International Herald Tribune, July 7, 2006
An American who gyrated to a Communist beat
By Thomas Mallon, The New York Times
Comrade Rockstar. The Life and Mystery of Dean Reed, the All-American Boy Who Brought Rock 'n' Roll to the Soviet Union. By Reggie Nadelson. 333 pages. $14.95. Walker & Company.
Dean Reed died in 1986, five years before the demise of the Soviet Union, a nation that more or less managed his singing career for two decades, ever since his "discovery" by a Russian journalist in 1965. Great-looking and semi-talented, the American-born "Red Elvis" was raised in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, during the 1940s and '50s.
For a time, young Reed hoped to become a TV weatherman, but in 1958, turning 20, he headed for Hollywood, where he landed contracts with both Capitol Records and Warner Brothers. A leftist acting coach named Paton Price seems to have supplied him with a handful of political notions, if not much in the way of theatrical technique.
By 1962, having failed to make career headway, Reed took off for Chile, where one of his records, "Our Summer Romance," had become a hit. He would soon be saying that the poverty he saw in South America made him a revolutionary.
However acquired, Reed's new ideology proved a good career move. According to Reggie Nadelson's kooky biography, this all-American-appearing boy now "picketed embassies and sang for the workers; he went up the Amazon with his Indian comrades." And he got his own TV show in Buenos Aires. "Come with me, Dean Reed," said the Soviet journalist who spotted him outside the World Peace Conference in Helsinki.
The singer was soon on a train to the Finland Station and a new record deal with Melodiya, the U.S.S.R.'s state recording label.
Though he never defected from the United States, and lived for various periods in Argentina, Rome, Madrid and East Germany, the Soviet Union became Reed's ideological home. "Again and again," writes Nadelson, "he went to Russia to record, for concerts, as a peace delegate. ... He was as big as Frank Sinatra, people said." He was also as mummified as Lenin.
For 20 years, Reed's Russian minders would wind him up so that his hips could swivel while he mouthed the slogans of the Party.
Honored by "every ghoul in Eastern Europe," in Nadelson's phrase, he criticized Solzhenitsyn and defended the Berlin Wall, though he kept his hard currency in a West Berlin bank and became a fan of "Dynasty."
But even Vladimir Pozner, the slippery-smooth face of the U.S.S.R. on the news program "Nightline" and the talk show "Donahue" during the 1980s, judges Reed to have been a phony, a hunk of "plastic Hollywood beefcake" unworthy of comparison with such true believers as Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger.
Others Nadelson talked to insist that Reed was genuine, and sufficiently self-aware to realize that adulation had become his drug of choice. Whatever the truth, by the mid-'80s he seems to have sensed that his shopworn formula was beyond any hope of perestroika. The last season of his life found him committed to making a film about the 1973 standoff at Wounded Knee (the "Indian" extras would be Uzbeks and North Koreans), but he really wanted to go home and start over, even if a radio interview back in Colorado and a profile segment on "60 Minutes" had both been disasters: "He couldn't stop reading the letters that called him a traitor, a terrorist and a fraud, letters that said keep away from America."
On June 17, 1986, Reed's body was found in a lake near the East German home he shared with his third wife. A police report pronounced his death, at 47, an accident. Some of Nadelson's interviewees insist that he killed himself; others suggest murder by the Stasi or the KGB or the CIA, or some grassy-knoll combination thereof.
A writer of thrillers as well as a journalist, Nadelson revels in the mystery before finally deciding that the discouraged Reed met his end through "suicide or at least a bumbled self-willed accident."
Having begun her search for Reed in 1986, Nadelson and a collaborator eventually produced a documentary about him for the BBC. In the wildly meandering "Comrade Rockstar," first published in Britain 15 years ago, she sometimes has trouble remembering what she's written a page or even a paragraph ago, and the book is full of breathtaking errors: Senator Joseph McCarthy did not serve on the House Committee on Un-American Activities; "General Jimmy Walker" did not found the John Birch Society; and Pearl Harbor was not bombed on Dec. 7, 1942.
Even so, "Comrade Rockstar," a piece of journalism more guileless than gonzo, gets by on a certain knockabout charm very different from the canned variety its subject possessed. Dean Reed is lucky Nadelson stuck with him for as long as she did. The plaster cast of his teeth, now locked away in the Colorado Historical Society, may soon end up being needed after all. Tom Hanks has bought the rights to Red Elvis's life story.
Thomas Mallon's most recent books are "Mrs. Paine's Garage and the Murder of John F. Kennedy," and "Bandbox," a novel.