New York Times, Jan. 10, 1984
U.S. Folk Hero for Soviet Bloc
By James M. Markham
On one wall, an American flag hangs upside down. On a shelf stands a gold record from the Bulgarian record firm Balkanton for more than a million records sold in Bulgaria. On another wall, there is a signed photograph of Yasir Arafat; a seperate memento shows the artist strumming his guitar with the fedayeen in southern Lebanon, a Soviet assault rifle cradled between his knees.
Dean Reed, a shaggy-haired son of Colorado, was explaining how he first got the call to the other side. It was in 1965 at a World Peace Council gathering in Helsinki, Finland, he said, and the Sino-Soviet split had produced a terrible confrontation among the delegates.
Asked to sing and calm the comrades' roiled spirits, he marched into the audience and obliged Chinese and Soviet delegates to clasp hands and join him in "We Shall Overcome."
"I was supposed to sing for 10 minutes but I sang for an hour," recalled the 45-year-old American with a teen-ager's grin.
'We Need You in Moscow'
Then a Soviet official approached him and said: "We need you in Moscow." Dean Reed has never turned back.
Not exactly a household word in Denver or Kansas City, Mo., Dean Reed is a folk hero in Moscow, Prague, East Berlin and Sofia, Bulgaria. In a pleasant but thin voice, he belts out peace-loving, anti-American country ballads throughout the Warsaw Pact nations - though not in Poland - and writes, directs and stars in his own movies. He is a golden East Bloc superstar, the Johnny Cash of Communism.
Inclining to an unimaginative country-and-western repertory stuck somewhere in the late 1950's, Mr. Reed sells disks by the millions on the Melodiya label in the Soviet Union, Adria in Czechoslovakia and Balkanton in Bulgaria. In his younger years, he stirred crowds to frenzy at the auditorium of the Moscow State University, but with time, even Muscovites treat him with the kind of respect due to say, Conway Twitty.
"Some music theorists," concedes the jacket blurb on his latest Czechoslovak album, "would perhaps polemicize with us on the purity of the style whose cradle is Dean Reed's own homeland, but it should be noted that Dean sings about the Wild West in a way that is consistent with his ideas and his makeup as an artist."
'Life Outlook Optimistic'
The jacket cameo says Reed "can confirm that his life outlook is essentialy an optimistic one, and that no vicissitudes of fate or loss of homeland [...] robbed him [...] his good cheer or vitality."
Reed has not lost his homeland; he gave it up to live in considerable luxury in a big suburban house by a lake on the Communist side of the Berlin Wall. He still keeps his United States passport and every year files a declaration of no income to the Internal Revenue Service.
His unusual career is a vindication of American ingenuity and adaptability. Its motto would seem to be: If you can't make it in the West, go East, young man.
Mr. Reed's road East led from two years at the University of Colorado to Hollywood, where he briefly redorded for Capitol, and then on to South America where one of his songs, "Our Summer Romance," hit the top of the charts in 1961. He still has yellowing clips showing him No. 1 in Buenos Aires - ahead of Elvis Presley, Paul Anka and Neil Sedaka.
Italy and Spaghetti Westerns
A pacifist by the time he got out to South America, Mr. Reed said he discovered there the iniquities of mass poverty and Yankee imperialism. In 1965, he said, he was arrested by the political police in Argentina because of his Marxist leanings. He moved on to Italy and spaghetti Westerns.
Family dramas, too, seem to have steered Mr. Reed to the certainties of Marxism. He said that his father ("a dictator") was a rootless schoolteacher and a John Bircher who committed suicide a year ago because he could not afford bo buy himself a new wooden leg.
"We have other reasons to commit suicide in Socialism, but not this," said the American, swiveling in a chair overlooking the wind-ruffled Zeuthener See. His motorboat was up on blocks for the winter. Did he ever think of sending his father money? "My father was very proud," he said.
Since 1973, the singer has lived in East Germany, where he is given carte blanche to make his own movies and songs. His firs marriage, to an East German woman, broke up, and he is still paying $300 a month to a teen-age daughter who chose to live in capitalist California. He is now married to Renate Blume, an East German actress who played the role of Jenny Marx in a Soviet film about the life of Karl Marx.
'Main Priority in Life'
"I think the main priority in life is not to have angst about the future," said Mr. Reed, who fumbles at times for words in English. "And I think that people in Socialism don't have angst. I believe that Socialism is a humaner system than capitalism."
He explains away the wall that separates East and West Germany with the regime line that is was meant to keep Western agents and saboteurs out, not a fleeing population in. "I think the G.D.R. state had the right to defend itself with this wall," he said, using the initials of his adopted homeland, the German Democratic Republic.
Why are people shot fleeing over the wall? "That's a problem obviously I cannot defend," he said. "But the police of Dallas have shot more of its own people than the police of the G.D.R."
And so it goes with this quiet American. There are no more gulags in the Soviet Union, he said; that was a Stalinist aberration. The Polish state had a right to defend itself from Western agents hiding behind Solidarity. The Soviet Union "sent help" to Afghanistan to prevent the United States from establishing a hostile regime in Kabul.
Keeping Angst Level Down
There is no democracy in the United States, said the singer, just a political choice between "Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola." Asked about the arrests of pacifists in East Germany, Mr. Reed talked about "priorities" - keeping that angst level down, satisfying the needs of the belly. And, he said, unlike New York, there is no crime around the Zeuthener See.
"Here, I don't have to to into the street to protest," he said proudly. "Here, I can walk into the Central Committee and talk about the problems, which I do sometimes." But he condeded that East Germans who are not celebrities do not have this privilege.
The Soviet Union gave Reed the Komsomol Lenin Prize. His wife has one, too. He has received about every peace medal the East has to offer.
"Of course I get homesick, especially at Christmas," said the singer, whose home hums to the sound of the American Forces Radio in West Berlin. What does he miss? "Hamburgers and malts. No, that's a joke. What I miss most is speaking my own language."
He said his friend Phil Everly - one of the Everly Brothers - paid him a visit on the Zeutensee and the two Americans laughed all night. Mrs. Reed, who thought her husband didn't have a sense of humor, was surprised. Dean Reed explained that it is hard for him to make jokes in German.
Irony, like humor, can slip away from an American expatriate too long on German soil. Mr. Reed showed a visitor a cutting from Variety describing his East German film, "Sing, Kowboy, Sing." "Should be caught by film fest buffs," said Variety. "It's a howl."
"I think that's positive," said Mr. Reed of the Variety review, flashing a tentative smile.