Comrade Rockstar - What a Concept!
From Colorado to Hollywood to East Berlin, the "Red Elvis" was an American original who did things his way. Millions idolised Dean Reed around the world, yet he is practically unknown in his own country. Tom Hanks wants to change all that. After 9-11, will he succeed in getting Americans to accept "Comrade Rockstar?"
To paraphrase Joe Friday, there are a million stories on the Internet. Some of them are almost forgotten; yet the Web keeps them alive, waiting to be discovered. When I encounter such a story, I often find myself thinking: "That would make one Hell of a movie!" Recently I came across the tale of American singer, cowboy, poet, director and political activist Dean Reed. I became fascinated by the tragedy of this larger-than-life figure, whose death reflected the larger tragedy of the twentieth century. All I could think was: "That would make one Hell of a movie!"
Apparently Tom Hanks thinks so too, since he plans to make a movie about Reed entitled "Comrade Rockstar." Hanks recently visited Europe, where he interviewed many of the people in Reed's life - including former East German leader Egon Krenz, a close personal friend. Yet I wonder. Will Hollywood finally succeed in doing what the U.S. government failed to do for 25 years: tame Dean Reed?
Dean Reed will be a hard colt to tame. Born in the town of Wheat Ridge, Colorado (the "Carnation Capital of the World") on September 22, 1938, Reed spent summers as a youth working on "dude ranches," where he learned to ride horses and rope steers. A wrangler at the VC-bar Dude Ranch named Bill Smith once bet Reed 25 cents that he couldn't outrace a mule from the town of Gunnison to the ranch and back - a distance of 110 miles. Reed took the bet and won!
When he wasn't racing mules, Reed was impressing the ladies with his good looks and wonderful singing voice. This American dreamer threw the dice and headed for Hollywood. It was about as long a shot as racing a mule over mountainous terrain.
Driving his old convertible to California, Reed picked up a hitchhiker. The man seemed in desperate shape, with ragged clothes and no money. He told Reed that in exchange for some clothes and a room for the night, he would help Reed get a recording contract. Naïvely, Reed gave the hitchhiker his only spare pair of jeans and paid for the room. By an incredible stroke of good luck, the hitchhiker had important contacts with top executives at Capitol Records. Reed signed a contract with them in 1958, and later studied at the famous Warner Brothers "Star School" with noted director Paton Price. His third single, "Our Summer Romance", became so popular in South America that he outsold Elvis Presley. Reed made a triumphal tour of Brazil and Argentina, where police had to prevent ecstatic female fans from tearing off his clothing.
Reed apparently enjoyed all the adulation, and decided to stay in South America on an extended visit. Possessed of a strong social conscience, he became known as "Mr. Simpatia" for his willingness to perform free in barrios and prisons, plus his stand against American nuclear testing, his support for Cuba, and his opposition to the Vietnam War. The military regime in Argentina deported Reed in 1966. After a series of adventures, he wound up in Rome, where he made "spaghetti Westerns" for a few years.
All the while, Reed's politics moved steadily to the left. He became convinced that there were only two important players on the international scene: the "free world" led by the U.S., and the "socialist world" led by the Soviet Union. Although he never joined the Communist Party, he increasingly sympathised with the latter. No doubt these sentiments were strengthened by Reed's difficulties with the U.S. State Department over his opposition to the Vietnam War and his participation in communist-led peace conferences.
Reed made his first concert tour of the Soviet Union in 1966, where he drew enormous crowds. He subsequently cut several records for Melodyia, the Soviet record company, and became a tremendous sensation throughout Eastern Europe. In 1973, Reed moved permanently to the GDR (East Germany). He cut several more record albums in East Germany and Czechoslovakia, and starred in three popular East German TV specials entitled "A Man From Colorado."
Accounts differ as to Reed's life in East Germany. Certainly the Communists made a great deal out of his celebrity and sex appeal. He enjoyed racing motorcycles and skydiving. He fought for a time as a fedayeen in South Lebanon, and directed several films for the East German film company, DEFA (among them "Blood Brother" and "Apaches"). In 1978, Reed briefly returned to the U.S. to take part in farm protests. He never publicly questioned the "party line." But there are rumours he became increasingly disillusioned with the Communist system (although this is sometimes disputed). In June of 1986, Reed's body was found in a lake outside his home in East Berlin. No one knows exactly what happened (or, perhaps more accurately, those who do know aren't talking). Some say he committed suicide; others say he was killed by the Communists; and still others blame the C.I.A. We may never know the truth - but my money is on the C.I.A.
Shortly before he died, Reed expressed a wish to return to the U.S. and participate in the struggle for peace in his own country. But before he left he wanted to make one final picture, "Bloody Heart," about the 1973 Sioux uprising in Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Sadly, it was never completed, but the theme song was eventually released with the title "Wounded Knee '73."
How would Dean Reed have reacted to the fall of the Berlin Wall? We may never know. He certainly believed that communism was a better and fairer economic system, but he also criticised many aspects of dictatorship in communist states. He once suggested to Soviet leaders that they should adopt a two-party system, with both parties supporting socialism (just as both parties in the U.S. support capitalism).
Reed was married three times: to an American woman named Patricia from 1964 to 1973; to an East German teacher named Wiebke from about 1973 to 1978; and then to East German actress Renate Blume from 1981 to the end of his life. According to Reed's first wife (who is still alive), Wiebke was the reason he moved from Rome to East Berlin in 1973.
Dean Reed also had a long-term relationship with Estonian figure skater and movie star, Eve Kivi, beginning in 1971. Ms Kivi (who is still around, and at age 65 still poses for sexy photos) was often reported to be associated with the KGB. Their romance inspired the lyrics to Reynard Cowper's song "Maybe:"
Maybe we could divide it in two
Reed had two natural children, a daughter named Ramona by his first wife, and a daughter named Natascha by his second wife. He also had an adopted son named Alexander, who was the natural child of director Frank Beyer and Renate Blume. Reed never lost his American citizenship, and returned several times to visit his family. His mother and daughter visited him in East Berlin. He apparently planned to return to the U.S. again in June of 1986, to attend his daughter's High School graduation - which raises some interesting questions.
In an interview, Reed once joked: "You know, from many countries of the world I would send photos to my mother where I was surrounded by police and she would always write back to me: 'But son, you forgot to say whether the police are there to help you or to arrest you!'" Reed was sometimes called the "Red Elvis;" but it's probably closer to the truth to say that he never quite stopped being a cowboy, suspicious of all authority. And those in authority, on both sides of the "wall," never quite stopped being suspicious of Dean Reed.