City Pages 07.12.2005
He started out as a Grade-B Ricky Nelson; He ended up as an American revolutionary
Exile on Stalinallee
by Jim Walsh
When Tom Hanks makes his movie, we won't even talk to you people," cracks Marv Davidov to a smallish group gathered in his apartment lobby. Davidov, of course, is the godfather of Minneapolis activism and currently the teacher of a course in "active nonviolence" at the University of St. Thomas. His Saturday afternoon audience is made up of kindred spirits - union activists, peace workers, members of Women Against Military Madness, workers from Habitat for Humanity, and various other rabble-rousers, free-thinkers, and change agents, any one of whom, Davidov insists to a visitor, "would make a great story."
The movie in question is about Davidov's old pal Dean Reed, who is the subject of a new book, Rock 'n' Roll Radical: The Life and Mysterious Death of Dean Reed (Beaver's Pond Press), by St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter Charles Laszewski. Hanks, according to news reports, is working with Reed's widow to bring the singer's story to the big screen. The working title is Comrade Rock Star.
"You can't read this guy's life story, or talk to people who knew him, without coming away really impressed at his courage," says Laszewski, before doing a reading from Radical at Davidov's south Minneapolis pad. "Not many people ever put their lives on the line for anything. And he was doing it routinely. And quite frankly, his beliefs and his willingness to stand up for those beliefs made it impossible for him to come back to the U.S. You have to have admiration for people who take that kind of risk."
Reed was born in 1938 on a chicken farm outside of Denver, Colorado. He started playing guitar when he was 12 years old, and eventually ended up in Hollywood as a B-grade matinee idol and singer in the mold of Rickey Nelson. When Hollywood's star machine proved too stifling, Reed rolled a few hit songs into a career in South America before ultimately landing in East Germany, where he sold millions of records. In 1966, he became the first American rock star to perform in the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, his utopian vision of socialism kept him blacklisted and marginalized in the States.
In 1986, Mike Wallace and 60 Minutes lionized him in a piece called "The Defector" in which Reed compared Ronald Reagan to Stalin. Hate mail poured in from his home country, which stung the native son, because Reed's next plan of attack was to come home and run for the U.S. Senate. A few months later he was found dead, floating in a lake outside East Berlin. He was 47.
Laszewski first heard about Reed in 1978, when Davidov brought Reed and his film El Cantor to Minneapolis for a U Film Society-sponsored screening. Reed had written and directed this biopic about the murdered Chilean folk singer and revolutionary Victor Jara; he also starred in the title role. At the time, Laszewski was an editor at the Minnesota Daily. The day after the screening, the paper carried an interview with Reed in which he said, "I've crossed over the line. People will accept a Joan Baez or a Jane Fonda, even a Marlon Brando. But not a Marxist living in East Germany. I'll come to America when I can help fight for a movement that needs me. But I'm not going to come to the U.S. to sit on my ass. The FBI would love that."
Laszewski didn't know what to make of his story. "I thought, 'This is weird. Why would an American willingly live in a communist country?'" he recalls. "A couple days later, he went out on the power line protest with Marv and got arrested." (The demonstration pitted Minnesota farmers and activists against utility companies and government, and helped launch the career of Paul Wellstone.) "It turned into a big international affair," Laszewski continues. "A big media event."
"That's what I call the World Series of trespassing," cackles Davidov, tipping a glass of white wine.
Over the years, Laszewski kept an eye on Reed's adventures via newspaper and magazine clips. He spotted a four-paragraph obit for Reed in the Pioneer Press back in the '80s, but he couldn't get his hands on documents from Reed's later years until the Berlin Wall came down in 1991. He wrote a feature about Reed for the Pi Press in 1996. Soon after, he interviewed Reed's first wife Patricia, and embarked on what would become a 10-year "odyssey" of telling the tale. It's a great story, and a dramatic read for anyone interested in history, politics, activism, or rock. It also comes nearly 20 years after Reed's death, and to a public that very well may have forgotten the entertainer entirely.
Laszewski seems untroubled by that fact. "His politics offer something of a counterbalance to the current political situation," he observes. "And besides it being a fascinating tale, I find it always worthwhile, whenever possible, to highlight people with courage and conviction. Too often in this world, all of us just kind of go along and don't take a stand, because we're afraid. I think it's inspirational, and it gives people a chance to reflect on what might happen if they were to go outside their comfort level."
Laszewski knows something about this last subject. A longtime union advocate at the paper (where I used to be on staff), he and colleague Rick Linsk were suspended by Pioneer Press management for attending a Bruce Springsteen-headlined benefit concert for Kerry/Edwards at the Xcel Energy Center in the fall of 2004. The story made headlines around the world, and has inspired some ribbing from Laszewski's colleagues that the "Rock 'n' Roll Radical" in the book's title could be the author.
"In some ways, the Pioneer Press in particular and a lot of newspapers in general have lost some of their courage," says Laszewski. "They're frightened, I believe, by the drop in circulation, and the constant phone calls and e-mails they get from conservatives hounding them for alleged bias. And instead of taking the old course of action of some of the old-fashioned editors that I've heard stories about at the Pioneer Press - one guy was famous for saying, 'Ma'am, if you don't stop, I'll be forced to cancel your subscription,' and hang up - they're afraid of this stuff. And they're taking it out on their employees."
For his part, Davidov plans to bring Reed's story to his students in the spring, as an example of a dying breed.
"How many people could you name who put out their deepest private thoughts and feelings in their public life?" says Davidov. "Young people coming up through this capitalist system here want to make it. They want fame, money, recognition. But how many people can you name who will take a stand, with enlightened positions on war, poverty, the environment, minorities, or whatever? Most of 'em go along. [Reed] took a chance. That makes him rare.
"Every revolutionary artist I've known - and I've known a lot of them, locally and nationally - also wants to entertain, as well as impart some message and be an example in some way, and change reality. I mean, look at it. The people in power now want to take us down with them. They're destroying the earth, the air, the water. And they do this slaughter of anything with integrity in our names and with our money.
"And Dean would say, and I say it, there's only one way to take your name off the slaughter: You have to publicly resist. Otherwise, your name's on it. Whether you know it or not. Now if I tell you, you now know it. Therefore, you have an obligation to do something. Otherwise you're a fucking sellout."