Comrade Rockstar: Dean Reed
DEAN REED WAS an American pop star but few if any people in the United States would even recognize him, much less own his records or remember his films.
This is because Reed found his most loving audience in the Eastern Bloc.
An aspiring singer-songwriter and spaghetti-western actor, Reed's social-conscience, peace activism and popularity among screaming Cold War teens drove him to take up residence in South America and, later, Communist East Germany. There, he enjoyed superstar-status and political influence until his waning fame drove him to suicide during the mid-'80s.
The Goethe-Institut is screening selected Dean Reed films through Jan. 7 — as well as the recent full-length documentary "The Red Elvis" on Mon., Dec. 10, at 6:30 p.m. — as part of the series "The Red Elvis: Dean Reed in Film."
Peter Rollberg — an associate professor of Slavic languages, film studies and international affairs at George Washington University — is a former resident of East Germany and was asked by the Goethe-Institut to introduce "Blood Brothers," which was screened on Dec. 3. He was kind enough to share some of his experiences and ideas about the man whom he referred to as "a tragedy of banality."
EXPRESS: Can you talk a little bit about Dean Reed?
ROLLBERG: In a country that many people wanted to escape from — to have an American artist want to come live in this country was a paradox. He had the peak of his pop career in the mid- to late '70s. By the '80s, it was slow, painful, pitiful decline.
Several books that have appeared about him compare him to Elvis. That's wrong. He was much more wooden — he didn't have the sensuality that Elvis had. Usually these titles are used to make him sound more spectacular. But for a while he did fill halls. He also knew that because of his political loyalty — the cause of fighting for peace — that made him an asset in the eyes of communist propaganda and leaders.
He was personally acquainted to [Erich] Honecker. He had access to highest echelons of power in Communist Bloc. That, again, made him a curiosity. He presented kind of a strange case.
His suicide was a complete shtick. It was downplayed as much as possible. The [suicide] letter was kept in Honecker's private safe and the original has not been found ever since. They didn't want the personal drama to get out. He was a proto-communist icon and, as such, his image was supposed to be protected from curiosity.
EXPRESS: Did you ever meet Dean Reed?
ROLLBERG: I saw him once at Leipzig documentary film festival. I was surprised at seeing him completely alone. I was hypnotized by this phenomenon. He was very elegant. Nobody approached him — it was as if some magic circle surrounded him. He had this very cold transparent gaze in his eyes. I had an image of him as a buddy — he had joined the world of East Germany and East Germans. But there was this incredibly painful loneliness that surrounded him. I was disturbed seeing it. So were other people.
EXPRESS: When was this?
ROLLBERG: I think this was probably in '82 or '83. His stardom was already in decline. He still had all of the venues in G.D.R. [German Democratic Republic] and the Soviet Union. What you can see — even in some scenes in films like "Blood Brothers" — is a certain torment in his features. Something almost stiff and paralyzed, an inability to show a lot of emotion — maybe it was the depression that he was struggling with.
EXPRESS: How conscious was Reed of the discrepancies between his values and the reality of the G.D.R.?
ROLLBERG: From invoking my own experience, he cannot have been too intelligent a person. For him it was important to be loved and to find viewers. He had that in the Eastern Bloc. He was somebody there — the pet of the communist leadership. Whether he was really aware of how painful the existence was in a country like that? Whether he could even imagine what that meant or the schizophrenia of his own situation — singing and talking to people who weren't free?
I think there were intellectual limitations. His narcissistic personality got in his way. Even if somebody told him he wouldn't get it — that's my assumption. That's how I explain it for myself. He doesn't strike me as a particularly thoughtful or analytical person.
What he appreciated was the love of the naive youth — he craved that. He would serve those groups — the clientele that gave him that love and recognition. Would he actually come out with an opinion of his own? I don't know. I wonder.
I don't think he had it in him to be an independent thinker at all, in any respect. He wanted to be admired by women and for his singing. There was definitely potential for that — but he overestimated it. He hugged everybody — all of these repulsive old party hacks. He felt good about general causes [world peace] that are hard to refute. Would he go any deeper? Sometimes you can't choose between good and bad. He wouldn't see the complexity of situations. He wanted an easy dichotomy and if he couldn't accept that he couldn't live.
Goethe-Institut, 814 7th St. NW; Mon., 6:30 p.m., $6,; 202-289-1200. (Gallery Place-Chinatown)
Written by Express contributor Aaron Leitko