The Red Square Elvis
Dean Reed was an unlikely expat. The Denver-born singer was the idol of pop fans from communist East Berlin to the Urals. Now, almost two decades after his death, Dean's life story is about to take to the silver screen. Clive Freeman writes about the Dean Reed he knew.
Armed with his guitar, baritone voice and handsome all-American looks, he seemed out of place in Communist East Berlin during the Cold War. Now, even more incongruously, his life is going to be the subject of Oscar-winner Tom Hanks' next movie.
That would have pleased Dean Reed, a charismatic crooner whom this correspondent knew well. Though virtually unknown back home, the Denver-born singer was the idol of folk-rock fans from East Berlin to the Urals in the 1970s and 80s.
His concerts were foot-stomping sell-outs, his records topped the charts and a movie, made on the final days of Victor Jara, a Chilean poet-singer killed in the aftermath of General Pinochet's seizure of power in Santiago in 1973, was a box-office hit in the East.
Known by some as the "Red Square Elvis", Reed made a point of visiting schools, factories and clubs in former East Germany, singing his protest songs and spreading the gospel of Marxism to young and old alike.
But by the 1980s, Reed's singing career was on the wane. East Europeans were no longer responding to Moscow's hard-line brand of Communism. Restive youngsters in the East Bloc tired of his voice, and his never-questioning love of the Soviet Union.
On a return visit to the US in the mid-80, he angered Americans by still swearing loyalty to Moscow, and then, incredibly, hinting he might not be against returning home for good if the folks were nice to him.
They weren't. Following an appearance on CBS TV's "60 Minutes" show with a grilling interview by famed anchorman Mike Wallace, furious American viewers called and wrote to brand him a Commie stooge. He was deeply hurt, reading the letters over and over and chafing anew each time at the vitriol poured out against him.
This reporter got to know Reed well during the Cold War. From West Berlin, I would drive through Checkpoint Charlie to visit him at his lake-side villa in outlying Schmoeckwitz, on the wood-shrouded eastern edge of Berlin.
White-painted with a curve-shaped roof among the pines, the villa had a delightful view of the lake at the rear. It was a property reserved for the very privileged in East Berlin, but Reed would have none of that.
It was all done on a strict rotation basis. First come, first serve basis, he insisted, hurt when you showed you didn't believe him.
In 1971 Reed fell in love with a young Dresden-born teacher called Wiebke. Two years later when he wanted to marry her, he was given special permission to do so from none other than Erich Honecker, the East German head of state.
I shot pictures of Dean and Wiebke, arms slung round one another, at Alexander Platz in East Berlin. By now he was a big celebrity in the East. The couple kept a large dog. It was a half-Siberian Laica, half wolf, which Reed insisted was a gift from Moscow.
But the couple's marriage didn't last long. They divorced in January, 1978, after Reed had begun an affair with Renate Blume, a popular East German actress, whom he married subsequently.
In 1977 he invited me to East Berlin for a special screening of "El Cantor", the movie he had written, directed and starred in, depicting the life of Victor Jara, who had been beaten and tortured to death by the Junta at the time of Allendes overthrow in the early 1970s. On arrival at the studio, Reed gave me a bear hug.
The East German DEFA-made movie, shot on location in Sofia at a cost of two million dollars, was shown repeatedly on East German television in the 1980s. Reed had hired more than 10,000 extras from the Bulgarian Youth League Komsomol for the film.
Reed had become the most decorated Westerner in the East Bloc. In 1978 he received the Soviet Peace Peace Prize Medal, and flew to Moscow for the award ceremony. He also possessed a fistful of other peace medals from Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and East Germany.
I took a photo of him, proudly sporting his medals, in front of the new showcase Palace of the Republic in East Berlin, now an abandoned ruin, due to be torn down soon. Reed presented me with two of his records on my departure.
In 1984 Reed learned that his father, a retired schoolteacher and conservative Republican, had committed suicide in the US.
Reed's Rockstar career was in rapid decline. There were fewer rousing concerts or invitations to Marxist conferences and schools, and his marriage to Renate Blume was in deep trouble.
During one of the couple's frequent spats the singer stormed out of their villa and drove off in a car. Three days later his body was fished out of the River Dahme near his home. Rumours spread that Reed might have been killed by the Stasi secret service because had talked of possibly returning to the United States.
More confusion was caused when the East German News Agency put out a statement on 17 June 1986, claiming the all-American socialist hero had died as a result of a tragic accident.
In fact, Reed had killed himself. An autopsy on his body revealed that the singer had drowned, and that prior to entering the water he had made repeated slashes to his body with a knife. The rock star's life had ended in tragedy.
For many Germans living in the eastern part of the country Reed is a long-forgotten figure. But not for Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks. Earlier this summer the Hollywood star announced he had secured the film rights to Dean Reeds life from the singer's family.
Now comes the news that he's got the go-ahead from Dreamworks Studios to produce and star in a movie about rock star Reed. A shooting date will be fixed soon.
Hanks has spent a lot of time researching the singers story on trips to Berlin in recent years. He has also been in touch with Reed's third wife, Renate Blume, who still lives in the German capital.
The Oscar-winner currently makes a European tour to promote "Terminal", his latest movie, in which he plays a traveller from Central Asia who arrives at a major western airport to learn that the regime of his country has been overthrown, leaving him stateless.
DPA [Copyright Expatica 2004]