Actors’ Studio Midwest
Before Elvis donned black leather, the idols of many young Americans had nothing to do with music. A few idolized the genial general who moved into the White House in 1953 but a small circle of Iron Range youths found their models in the Actors’ Studio, by way of the movies. Brando’s The Wild One and Dean’s East of Eden, Giant, and, especially, Rebel Without a Cause stunned these isolated provincials.
Brando and Dean forged characters who eclipsed the western hero. The new folk hero didn’t ride a horse; he drove a motorcycle through the stoplight of acceptable behavior. In a decade of soft American affluence with no visible frontier to challenge, nothing was better than a bike—unless it was a guitar—to symbolize the young man’s dream of sexual potency, to defy his father in his “safe” car. Harley and Davidson were the Lewis and Clark of the 1950s.
The best biker in town was Dale Boutang, a cowboy on wheels and a seasoned weight-lifter. He drove a Harley 74. Bob bought a Harley 45, the next smallest model. Le Roy quickly taught Bob how to drive it, out on the West Side. “You can’t be bad, man, really bad, unless you have a motorcycle and a leather jacket,” Bob used to tell his friends. One day, the gang drove out to a suburb called Brooklyn, divided from Hibbing by a level rail crossing. The four waited impatiently for a train to pass. Bob gunned his engine, ready to zoom off the instant the train went by. He started to move before he saw another train coming from the other direction on the track beyond. As he saw his error, he swerved sharply left, throwing himself off the bike. The other freight passed by only inches from him. Bob got up, heart pounding, hands trembling, and walked his bike back across the tracks. He could scarcely speak for two minutes. He drove the motorcycle home slowly, never telling his folks he had “come so close to death.” For a few days he thought about selling his bike, but he was soon out riding again with his old confidence, perhaps now “immune to death.”
Bob wasn’t content to ride, posture, and think like Dean-Brando-Presley; he wanted to be photographed like them. He enlisted his brother, David, with the family Polaroid. In their room upstairs, between the ages of 15 and 17, Bob learned how to pose, practicing the art of concealing art. Years later, when I discussed this with Suze Rotolo, his Greenwich Village girlfriend, she registered amazement. “I never knew he had been in front of any camera until he got to New York.” David recalled that one of their favorite posing sessions used the long heavy drapes of their bedroom window as a stage curtain from which Bob peeked out, grinning or squaring his jaw. For action shots, Bob roared around the street corner on his Harley, bearing down hard toward his brother on the curb. As Bob swerved past, he yelled: “Did you get it?” Writing in March 1966 in Atlantic of Brando as an American prototype, critic Pauline Kael drew a portrait that sounds like the one young Dylan was filling in with his own colors:
Protagonists are always loners…Brando represented a reaction against the post-war mania for security…Brando had no code, only his instincts…He was anti-social because he knew society was crap; he was a hero…because he was strong enough not to take the crap…Perhaps his special appeal was…the conceit of tough kids: There was humor in it…swagger and arrogance that were vain and chidish…He was explosively dangerous without being “serious” in the sense of having ideas. There was no theory, no cant in his leadership…
Because he had no code, except an esthetic one—a commitment to a style of life—he was easily betrayed by those he trusted. There he was, the new primitive, a Byronic Dead End Kid, with his quality of vulnerability…We in the audience felt protective; we knew how lonely he must be in his assertiveness. Who even in hell wants to be an outsider? He was no intellectual who could rationalize it…He could only feel it, act it out, be “The Wild One—” and God knows how many kids felt, “That’s the story of my life.”
When Dylan was gunning his bike, posing in his own curbstone theater, James Dean was dead, and so was Hank Williams, but Brando was alive in Hollywood, and in Hibbing.