. Then I found out he was dead and gone before rock music was truly born. It all then started making sense that this guy was the spark of a revolution in all the arts — bringing about a totally new wave of young creativeness not seen before or since.
I knew in my soul that one day I would go visit some strange, far-off place he was from — although, at the time, America might have well been on Mars. Where I grew up, the street you lived on was the world.
I had an uncle who moved to Canada many years ago — to Toronto, in fact, and I planned a trip to visit him and his family in the summer of 1983 — on my own, which I did. After getting there and settling into my month’s break, it suddenly hit me: ‘Ahhhh, Jimmy Dean comes from a state which I could maybe get to from here.’ So I told my aunt and uncle the whole story about my love for this man’s films and they, of course, knew straight away what had to be done. Mind you, I had my red sport’s jacket, Levi 501s and hair brushed back like Dean’s. So it wasn’t really a guess who I wanted to go visit.
I came back one afternoon, from being out with my two cousins in Toronto, to find my aunt had arranged everything — all the relevant bus routes and connections and had even found out the number and rang the Winslow’s farm to find the exact location.
I went on my journey dressed as though I was a stand in from Rebel — not really thinking that much about what, why or where I was headed. We stopped at places with names I’d only heard in songs over three-thousand miles away — like Bowling Green or Napoleon — then suddenly the guy driving the Greyhound bus says, ‘Marion, Indiana’ and I go, ‘Oh my, my. This is very powerful.’ And something in my soul stirred.
I booked into a motel and told the desk clerk I wanted to go see Jimmy Dean’s grave. The clerk kindly got me a taxi service and away I went …
The guy driving was a great fella. I’d basically told him my whole story by the time we pulled up right next to the grave. He said, ‘Do you want me to come get you?’ and I replied, ‘Yes, please. In about five-hours time.’ I got out. He went. Then I noticed there was no headstone.
I’d seen that stone many times in my many books about Jimmy and there I was ready with my camera and there was nothing but the base. I sat there for what seemed an eternity — probably three hours — when I noticed a car coming in the distance, which finally pulled up behind me. It was a police car and this fella gets out — Deputy Sheriff Ferguson, who slowly walks up to the grave with me sitting there and his first words were — and I’ll never forget it — ‘Damn near thought I’d seen a ghost.’
I am not a religious man, nor do I necessarily believe in any other force surrounding us, but there definitely was and still is a spirit of James Dean in me or my soul or whatever we wish to call it. I do believe a soul of a person can enter someone else — be it for a second or a million years.
Well, Deputy Sheriff Ferguson and I got to talking about Dean. The sheriff was investigating the missing stone — which had been stolen a day or two before I got to Fairmount. For a very brief moment I thought, ‘Shit, maybe this guy thinks I took it.’
You know how it goes with the police around you. But it seems quite funny now to even have such thoughts. Apparently, the stone was stolen weeks before but found hanging in a tree or some such, according to the sheriff, then returned before it was just stolen again. He was a great fella, though, and took some photos of me, and I of him, at Dean’s grave without the stone.
Just about this time, another car pulls up and an elderly couple get out — Wilbur and Joan Hoskins from Fairmount — who were coming to see the grave with its missing stone, which was actually in the local papers that very day. They owned the Hoskins shoe shop in Fairmount and spoke to me for about an hour about how they were friends with Jimmy’s parents and, in fact, babysat Jimmy on a few occasions. It’s a while ago now and I can’t remember the wheres or whys of their looking over Jimmy as a babe, but they were there and they said it and that’s that. I got a feeling of real warmth from these people and a great sense of love and caring for not only the boy Dean but for his family as a whole unit. I would love to know if any of Wilbur and Joan’s family is still around in Fairmount?
It was, in fact, Wilbur who just casually said, ‘Have you been to the house yet?’ I replied, ‘No.’ I didn’t even know it was that close by, to be honest, and was just going with whatever would deem to happen. I must admit it was a sort of dream like experience, in a way, as I didn’t really go to find out anything or to meet anyone — let alone talk to anyone who knew the family or Dean himself. It was just a calling of a personal nature.
So next thing I know I am at the driveway to the house I’d seen so many times in books with JD and his flat cap on in winter time or pushing Marcus around in a makeshift cart. We walk up to the house and a guy opens the front door. I didn’t know who he was. So he speaks with Wilbur and Joan in their Hoosier way and then, just in conversation, they tell me this is Marcus Winslow. Then they introduce me as a guy travelling like a billion miles to see Jim’s grave. Wilbur said, ‘We damn near thought we’d seen a ghost at the cemetery.’ With that Marcus looked me up and down and quietly and slowly said, ‘You’d best come in, then.’
I was totally taken over, when I entered, by a sense of me not being me but some stranger who was maybe popping home for a coffee and a sandwich. I know it sounds strange, but that’s how it felt. And I know Marcus felt totally at ease, too. I did have quite a lot of Jimmy’s characteristics — even to the point of walking slightly pigeon-toed! I never would compare myself to him, and no one can, but he affected me in a big way as a kid. And people through my teens and twenties would mention him whenever I was about. So that’s where it all sprang from really.
I think I straightaway showed Marcus my JD tattoo. It simply says JAMES DEAN at the top, with a rebel flag and Rebel Without a Cause underneath. Then I told him my story. We just chatted about Dean as though it was something totally normal like we all chat with our friends and families about things like what we have done or plans of what we’d like to do.
I can remember drinking lots of coffee with Marcus. It sticks in my mind as we only really rarely had coffee at home in England — always an instant brand and certainly not made in a big glass jug, as Marcus made it. This coffee was a vanilla flavour and I was hooked on it.
The kitchen looked very 50s / 60s — with those sliding cupboards in obscured glass where you put your finger in the hole-cup and slide. Some had just regular opening doors, too. The smell of the house was a kind of an oldie-worldly smell in as much as a sort of woody odour — not quite musty, but a hint of that if you get me. It was quite a hot time of year and it’s a different heat to England’s — as our summers can be very intense heat, whereas this felt quite open and fresh — although still very warm, but not sweaty.
Marcus was a very kind man and spoke quite slowly and very kind of monotone. I don’t mean boring, but it was sort of one level of tone apart from when I started going on about my music and the impact of JD upon my musicality. His words were quite few and far between, to be honest. It was more a connection on his part, I think, that someone had come to stop by who felt very familiar to him. I was around the same age then as JD when he died, so it was a real connection. But my story, as opposed to the film world, was the music world.
Marcus smiled a lot and, although he was very young when Dean passed away, he has quite a concrete picture of his personality. In fact, I could feel the love and, indeed, presence of Jimmy most of the time through being with Marcus. We spoke about what-ifs. The films Jimmy could have done interested both of us. Obviously, using classic films we now all love, I often imagined him in a Travis Bickle type role from Taxi Driver say. Marcus spoke about Jimmy’s love for animals and wildlife in general, which is always a good sign. I asked about the winters, especially during the 40s and 50s, in Fairmount. Marcus said they were pretty harsh and bleak. I said I thought they were more so in my country then, but it brings out a real closeness to family – even more so in Fairmount, because they were and still are quite remote and rural there.
I remember sitting in the living room on a very comfortable, single high-backed armchair. I think there is a photo I’ve seen of JD sitting in that chair, maybe with a cat?
Before I knew it, it was dark outside and I got to stay at the farmhouse with Marcus — who I just simply remember as a down-to-earth man, very much in keeping with what a lot of the world sees as an American farm person. And I’m sure Jimmy, himself, was this. It’s the image we all love and that’s at the heart of his greatness. Not only did I get to sleep in that house but in Jimmy’s room.
I guess it’s simply because I knew things about that place — having read many things about Dean as a youngster, plus about Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Paul Newman and many other great actors who all used to visit JD’s grave, for many years, on his birthday or death day. It was a very easy going thing, like it was meant to be, at that exact time and place for me.
Another thought I did have at that time in the house was that maybe the headstone had disappeared because he has returned. You know how the mind can run riot. I imagined I was James Dean, come home to stay a little while, then go quietly back in time, once again. It all was beautiful, like time-lapse photography.
The stairs, if I remember correctly, had a carpet that ran up the middle of them — with borders of brass on each side, holding the carpet down. There were a few creaks. The house was like on typical rural farms in most countries, built of 90% wood. And the wood breathes and moans quite a lot. I slept in a single bed. I’m not sure if Jimmy would have slept in it. I didn’t even think to ask. But I obviously lay there thinking, ‘Jeez, to think James Dean lived in this house …’ and sort of getting overwhelmed with the whole thing. But, at the same time, just being me imagining I was him — a kind of ‘I’m playing James Dean but I am James Dean — the James Dean that girls at bus stops in England would call James Dean.’ This is all probably sounding a bit bloody odd but — hey, it’s what I felt at that time.
Jimmy’s bedroom (or box room as we Brits would call it) was at what I’d call the side of the house, which in fact is the front door side or porch area — because it sort of faced sideways, to the main road, so you could see just farmland and the road heading back to town from his bedroom window. The gramophone player I saw in his bedroom, where I slept for just that one night, is in a photo with him that, when I see it, takes me back through years and years until it’s like I’m back there. I’ve seen many pics of Jim playing his records and bongos in the room. Anyways, there was his old gramophone — a rather large piece of furniture, really, much like the 40s / 50s grams that we all had in the 50s, even 60s — with a cabinet at the bottom and a few 78s. The speeds on the player were 78, 33, 16 and 45 — 16 is interesting, because it’s a speed for mainly spoken word. So he must have listened to maybe poetry or plays, which were put onto Bakelite 78 discs.
After that first night, I stayed in Marion for a few days and in those three short days I’d sit at Dean’s grave, alone — feeling even closer to him in spirit, since I’d met his cousin, slept in Jimmy’s old bedroom in the house I’d only ever seen pictures of, and looked around the barns where Jimmy kept his motorcycles. And I met some great folks and it all will be in my heart always …
Even now it seems a bit like a dream sequence, but it’s all inside me — forever. What was happening at the time was just part of my life. There was no deep mystery or meaning. It was just a trip to say hello to Jimmy Dean. It was as though I was supposed to be there at that time and I was. It’s as simple as that. It’s a situation, a very simple one in its reality. A young man from London, England — who loves films and music — gets James Dean in his soul at a very early age, goes to visit the place JD was from and ends up meeting members of his family, close friends and, on top of all that, the police are looking that very day for his stolen headstone.
RIP JBD X