Red Elvis

Looking back at Dean Reed, the American Soviet Superstar

Dean Reed was called an American rebel and a rock ’n’ roll missionary. He was
also called a traitor and a spy. For 25 years the world-famous singer, actor
and director lived the American Dream behind the Iron Curtain, and was, by any
standard, a superstar.



Yet who in the west knows his name today? Nobody.



The American actor Tom Hanks wants to change that. His production company, Playtone,
has begun work on Comrade Rockstar, a feature film based on the Colorado native’s
career. Seventeen years after Reed’s death and millions of records sold abroad,
Americans may finally learn the story of one of their most famous sons.



Reed’s is a fascinating, tragic tale that continues to unfold. With a typically
American blend of naivete, narcissism and enthusiasm, Reed preached a utopian
vision of socialism that kept him blacklisted and ignored in the U.S., even
as millions of fans adored him in Latin America, Europe and the Soviet bloc.
More than just a pretty face or a convenient cowboy hero, Dean Reed was a true
frontiersman who ultimately rode off into the sunset a legend, an American Unknown.







Born in 1938 and raised on a chicken farm on the outskirts of Denver, Colorado,
Reed was a gifted athlete, horseman and swimmer who started playing guitar at
the age of 12. By all accounts, the handsome young man seemed destined for a
life of adventure early on. Once, on a bet, the teenaged Reed raced on foot
against a mule 110 miles over the Rocky Mountains and won. After two years of
college studying meteorology, which he financed by singing “hillbilly” songs
at a local mountain resort, he got his lucky break – a singing audition with
Voyle Gilmour, then-head of Capitol Records, who promptly signed Reed to a recording
contract. Reed’s good looks and easy showmanship earned him a slot on Dick Clark’s
television program in 1959.



Years later, Reed would describe Hollywood at this time as a “prostitution camp”
where bubblegum pop singers like himself had little control over their destinies.
Not willing to simply be groomed as a teen idol, Reed took acting classes with
Paton Price, a maverick teacher who became his mentor. Price sensed in Reed
a unique kind of celebrity, an “honest” young man who could somehow use fame
to make the world a better place.



Reed’s songs were soon garnering radio play and moving up the American charts.
Mega-success seemed all but guaranteed. In 1961, on a whim, he flew to Argentina,
where his single “The Search” had reached number-one. He was greeted at the
airport by 100,000 screaming fans.



During the first half of the ’60s, Reed toured extensively throughout South
America, filling one soccer stadium after the next. He learned Spanish and made
regular television appearances. (The Dean Reed Show first aired in Argentina
in 1965.) It was also in South America that his politics turned sharply leftward,
spurred by the harsh wealth disparities and brutal American-backed regimes he
witnessed. For a time, he criticized injustice openly and with immunity. A typical
performance might include “Tutti Frutti” or “Blue Suede Shoes” followed by a
political speech in Spanish and the workers’ anthem “Venceremos.”



Though radicalized by contact with union leaders like the Chilean folk singer
Victor Jara (who was later murdered and eventually portrayed by Reed himself
in the East German film El Cantor) and exposed to a rich and varied folk music
tradition, he never stopped being an Ame-rican pop star. Listening to his records,
it is clear that the “sentimental gush,” as journalist Jennifer Dun-bar Dorn
once called his style, was charming in its sincerity.



Still, he was no match for the bigger, rootsier talents of contemporaries like
Elvis Presley or Bob Dylan. He was a crooner through and through, equal parts
country boy and Vegas entertainer. He never had an official manager nor any
handlers. His career decisions were his own, and he trusted his instincts to
find new receptive audiences for his music, films, and politics.



Reed gladly called himself a revolutionary though, somewhat ironically, he was
more a product of 1950s optimism than 1960s counterculture. He spent time in
prison in both Argentina and Chile, and was ultimately expelled from both countries
for using his mass appeal to stir up resentment against the status quo. He lived
in Italy from 1967 to 1970, where he embarked on his film career by starring
in spaghetti westerns, which suited his “contrarian” image and rodeo skills
perfectly.



During his 25-year expatriation, Reed spent less than one year on his native
soil, so the world of violent anti-Vietnam protests, Woodstock and the Black
Panthers had only a general influence on him. His opposition to American imperialism
and the capitalist system centered more on the impoverished campesinos than
the plight of urban blacks or the call for free love and free acid. In Will
Roberts’ 1985 documentary American Rebel, Reed gleefully recalls how he visited
the American embassy in Rome during a Vietnam protest in 1969 and managed to
get in front of the crowd, stand beside the American ambassador, raise his fist
and shout, “Viva Ho Chi Minh!” to the cheering throng. In 1970, Reed returned
briefly to Chile to help his friend Salvador Allende in a grassroots presidential
campaign, whose success was later crushed by General Pinochet’s a bloody, CIA-backed
coup.



Dean Reed was still only 32 in 1970. Already his career had taken numerous strange
twists away from the conventional career path many expected from him. The next
and last stage of his career would take him even farther away from the recording
studios of Nashville and Los Angeles. Indeed, he was about to move deep into
the heart of America’s Cold War enemy.


 




Reed’s most lasting impact as a singer and entertainer was in the Soviet Union,
where he eventually sold several million albums and became one of the most recognizable
voices and faces in pop music. He felt an immediate closeness to the Russian
spirit, to the boundless frontiers and the multi-ethnic Soviet society that
he said reminded him of the American ideal. In all of his years as an unofficial
“goodwill ambassador” of the United States, his greatest frustration was witnessing
the deep misunderstanding between two nations that were, in his view, so incredibly
similar. This sentiment was shared by many smaller nations caught between the
two superpowers, and in many of these countries he became a huge star.



Though he chose to settle in the East Germany, Reed toured the U.S.S.R. almost
every year and had easy access to the Soviet leaders. He was the only American
ever to be awarded the Lenin Prize for the Arts, which he received in 1979.
He claimed that artists, scientists and athletes had an obligation to serve
not only as role models, but to influence policy – just as his old Hollywood
teacher Paton Price had once urged. Reed saw an opportunity to enter the world
of Cold War politics as a peace activist and help bridge the gap between East
and West.



The East German film starlet Renate Blume, Reed’s third and last wife, suspected
during her first years with Dean that he was using politics to further his career.
Surely there was a large market for his brand of entertainment in the East bloc
countries. Rock ’n’ roll was exploding out of its time warp. Country music had
a huge appeal, especially in Czechoslovakia, as did the left-wing folk sounds
of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Even if Reed’s work was often mediocre, as
in the case of his films, he was reliable. He was safe. And he did his own stunts.



While he spoke to audiences in German, Italian, Spanish and even Russian, Reed
retained an unequivocally American presence on stage – and off. Before he arrived
on the scene, Soviet artists traditionally remained apart from the audience
while performing. Not Reed. He would serenade a blushing young schoolgirl in
the front row, then rush down and put a caring arm around her grandmother and
kiss them both on the cheek. To avoid being labeled, he called himself a “Love
Singer,” and watching his performances now, it’s not hard to imagine him at
a Superbowl halftime show or headlining at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.



Detractors claimed that his fawning audiences in the closed, communist countries
had little choice but to give him the benefit of the doubt. A lurking chorus
of critics on the other side of the wall charged that he could never make it
in the U.S.A. – not because of his politics, but because he wasn’t talented
enough. Still, his following grew, as did the perception of him as a threat
to those in power.




 


With a growing career and reputation in the Soviet Bloc, Dean Reed established
a comfortable home in a small lakeside town outside of East Berlin, where he
raised a family and enjoyed the adulation of fans who would greet him daily,
bring him flowers and politely ask for autographs. He was not rich by Western
standards, but he had, as he tirelessly maintained, “everything he needed,”
evidenced by the Wartburg – not a Mercedes – he chose to drive.


In June, 1986, he began preparations for his biggest film to date, and it’s
clear from his correspondence at the time that he intended to stage a great
“comeback” in the U.S.A. In autumn of 1987, he would tour his still-beloved
America.



Touring as what, however, was his dilemma. For what have might been the first
time in his life, Reed needed to be packaged. He needed a way to sell himself.
But how? He had been a commercial success in the absence of a commercial culture.
How to reintroduce himself to an American culture still wary of the Soviet threat?
How to tour a nation that had once labeled him the Red Elvis?



Sadly, he would never find a solution to this problem.



On the night of June 12, 1986, Dean Reed disappeared. Four days later, he was
found floating in the Zeuthner See lake with a partially dissolved sleeping
pill in his stomach. The death was ruled an accidental drowning, and the case
was quickly closed.



Not everyone was pleased with the ruling. Reed was a physically fit man, and
his friend Phil Everly claimed that the 47-year-old crooner could still walk
on his hands. He is also known to have been a strong swimmer.



According to Rudolf Strobinger in a 1999 Metro 002 article, a German de-tective
novelist named Peter Schrenk claimed to have new evidence of Reed’s deep depression
before his death, contrary to the optimism that the filmmaker Roberts and his
friend Dixie Schnebley gathered from correspondence. Schrenk suggests, based
on information allegedly revealed after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that Reed
was dependent on tranquilizers and had chronic marriage problems that led to
suicidal tendencies.



There is also evidence that Reed’s popularity had peaked in Czecho-slovakia
as well as in East Germany. According to his producer at Supra-phon, Michael
Prostějovsk'', Reed had a reputation as a propaganda dummy masquerading as a
peace activist – partly because the press portrayed him as “a fighter for socialism”
and not the “rock and roll star he had always been.”



And then there are speculations concerning his relationship with both the East
German secret police and higher-ups in the government. Reed often vented his
frustration about a lack of progress in East Germany that he felt was directly
caused by the “bureaucratic class.” It’s not hard to imagine a depression and
paranoia born of this pressure and isolation, but nor is it hard to imagine
powerful men wishing the critical Reed would disappear.



Roberts believes that the circumstances surrounding Reed’s death hint not only
of a contract on the singer’s life, but also of tacit support by the American
government of the murder. Suggesting that Reed’s presence might be considered
“undesirable,” Roberts finds it suspect that despite being an American citizen
and a major public figure, no inquiry into his death was made by the American
authorities.



How is it that Reed has remained a virtual unknown in the United States, his
home country, after a world-famous recording and acting career, when his less-famous
American counterparts remain household names?



What Reed once called a “conspiracy of silence” is partially explained by his
outspoken beliefs as a peacenik on the “wrong” side of the Cold War, and partially
by the xenophobia of the American press.



While more details about his life have come to light in recent years, and more
will be made public with the release of Comrade Rockstar and an upcoming biography
by Jennifer Dun-bar Dorn, the mystery surrounding Dean Reed’s death and legacy
will continue to linger. As will fascination about how this American talent
strayed so far from home.








Dean Reed Remembered



Pete Seeger legendary folk singer who played Prague in 1964:“I knew about Dean
Reed but never met him. He was supposed to visit me, but died unexpectedly.
Poor guy. He allowed the Soviets to boost him to ‘stardom’ and found out too
late what a trap that can be.”



Michael Prostějovsk'', former Chief Producer at Supraphon Records, who has lived
in Cologne since 1983:



“I first met Dean in 1976 when we recorded his first album for Supraphon. He
became a good friend, but was always a very complicated personality. He seemed
to be addicted to his popularity, [but] he couldn’t understand that the girls
liked him for being American – a handsome James Dean type. He hated the corrupt
way foreign artists were managed by party functionaries at Pragoconcert and
wrote letters directly to President Husák. His career declined after that and
his last record was a flop. I don’t think he had a chance to make it in the
U.S. The American television program [60 Minutes] was a catastrophe for him,
but I don’t think he killed himself because of it.”



Josef Hrub'', actor:



“No one typified the era of Normalizace better than Dean Reed. There was such
a buzz when he played Palác Lucerna in 1978. When Ein Kessel Buntes [a variety
show] was on television, you could be sure the streets were empty.”



Gene Deitch, Prague resident since1960:



“I met Dean Reed first at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the late ’70s. I
asked him, as a fellow expatriate, how he liked living in East Germany. He quickly
corrected me, ‘It’s not East Germany, it is the German Democratic Republic’.
Whatever. He was pretty full of himself.”Reds in Redface


 


 


Reds in Redface


During the ’70s and ’80s, the East German state film studio DEFA (originally
the UFA studios) released a series of Indianerfilme that served both to inspire
filmgoers who’d grown up on the adventure stories of Karl May and to retell
the westerns in a decidely propagandist light.



Mostly, the traditional good guy/bad guy roles were reversed, changing Native
Americans from savages into triumphant rebels. Dean Reed proven his big-screen
presence in eight spaghetti westerns during his stint in Italy and was a natural
star for the productions which were often filmed in Bulgaria and Yugoslavia
using darker skinned Roma as the Indians and Reed as the occasional sympathetic
cowboy hero.



It was on the set of these films that Reed met and befriended other stars of
the East Bloc, including Yugoslav Gojko Mitic “Vinnetou” and the Czech actor-singer
Václav Neckář, who starred with Reed in Sing Cowboy Sing. Reed also frequently
showcased his formidable horsemanship on his own wild west shows that were widely
seen on East German television and throughout the Soviet Bloc.




 


Reed on Film



Will Roberts is the American documentary filmmaker who “discovered” Dean Reed
and chronicled his life in his 1985 film American Rebel. He describes his first
encounter with the singer in 1979 in Moscow:



I was walking with my interpreter across Red Square where I was attending
the Moscow International Film Festival when we came upon a mob of people reaching
for autographs.



“Who’s that?” I asked.



“Dean Reed.” replied my interpreter.



“Who’s Dean Reed?”



“You don’t know who Dean Reed is?! Why he’s the most famous American in the
whole world!”



Roberts spent the next five years tracking the career of this man who would
become his close friend and confidante. American Rebel premiered at the Denver
Film Festival in April, 1985, and officially opened the next chapter of Dean
Reed’s long-awaited homecoming. The film garnered some press coverage, but it
wasn’t until a segment on the American TV magazine program 60 Minutes profiled
Reed under the title “The Defector” that Reed finally was re-introduced to the
national audience.



In the segment, hosted by Mike Wallace, Reed was portrayed as a naive and misguided
expatriate living a privileged existence in East Germany to serve the propaganda
interests of the regime. He was shown fraternizing with Yassir Arafat and Palestinian
revolutionaries not as a peace activist, as Reed claimed, he rather with an
AK-47 slung over his shoulder. He ably sparred with Wallace in the course of
the interview – itemizing the East German system’s benefits of free health care
and education and the absence of unemployment and crime – and discussed meeting
Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega and other bogeymen of U.S. foreign policy.



In the Cold War logic of the time, Reed was at the very least a traitor, and
probably a spy. According to Roberts, this segment brought more hostile letters
to the program than any other in its long history. Reed was not welcome in his
homeland. Not as a singer. Not as an actor. And especially not as a political
activist.



In an effort to counter any potential Hollywood propaganda that would depict
Reed as a traitor in Comrade Rockstar, as happened in the 60 Minutes episode,
Roberts plans to release a newly edited version of American Rebel. One remarkable
clip from the documentary highlights the absurdity of Reed’s fame, both then
and now. Roberts’ Russian interpreter tells of a Voice of America radio broadcast
in Moscow in the early 1980s when a request was made for a Dean Reed song. The
DJ curtly declared that “there is no such singer called Dean Reed,” and proceeded
to play The Doors.



Will Roberts is also considering an offer by DreamWorks to be a consultant on
the Tom Hanks film, but he has neither accepted nor declined.



He notes that, “Personally, I can’t imagine Tom Hanks playing Dean Reed.”



The Dean Reed documentary American Rebel will be shown in an informal
screening at Café Duende (Karolíny Světle 30) on Sundays through January. Showings
begin at 6 and 10 pm.


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