Lately, I’ve become immersed in the thought that I am yearning to go home. You know, the house you unquestionably can’t wait to get the hell out of when you’re growing up? Like a fantastical pull the longing to return to this lost time has become great because the galaxy of my childhood was starred, interstellar, with only a few black holes but generally enfolded in naivete and innocence, free from the sneer of adult misery and woe. This won’t be indulgent I promise. Well … maybe. Screw it. My blog. Sitting under the frangipani tree with my childhood friend talking about how busy our lives were going to become, what wouldn’t I do to re-visit for a moment?
There’s clear visions that rush through me of a dry, middle class sherry for a Welsh Mum wearing coral lipstick and a gruff, working class beer for an Aussie Dad in butcher’s apron, both in lenient moods letting me take a sip of each; I’m home from school, walking through the garden, down the path to the front door; a house with long gone items like the sixties typewriter and art deco mirror. And with pangs of ageless regret, I wished I’d relished it more while I was there because that time has gone and I can’t return. Wouldn’t you know it because it’s always the cathartic way.
As an adult I’m to reasonably fantasise of in-vogue island resort holidays. Or winning them. You know: “Tell us in 25 words or less why you should win a fantastic seven night holiday for two in.” Or, straight from a brochure, I should save for a holiday of a lifetime to trek the majesty of Nepal or cruise the waters of the Amazon river basin. But to be flitting about my childhood home that’s what I dream of. That’s superexotic. But I’ve taken it a step further and as a study into nostalgia, childhood roots, homesickness and belonging, I have indeed come home.
Far from the Sydney rat-race, I have been residing in a little town on the south coast of New South Wales for almost six weeks not far from where I grew up but the conclusion is: home remains faraway in time and it is impossible to return. Years have flowed like water just like that Chinese saying. I grew up. Left home. Travelled far to sleep in parks and ship stairwells or its lounges to save a few pounds, lire or deutschmarks. Found myself in cities. Always the cities. The anonymity and the lure of scrutinising others, and being scrutinised myself, in cities. Suva, Prague, Rome, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris, London, Cardiff, Dublin, Belfast, Edinburgh, Sydney. I ran wild. For years. Became a thoroughly modern Mademoiselle. Just me. Never wanting to be anybody’s wife. Found freedom on international dancefloors. Ran as far away for as long as I could (still) from the mundane. Attended a few parties, afternoon soirees. Met a few black-hearted varmints. Learnt the ways of the world. Then came home to find home had changed.
Similar themes are explored in American novelist Thomas Wolfe’s book, You Can’t Go Home Again. Its primary protagonist, George Webber, writes a nationwide best selling book about life in his small Southern hometown of Libya Hill. When he returns home after the fame and fanfare he finds that his family, friends and the general local community feel exposed by him and his distorted depiction of them. They are furious to the point he receives abuse and hate mail and in feeling the full weight of their attacks and outrage is forced to leave as an outcast.
He searches for an identity in the social flurry that is New York; travels to pre-war Paris and meets with a group of uninhibited expatriates; then onto Berlin under the rule of Hitler only to return to America to rediscover it with a renewal of love and sorrow.
For the stark realisation stands: “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time.”
Wolfe actually had a conversation with writer Ella Winter about this. It was she who remarked to him, “Don’t you know you can’t go home again?” He later asked her permission if he could use her comment for the title of his novel.
The phrase entered American dialogue meaning that once you have left your country town or provincial backwater city for a sophisticated metropolis you can’t return to the narrow confines of your previous life and, more generally, attempts to relive youthful memories will always fail.
With this, I think of James Dean’s visit back to his roots where he was raised in the small town of Fairmount, Indiana. It’s February 1955, seven months before his death and at twenty four is on the brink of stardom. His first film, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, is about to be nationally released and everyone in Hollywood is talking while his hometown are excited that one of their own is about to make good in a very visible, very obvious, non secondary-guessing way. But what no one knows is he is about to take on a secondary existence thanks to the force of fate.
He took along Magnum photographer, Dennis Stock, who described himself more as a photo-essayist and storyteller and his shots clearly illustrate this. Stock took the infamous shot of a then unknown Dean, (“this little guy on Broadway trying to make it”), walking in the rain wrapped in a raincoat with mandatory cigarette dangling oh-so-hip from his mouth in Times Square.
After following Dean, taking photographs in and around Los Angeles and New York, he accompanied him back to Indiana taking a series of shots. On the farm where he grew up with his aunt and uncle, The Winslows; about town; at the motorcycle shop; playing bongos in a field of cows and pigs.
In another he takes a photo of Dean on the driveway out the front of the farmhouse looking in the opposite direction of his cousin’s dog, Tuck. Stock captioned it, “You can’t go home again.” Stock said that the visit became, “a kind-of ‘you can’t go home again’ look at Jimmy … because he couldn’t. He had gone beyond that little town of Indiana.”
Which brings me to Morrissey, ex-frontman of The Smiths, solo artist, animal protectionist, creator of musical sardonic gems and, yes, the second greatest living Englishman next to Sir David Attenborough. What has he got to do with James Byron Dean? Plenty, in fact the connection couldn’t be more stirring for a Morrissey die-hard and James Dean devotee. He released a song called ‘Suedehead’ when I was in high school and in the video Morrissey makes a pilgrimage to a winter wonderland that is Dean’s hometown and the farm he was raised on which is still the residence of his cousin, Marcus Winslow. At this time a close school friend of mine and I had already discovered the Dean legend a year before so the timing of this video became a highpoint of my new found pop cultural interest. My friend didn’t like Morrissey however. Solitary, fanatically depressed souls singing with irony wasn’t her thing.
But she’d stolen a book on James Dean from Wollongong Library so epic it was like a religious tome and in our small little world I guess it was. As a coveted book between us we flicked through every page as a study into his poses, trying to decipher the mood of each photographic still while lapping up the narrative trying to flesh out who he was as a human being. We weren’t any different to the adolescents before us of decades past swept up in the cult attraction of him because the cultural significance and the meaning of James Dean to restless teenagers was still relevant and not lost on us.
So ‘Suedehead’ drops on the independent charts. The video is poetic sadness in motion but really alluring as Morrissey pays homage to his idol though I can’t work out what relevance the title or lyrics have to the video but I really don’t care. It’s a fitting honour regardless and I was enamoured by it then as I still am today. It’s also great in that it ties in with my fascination for all things old Americana and the small towns of the U.S. It isn’t a stretch to say it’s a dream of mine to walk the streets of Fairmount one day.
And the classic references are tightly packaged in the neat little clip: Morrissey holding Macchiavelli’s ‘The Little Prince’, a favourite of Dean’s’; walking the same street across from the bank where Stock took a photo of Dean [see above]; Morrissey in the diner where Dean regularly socialised with his high school basketball team; visiting Fairmount High School, now abandoned and close to ruin, standing on the stage where he acted and apparently riveted his peers back then; reading James Whitcomb Riley in the barn; pondering Dean’s young hand and footprint etched in concrete; driving a tractor like Dean who was taught by his Uncle while a young man; playing the bongos in a field of cows; visiting the grave of Dean’s great-grandfather as he did with young cousin, Marcus Winslow. And it ends with Morrissey sitting by James Dean’s headstone while a faint, apparitional image of him with a rather vulnerable look reaches out to us as though from the other side.
I’m telling you the video is a candid four minutes of beautiful magnanimous cool.
It’s a gentle and heartfelt tribute to just a guy instead of the social phenomenon, the complex acting sensation, the longstanding icon, the haunter of Hollywood’s boulevard of broken dreams, the apostle of teenage rebellion; the legend or myth hero who supposedly smelt his own doom. With no exploitation of the “James Dean legend” for commercial purposes, Morrissey makes it so that simply There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.
It’s a tender look into the life of an imaginative, sensitive type from a small town whose passion was to act, who left at eighteen, released three films in one calendar year, rose fast to stardom and held it for a short time; whose extraordinary life was tragically cut short by bad luck and violent circumstances and left us. We could’ve known someone similar ourselves. Someone who in the end was carried on the shoulders by his old Fairmount High School chums and sadly laid to rest not far from the farm where he was raised. You can’t go home again.
You can watch ‘Suedehead’ by Morrissey, below:
So for me, time has passed, things have changed. And I know. I too have transformed and will never be the same.
“Time is Flow, not Fix”, writes Wolfe.
Home could well be the horizon of the here and now and the future of forever. Sounds like just what I could want but feels like spiritual spin from the faculty of the Western mystical movement. All that consciousness-raising stuff of the New Zen boasting how to be deliberately freer within ourselves. How to identify with nothing. The ‘come from anywhere’ or ‘come from everywhere’ jurisprudence of the New Age. But I see through the folly of its dreamy textured veneer because this is the Old Age and I’m sitting here rubbing my eyes from what is confronting because as an abstract concept I am home but cannot go home to recover the past.
I’m troubled as the home of yore renders itself as muse, and, still, where does my yearning leave me?
I can say, hopelessly, holding a suitcase with nowhere to go and skimming a roll call of inadequate cliches, that’s where – like, Home is where the heart is. Next. Home Sweet Home. Yes. There’s no place like home. Or, Home is where you hang your hat. Maybe I could do as the gypsies do and, carry home within me wherever I go.
Because that’s all I got. Because there is no road back. You won’t find it. Don’t look. You can’t go home again.