What's on - Kiev 40/2004


The USSR's US Star

Few What's On readers who grew up outside the former Soviet empire will have heard of Dean Reed, the all-American idol of the Eastern Bloc. However, his career is one of the most curious and ultimately tragic historical footnotes of the whole Cold War era.

What's on 40/2004

Dean arrived in the USSR via Helsinki, where he starred at the 1965 'World Peace Conference'. The event was marred by political tensions, with Chinese delegates refusing to speak to their Russian counterparts and a number of shouting matches between various nations threatening to break out into an open brawl. Amid all that chaos one young man called Dean Reed emerged from the crowd, guitar in hand and all-American smile in place. He made everyone hold hands and got them all to join him in a rousing rendition of 'We Shall Overcome'. Soviet officials attending the event were immediately impressed and saw an opportunity to score an easy propaganda victory by befriending this amiable American, and he was soon Kremlin-bound. Reed's first concert in the Soviet Union came in 1966 at Moscow's Variety Theatre. He sang folk songs and show tunes mostly, with 'Ghost Riders in the Sky' as his signature track. On his first tour of the Soviet Union, he played twenty-eight cities. Wherever he went, people mobbed him in a manner not dissimilar to that in which the Beatles had been greeted on tour in America just a few years prior. Reed was rewarded with a recording contract at Melodiya, the Soviet state-controlled recording label, and held up as a living piece of propaganda. Pravda wrote that Reed had come to the USSR 'as a sign of protest against the unjust US war in Vietnam', and the singer himself was often equally outspoken in opposition to the injustices of the world as he perceived them. Unfortunately for his historical reputation, these political outbursts were rarely even-handed, nor did they include an honest appraisal of the Soviets' own catalogue of human rights abuses. At one stage in the 1980s he even attempted to defend the idea of the Berlin Wall, which caused an outcry in his native America.

The most fascinating aspect of the career of Dean Reed lies in the story of how he came to be so politicized in the first place. The story begins back in 1938 in Cowboy country, or to be more precise the suburbs of Denver, Colorado. The place he grew up in was a small town where there were more horses than cars, and his family kept chickens and a pig. Dean vied for his parents' attention with two other brothers, one of whom was a far right extremist active in the John Birch Society, and Dean himself attended a military school. Indeed, his was about as all-American an upbringing as a boy could wish for, with outdoor pursuits and community fun at the centre of Dean's childhood. Already a good-looking young chap in his early teens, Reed was nevertheless very self-conscious of his ears, which stuck out prominently, and to compensate for this he took up playing the guitar as a way to impress the girls. Once the future Soviet star had finished high school, he abandoned plans to become a TV weatherman, quit college and set off on an odyssey to Hollywood with his heart set on becoming a big star. These were the days just after the Elvis explosion, and record companies everywhere were searching for a new name to repeat the Presley formula. Tens of thousands of young American men, meanwhile, dreamed of following in the Memphis legend's footsteps. In retrospect Reed's trip to Hollywood appears to have been blessed by providence. On the way he picked up a passenger, who happened to have contacts at Capitol Records. Reed got himself a recording contract almost immediately, and enrolled at the Warner Bros Drama School, where some of the biggest names in American show business studied. While studying he became close to the Everly brothers, who were already stars before they entered classes, and Phil Everly and Dean were to stay close friends until Reed's untimely death in 1986. It was while studying at the Warner Bros school that Dean fell under the spell of teacher Paton Price, an old-school Hollywood liberal beset by recent memories of the House of Un-American Activities nightmare. Price preached that to be a good performer, you had to be a good person first, and encouraged Reed to pursue what was at the time an emerging interest in politics. By the early 1960s Reed was starting to climb the star ladder, making records and taking walk-on rolls in B-movies, when he heard that one of his singles, 'Our Summer Romance', was a big hit in Chile of all places. It was to prove a pivotal moment in his life; Dean decided to go down to South America himself, and upon arrival, he was mobbed. In Santiago he was followed around by thousands chanting 'Viva Dean!' and hailed as 'The Magnificent Gringo' by the Chilean public. The impact of the trip was not just in terms of Reed's star status, however. Years later in a documentary about his remarkable life Dean commented of the trip, "South America changed my life because there one can see the injustice and justice, or massive poverty and enormous wealth. They are so clear that you must take a stand. I was not a capitalist, nor was I blind, and it was there that I became a revolutionary."

With the wind of social inequality in his sails Reed proved to be quite a sensation. He played throughout South America, washed an American flag in public (to cleanse it of Vietnamese blood), supported the nuclear disarmament movement, went to jail, and became a personal friend of some of the continent's biggest revolutionary leaders and thinkers. However, it was not all one big love-in, and soon enough Dean's public tired of this 'Magnificent Gringo'. At around this time Dean found himself in Helsinki, and the rest, as they say, is history. His switch from being South America's number one Yankee to becoming 'Comrade Rockstar' seems to have been performed fairly effortlessly. He was an instant success, which certainly helped, and as the only western 'star' to play the Soviet Union, he was guaranteed a literally captive and fascinated audience. At the time rock n' roll music represented everything that the Soviet Union wasn't; open, rebellious, optimistic, and passionate, and as a result there was huge interest among Soviet youth. Reed was able to meet that demand with his own non-threatening version of shiny happy rock n' roll', singing about world peace, holiday romances and the like. For the next six years Reed commuted between South America, Europe and the Soviet Union. He took leading roles in Spaghetti Westerns (including alongside Yul Brynner), and recorded albums alongside the biggest stars of the socialist camp. In 1971 Reed moved to East Berlin. He was already a megastar in the Eastern Bloc by this point, and soon married stunning German actress Renate Blume, his third wife.

However, the thawing of the Cold War left Reed high and dry. His continued support for the regime amid the changing territory of perestroika meant that his popularity ebbed away alarmingly quickly, and his support of communism made any return to America as a performing artist virtually impossible. The singer was well aware of the changing tide, and hoped that a major 'Sixty Minutes' documentary on American TV could serve as a springboard to a career in his native land. The documentary was not uncomplimentary on the whole, but he said enough to put the American public off him for good. He received hate mail following the show, and his fortunes sank to a new low. At this point the story becomes fuzzy. We know that Dean's body was found on 17 June 1986 in a lake close to his house, and that it was officially recorded as a suicide, but there has long been speculation that his death was in fact murder. By the mid 1980s neither side in the Cold War really wanted a potentially embarrassing figure like Reed around any longer, and conspiracy theorists have long speculated that both the CIA and the KGB may have been behind the star's death. He is now barely remembered by the people of the former Eastern Bloc, and in his homeland he remains as unknown in death as he was in life, but his career remains fascinating. An opportunist driven by an enormous ego and social conscience to go with it, in the final analysis Dean Reed was an easily forgotten icon but one of the brightest and most original of his day.

Boleslav Malinovski


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