American crooner who became "Comrade Rockstar"
By Clive Freeman, dpa
Berlin (dpa) - Denver-born singer Dean Reed never made it big in the West, but in Moscow he became known as "Comrade Rockstar" during the communist era, and had a huge following elsewhere in eastern Europe, South America, Iraq and Lebanon.
His concerts were foot-stomping sell-outs from Santiago to Baghdad, Warsaw to Helsinki, Budapest to East Berlin in the 1960s and '70s.
But, in later years, with his career in decline, his marriage shaky and little prospect of his securing work if he returned to the US, a despairing Reed drove his car to a Berlin lake and drowned himself.
That was on June 17 1986. Now some 20 years later a documentary movie about the rise and fall of Reed, who was a friend of Salvador Allende, Yassir Arafat and Daniel Ortega, was screened in the Panorama section of the Berlin Film Festival.
Premiered Wednesday night at the city's "International" cinema on the Karl Marx Allee (formerly Stalin Allee), the 95-minute-long film attracted a lot of attention from people living in the eastern half of the city, some of whom knew Reed personally and regularly attended his concerts 25 years ago.
As the film's director, Dresden-born Leopold Gruen put it: "Reed's life was a mosaic dominated by his longing for success and his naive political engagement at a time when the world was divided by two major ideologies."
By the time he was 23, the 1938-born Reed had dreams of becoming an Elvis Presley-style singer in the United States, and at one stage was even recording on the Capitol label ballads and country-style protest songs.
But with little success. So, when he discovered his records were selling well in Latin America he began making extended tours to Chile, Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil. By the late 1960s he was being mobbed wherever he went, as Gruen's movie colourfully illustrates.
A pacifist, it was not long before Reed had ripened into a Marxist in the revolutionary climate of South America, and when Salvador Allende was seeking to become Chile's Marxist president, Reed campaigned for him. Later, after Allende was successful, the singer was pictured congratulating him at his inauguration ceremony in Santiago in 1973.
Years later, Reed made a film titled El Cantor on location in Sofia, which was based on the life of Chilean singer-poet Victor Jara who was killed during internment in the aftermath of General Pinochet's putsch in Chile.
By 1974, Reed was giving a stream of concerts in the Soviet Union and in neighbouring Eastern European countries. Interviewed in the film, Egon Krenz, who briefly succeeded Erich Honecker as East German head of state in late 1989, says after Reed's arrival in East Berlin in the early 1970s he was told what would be expected of him.
Soon Reed was busy visiting schools, factories and clubs singing his protest songs and spreading the gospel of Marxism to young and old alike. In return, he enjoyed a privileged life, living in a lake-side bungalow in Schmoeckwitz on the eastern outskirts of Berlin, for which he paid only a nominal rent.
Aside from family members, contemporaries seen in the Panorama documentary include big-name German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl, Salvador Allende's writer daughter, Isabel, director Celino Bleiweiss, Chilean Radio DJ Chucho Fernandez and American radio host Peter Boyles.
Mueller-Stahl speaks in the film of Reed's great popularity in Eastern Germany in those years. "He had an audience here, and perhaps he could also have had one in America had he decided to stay there," he said.
"For young East Germans Dean Reed was, with his charm and handsome looks, an American hero for us in cut-off East Berlin," said a middle-aged woman after seeing the film Wednesday. "It didn't matter that his voice was not that special. He'd chosen to live among us. We liked that."
But attitudes towards the singer changed later. Restive youngsters in the East Bloc grew slowly tired of his voice, and his unquestioning loyalty to the Soviet Union.
On a visit to the States in the mid-1980s, Reed managed to upset Americans by swearing allegiance to Moscow while at the same time hinting that if the folks were nice to him he might even consider returning home for good.
They weren't. Following an appearance on CBS TV's 60 Minutes show with famed anchorman Mike Wallace, furious American viewers called and wrote to brand him a "Commie stooge."
Back in East Berlin there were further troubles. Reed's third marriage to East German actress Renate Blume was in trouble. In a taped message made after the singer's suicide, Blume's recorded voice is heard saying how, on two successive nights, she and Reed were involved in fierce arguments.
The first night he had tried slashing his wrists, the next night he had left the bungalow in a temper with some of his belongings. That was, claimed the actress, the last she had seem of him. Several days later his body was recovered from the river, along with a suicide note.
Reed's widow does not appear in the film. Gruen says this is because the actress has sold the film rights to the Reed story to Hollywood Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks who plans a full length feature on the singer's life.