Looking for meaning in the odd life of 'Red Elvis'
The Life and Mystery of Dean Reed, the All-American Boy Who Brought Rock 'n' Roll to the Soviet Union;
Reggie Nadelson; Walker & Co.: 334 pp., $14.95; paper
By Anthony Day, Special to The Times
The Life and Mystery of Dean Reed, the All-American Boy Who Brought Rock 'n' Roll to the Soviet Union
FIFTY years ago, a great revolution swept through the world's societies. In the end it spared no one
in its path. Remote villages felt its propulsive force as surely as did New York, London, Paris, Berlin
and Sydney. It was rock 'n' roll, more pervasive than the "new man" doctrine of the Communist East, more
subversive than the unbridled capitalism of the profit-centered West.
American GIs in their German barracks in those 1950s years weren't always sure about Chuck Berry's
driving "Roll Over Beethoven," which woke them at 4:45 a.m. over the Armed Forces radio network, but they
recognized that it was new and radical.
And it sounded like it was here to stay. As indeed, it was. It largely supplanted the more delicate and
subtle American blues and jazz.
In the West and the East, the new music broke the ice and in the end helped produce many springs of
openness and of revolt. The West, with its critical attention unfogged by totalitarian ideology, caught on
pretty quickly to what was going on. What was left of the formalism of the 19th century, the elite-centered
practices of art and critical observation, was breaking up, being replaced by perceptions and habits of
thoughts held by the common people.
The East, though the supposed home of the masses, seems to have been perplexed, flummoxed really, by
this anti-social development. That is the impression that came through the ideological filters of those years.
Certainly confusion and bafflement on the part of the communist apparatus of the East is the dominant
impression Reggie Nadelson gives in her new book,
The Life and Mystery of Dean Reed, the All-American Boy Who Brought Rock 'n' Roll to the Soviet Union."
This book is an incomplete hunt for the meaning, if any, in the progress of Dean Reed, a small-town
boy - by all accounts at best a mediocre rock 'n' roll guitarist and singer - who went on to achieve
popularity on stage and screen as the "Red Elvis" in the dreary unwinding of the communist world in
the 1960s, '70s and '80s. He performed all over Eastern Europe and Russia and drew admiring crowds.
Nadelson, who never saw a cliché she did not embrace (she writes that all border guards look to
her like Leonid Brezhnev), takes the reader along on her breathless hunt for significance in the peripatetic
life of her young subject. But she scarcely gets close to the facts of Reed's life, much less its meaning.
Reed apparently was drawn into his oddball career by a leftist producer who took him to
and opened his eyes to oppression and authoritarian rule. In those days that was not hard to do:
Chile of a couple of generations ago was a picture book of squalid fascism and deliberate, ruthless cruelty.
After his Latin American inoculation in progressive politics, Reed moved to Eastern Europe, where he
enjoyed something akin to adulation. Nadelson makes it sound as if there was no better singer around;
the story is rather pathetic. Then, in 1986, near the height of his Cold War popularity, Reed died in a
lake near his East German home at age 47. The police called it an accidental drowning. Was he murdered?
Was it a suicide?
After worrying the question for more pages than the reader can reasonably endure, Nadelson concludes,
on meager evidence, that it was some form of suicide.
By the time Nadelson gets around to chasing Reed's shadow, it has almost vanished into the fuzziness
of the past. We can't get a feel for him. He spoke in favor of the communist system, but he never gave up
his U.S. citizenship and always filed his U.S. tax returns.
Perhaps he was just a kid from Wheat Ridge, Colo., who wandered into a wider world not wholly
understanding where he was going.
Anthony Day is a former editor of The Times' editorial pages.