Guardian 29.10.2004


From the land of the free...

During the cold war, all-American boy Dean Reed was a huge rock'n'roll star - behind the iron curtain. He was mobbed in Moscow; Yasser Arafat was a fan. But in 1986, his body was found in a lake. Was it KGB? CIA? Or did Reed simply feel he had no place in a post-glasnost world? Reggie Nadelson reports

Guardian 29.10.2004

In April 1986, I was at home in New York, half watching 60 Minutes, the CBS news programme, when a piece came on, called The Defector. It was about a pop star named Dean Reed. He was handsome. He was American. He was singing Heartbreak Hotel and Tutti Frutti and he was doing it in the Soviet Union, and this was only the earliest days of glasnost when rockers in Red Square were not at all commonplace. I'd never even heard of him; I sat up.

It turned out that Reed - unknown in the west - had been a big star in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe for two decades; he was called the Red Elvis, the communist Johnny Cash, the man who brought rock 'n' roll to Russia. He made films, "eastern" westerns, as a singing cowboy. If he was American, and was he! - the gorgeous thick blond hair, the fabulous big white teeth, the lithe lean body, the promiscuous smile - he spouted a nifty Soviet party line. It was an astonishing performance. Six weeks later, he was dead.

Reed's body was discovered in a lake in east Berlin near the house where he lived in the suburb of Schmöckwitz. According to Russell Miller, who broke the story in the Sunday Times, there was plenty of secrecy surrounding Reed's death. The Berlin wall was still up; the Stasi still ruled the GDR; news was suppressed and a trickle of fact became a stream of speculation. Was Reed killed by the Stasi? The KGB? The CIA? Neo-Nazis? Accidental death by drowning was the official verdict; no one really believed it.

I set out to discover who killed him and who he was and I seem to have been following Reed's incredible story for half my life now for a book. Tom Hanks bought the rights for a film in which he is to star. When I met him in Los Angeles - me trying to pretend I was completely cool about the fact that I was drinking Coca-Cola and discussing the cold war with Tom Hanks - what was most alluring was that he, too, was so taken with it all. That it was somehow a story that encapsulated a whole era.

Comic, triumphal, tragic, heroic, incredible, Reed was part Forrest Gump, part political hustler, part rock'n'roll star. Hard to believe it's 15 years in November since the Berlin wall fell. Reed left America just as the wall went up and died just before it came down. He was a tale from the cold war, and the wall was his frontier. Crossing it gave him glamour. It made him Comrade Rockstar.

Reed was born in 1938 in Wheat Ridge, a suburb of Denver, Colorado; a place still so provincial it barely had a traffic light, and where practically everyone had a horse. His mother, Ruth Anna, had been a schoolteacher, and now kept chickens and a pig. His father Cyril, also a teacher, was a strict disciplinarian; despite the beatings he inflicted, he was proud of Dean. There were two other boys, Vern and Dale. Dean longed for his father's attention. Cyril became a founder member of the extreme right-wing John Birch Society. (Sweet revenge, perhaps, for Dean to become a communist. But that came later.)

It was an all-American childhood: Dean attended military academy; he rode; he swam; he joined the Future Farmers of America; when he was 17, he raced a mule 110 miles for a quarter; the mule lost. "Some people thought it showed his tenacity and grit," his mother told me. "I always thought I had Dean under a magic star."

Reed's ears bugged him, though. They were as big as jug handles. And he was shy and thin. He got a guitar, figuring it would help get him some girls. He was known as "Slim" Reed.

Postwar America was triumphant and remorselessly upbeat, a time when any boy could be president if he tried hard enough, as long as he was white and obeyed the rules. Conformity and fear were mixed with optimism: the cold war was on, anti-communist hysteria raged, kids hid under their desks (duck and cover) during nuclear drills. Only the first squeak of sedition called rock'n'roll arrived with Bill Haley and the Comets' Rock Around the Clock.

Reed finished Wheat Ridge High and went to college, planning a career as a TV weatherman. In 1958, he quit and went to Hollywood. His dad wasn't crazy about the "singing stuff", but Reed thought he was pretty good and wanted a shot at the big time. The trip west became family legend; in a blurred black and white snapshot you could see him, unbearably hopeful in a white Chevrolet Impala convertible, big as a boat. On the road, he gave a man a lift and in return he gave him a name at Capitol Records, and as a result Reed got a recording contract. It was just like the movies, his mother said.

He enrolled at the Warner Brothers Drama School, where the acting class was taught by Paton Price, and among the other students were Don and Phil Everly. Already stars, the Everly Brothers had had hits as early as 1957 with Wake Up, Little Susie; the studios, desperate for another Elvis, recruited every rocker they could find. Phil and Reed became life-long friends.

I met Phil Everly in Burbank. Handsome, with immense southern charm, he recalled how important Price had been. "He was what you might call a life teacher," Everly said. "He was also a surrogate father for Dean."

Price was a critical force in Reed's life. A classic liberal in a Hollywood still beset by recent memories of the House of Un-American Activities nightmare, he told his students you could only be a good artist if you were a good person. Reed lapped it up. For years, Price encouraged Reed's political ventures; a few people thought Price played godfather to Reed for years to come. Reed's mother said: "I think what Paton taught Dean was about sex."

By the early 1960s, Reed - fabulously handsome - was making records, doing bit parts in bad films and showing up on TV. He'd met Patty, who would be his first wife. But he was restless. He wanted more. He heard that one of his tunes, Our Summer Romance, was a hit in Chile. So he went there, barely telling anyone. In Santiago, he found thousands of people waiting for him: "Viva Dean! Viva Dean!"

"He was a naive gringo who had come to 'do' Latin America," said a DJ at a Santiago radio station. Like a character from a movie musical, Dean was called the Magnificent Gringo.

He had the looks. He had the smile. The blue eyes. He had a light blue gabardine suit with very tight pants. But in South America, Reed fell prey to politics. He saw the writing on the wall: it said Yankee Go Home. Like most Americans, in discovering he was not universally loved, he was hurt. But instead of being downhearted, Reed set out to save the world.

"South America changed my life because there one can see the justice and injustice, or poverty and wealth," Reed said in an interview for American Rebel, a documentary about his life. "They are so clear that you must take a stand. I was not a capitalist, nor was I blind. And there I became a revolutionary."

He was unstoppable. He played for rich and poor, protested about Vietnam and nuclear weapons; he went to jail, he hung out with Pablo Neruda, the poet, and Victor Jara, the folk singer, and went up the Amazon with his Indian comrades.

The political limelight did what fame does for other stars: it turned him on. But it was what happened in Helsinki in 1965 that was the real beginning of his life as Comrade Rockstar.

In the mid-1960s, Soviet officials were on the lookout for acceptable entertainers to keep the kids in line. Nikolai Pastoukhov, a Moscow journalist, wasn't expecting much in the way of young blood at the World Peace Conference in Helsinki in 1965. The conference was a mess, Russians and Chinese not speaking, delegates yelling, a fistfight in the offing.

Suddenly a young man jumped on to the podium and started playing his guitar and singing. He made everyone hold hands and sing We Shall Overcome. His name was Dean Reed.

Here was this handsome American who espoused socialism but sang peace songs. Pastoukhov thought Bingo! (Or the Soviet equivalent.) And he helped set Reed's first trip to the USSR in motion.

Reed was 28 in 1966 when he played Moscow's Variety Theatre. He sang folk songs and show tunes like Maria, a big favourite in the Soviet Union. He could do the Twist; he moved like a rock'n'roller.

It was electric. For an encore he sang Ghost Riders in the Sky; it became his signature tune. Eventually, when he started playing countries in what one Soviet journalist called the "socialist camp", Reed sang it for Yasser Arafat, who could be seen on film tapping his fingers.

In reporting Reed's performances, Pravda noted that "Dean Reed left his own country as a sign of protest against the unjust US war in Vietnam." Soon he had a recording contract with Melodiya, the state recording company that had never before issued a rock'n'roll record.

On his first tour of the Soviet Union, Reed played 28 cities. People mobbed him. Still based in Latin America, he went back to the USSR repeatedly, for concerts, as a peace delegate. Everyone I ever met in the Soviet Union remembered Reed; even now, ask any Russian older than 40 and they say, "Ah, yes, Dean-rid. I remember!"

"Dean couldn't go out of the house without being mobbed," said Everly, who had once visited him in east Berlin, where they played a concert together. "Man, he was bigger than Elvis."

Was he talented? He had a pleasant voice, and he could whack away at the guitar; he could act a bit. But it didn't matter. Nobody understood the meaning of Dean Reed, his rise and fall, better than Artemy Troitsky, the Soviet Union's first and best rock critic, author of Back in the USSR.

"No living western performer of rock'n' roll ever came to the Soviet Union," Troitsky said. "Dean Reed was young. He played guitar. He was American. Rock 'n' roll meant a lot to absolutely every Soviet kid. It made them feel free and different from their parents. It was also like a door into another way of life, into the west. We didn't care about politics, but we did care about what an awful thing is official Soviet pop music," Troitsky said. "The west was something good. And Dean Reed wore cowboy boots and he came from the land of the free and the home of the brave and Chuck Berry."

For the next six years, Reed commuted between South America, Europe and the Soviet Union. He made spaghetti westerns, including one with Yul Brynner, was briefly a Maoist in Rome, and recorded in Prague where the best rock musicians in the east worked. Still, he remained largely unknown in the west, hidden behind the Berlin wall. (He kept his US passport; he filed his tax forms with the IRS annually, he wasn't really a defector at all.) If he'd had more real talent as a singer or an actor, maybe it would have been different, maybe he would have been more visible. But his talent was in who he was, an American over there ; his talent was in the curious combination of music and politics, sex, drive, sheer presence.

And maybe he knew it. For all his political naivety, for all his ego, there was a tiny core of self-knowledge. He was a moody man; he could turn on and off like a light switch if things went wrong. Mostly, though, movement was all; it was like a conjuror's trick: it blurred the reality.

By 1971, when he arrived in East Germany, he was a huge star. He started making films there, and met Renate Blume, an East German film star who became his third wife. (After he divorced Patty, he was briefly married to another East German woman.)

They were married in 1983 and settled in a pretty house in Schmöckwitz outside east Berlin; when I visited Blume, she said winningly, "Décor is Biedermeier Cowboy." On one wall hung the American flag Reed had washed in public in Chile in protest at the Vietnam war, - washing out the blood of the Vietnamese symbolically, he had said.

With dark eyes and a direct gaze, Blume was beautiful. "He was my friend, my husband, my compañero," she said.

By and large, life with Reed was good, and by 1985, they were looking forward to making Bloody Heart, together. Reed was to write, direct and star; Blume would play opposite him. It was a love story set against the Indian uprising at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973, a perennial favourite of socialist propaganda. But in the autumn of 1985, Reed went to America. Bloody Heart was never made.

"Welcome home, welcome home. My God, man, you kept all your hair," said Johnny Rosenburg, an old friend of Reed's, when Reed stepped off the plane in Denver in October 1985. "He just burst out of that plane door like the biggest star you ever saw."

It was Reed's longest trip home in a quarter of a century. He attended a film festival in Denver where a documentary about his life was shown. He met Dixie Schnebly, a childhood friend, who said she would pave the way for his return to the US as a singing star. And he fell in love with America. With Colorado's blue skies and mountains and sunshine, with his friends' easy ways and their delight in his presence. They encouraged him to think he could return home as a star; by the time he left, his yearning was heartbreaking. Before he went, he gave a little concert in Rosenburg's basement in Loveland, Colorado. It was the only time he ever played in America.

"After his trip to Colorado he missed his homeland very much," said Blume. "He was very homesick. He talked of nothing else."

Meanwhile, in the USSR, things were changing fast. "After glasnost, from 1985 or 1986, local rock'n'roll heroes became available to the public," said Troitsky. "American rock'n'roll, even if it was Prince and not Dean Reed, became less popular. Only in a very provincial, very isolated country, could a figure like Dean Reed become a big star. Gradually, the Soviet Union and eastern Europe got closer to the world community culturally ... in the light of new information, Dean Reed's figure was getting darker and darker."

As things opened up, people began to despise Reed for his relentless support of the system; they saw he had been a creature of officialdom. In the spring of 1986, a rock concert was held in Moscow to benefit the victims of Chernobyl; Reed showed up but no one asked him to play.

Even in East Germany, Reed's audience was disappearing. Victor Grossman, an American writer based in the GDR and a friend of Reed's, said: "People who were becoming disillusioned with the system didn't like somebody who supported it. Fewer people went to his concerts, and it's not so nice being a star playing in an empty theatre. By the mid-1980s, Dean heard the doors shutting one at a time."

Now his best hope lay with 60 Minutes. A big piece on CBS would surely be his return ticket to a career in the US. And in the winter of 1986, Mike Wallace, America's best-known correspondent, flew to east Berlin. The interview was a success. The piece was to go out in the autumn, but instead it was transmitted on April 20 1986 - the night I saw it at home in New York, when 60 million Americans got their first glimpse of Dean Reed.

The piece was not unflattering. But in the interview, Reed said he felt the Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev was a more moral, more peace-loving man than US president Ronald Reagan, and he also defended the Berlin wall. His friends in America were horrified. The cold war was still on. They knew it was over for Reed in America. Rosenburg said, "The one thing you can't do is defend that wall in this country."

Eventually 60 Minutes forwarded letters to Reed; some called him a traitor; worse, some called him an opportunist who could only make it east of the Berlin wall.

Reed was frantic. But at that time there was still Bloody Heart to look forward to. Reed's film was due to start shooting in June, although there were money problems. On June 12 1986, Reed got a call from his German producer, Gerrit List, who was back from Moscow with news about the financing. Anxiously, Reed said he would drive to List's house that night. He never showed up.

The search for Dean lasted days. At 8.20 in the morning on June 17, his body was discovered in the lake near his house.

For a long time, I was convinced a crime was involved, that Reed, with his ambitions and seditions, and finally his yearnings for America, had attracted the wrong kind of attention. In those cold war days, the spooky scenarios - Stasi, KGB, CIA - were always seductive.

In reality, though, it was probably suicide. With so many doors shutting, Reed felt he was yesterday's man - though there were always, and still are, conflicting views, especially among his friends. "Dean could laugh," Phil Everly said. "A man that laughs doesn't kill himself."

After the fall of the Berlin wall, information became available and I went to see the former GDR's ex-chief homicide detective, Thomas Sindermann. "I was convinced it was suicide," he said. "Reed was promoted as an idol, an American fighter for communism. The authorities didn't want to show young people that he had problems and had taken his own life."

But what convinced me that Reed's death was suicide, or at least a bumbled self-willed accident, was not Sindermann's dry facts, or the coroner's report or even a seemingly authentic suicide note, but something a young Russian writer said.

"Dean's death was not a shock for me," said Xenia Golubovich. "I think he committed suicide because that's what a hero must do. When a human really wants to become something, he does. It demands enormous strength. He died having absolutely ruined himself. Dean, in his way, became what he wanted."

After all these years, Dean Reed's story still haunts me, in part because of the scale - the tragic, comic life, big, overstuffed and rich as a fruitcake. Because, for better or worse, he engaged with the world. He did something. He was truly a tale from the cold war.

Comrade Rockstar by Reggie Nadelson is published by Faber on Monday. To order a copy for £7.99 with free p&p from Guardian book service, call 0870 836 0875.

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