The Prague Pill 14.01.2003


Red Elvis

Looking back at Dean Reed, the American Soviet Superstar

Dean Reed was called an American rebel and a rock 'n' roll missionary. He was also called a traitor and a spy. For 25 years the world-famous singer, actor and director lived the American Dream behind the Iron Curtain, and was, by any standard, a superstar.

Yet who in the west knows his name today? Nobody.

The American actor Tom Hanks wants to change that. His production company, Playtone, has begun work on Comrade Rockstar, a feature film based on the Colorado native's career. Seventeen years after Reed's death and millions of records sold abroad, Americans may finally learn the story of one of their most famous sons.

Reed's is a fascinating, tragic tale that continues to unfold. With a typically American blend of naivete, narcissism and enthusiasm, Reed preached a utopian vision of socialism that kept him blacklisted and ignored in the U.S., even as millions of fans adored him in Latin America, Europe and the Soviet bloc. More than just a pretty face or a convenient cowboy hero, Dean Reed was a true frontiersman who ultimately rode off into the sunset a legend, an American Unknown.

Born in 1938 and raised on a chicken farm on the outskirts of Denver, Colorado, Reed was a gifted athlete, horseman and swimmer who started playing guitar at the age of 12. By all accounts, the handsome young man seemed destined for a life of adventure early on. Once, on a bet, the teenaged Reed raced on foot against a mule 110 miles over the Rocky Mountains and won. After two years of college studying meteorology, which he financed by singing "hillbilly" songs at a local mountain resort, he got his lucky break - a singing audition with Voyle Gilmour, then-head of Capitol Records, who promptly signed Reed to a recording contract. Reed's good looks and easy showmanship earned him a slot on Dick Clark's television program in 1959.

Years later, Reed would describe Hollywood at this time as a "prostitution camp" where bubblegum pop singers like himself had little control over their destinies. Not willing to simply be groomed as a teen idol, Reed took acting classes with Paton Price, a maverick teacher who became his mentor. Price sensed in Reed a unique kind of celebrity, an "honest" young man who could somehow use fame to make the world a better place.

Reed's songs were soon garnering radio play and moving up the American charts. Mega-success seemed all but guaranteed. In 1961, on a whim, he flew to Argentina, where his single The Search had reached number-one. He was greeted at the airport by 100,000 screaming fans.

During the first half of the '60s, Reed toured extensively throughout South America, filling one soccer stadium after the next. He learned Spanish and made regular television appearances. (The Dean Reed Show first aired in Argentina in 1965.) It was also in South America that his politics turned sharply leftward, spurred by the harsh wealth disparities and brutal American-backed regimes he witnessed. For a time, he criticized injustice openly and with immunity. A typical performance might include Tutti Frutti or Blue Suede Shoes followed by a political speech in Spanish and the workers' anthem Venceremos.

Though radicalized by contact with union leaders like the Chilean folk singer Victor Jara (who was later murdered and eventually portrayed by Reed himself in the East German film El Cantor) and exposed to a rich and varied folk music tradition, he never stopped being an American pop star. Listening to his records, it is clear that the "sentimental gush," as journalist Jennifer Dunbar Dorn once called his style, was charming in its sincerity.

Still, he was no match for the bigger, rootsier talents of contemporaries like Elvis Presley or Bob Dylan. He was a crooner through and through, equal parts country boy and Vegas entertainer. He never had an official manager nor any handlers. His career decisions were his own, and he trusted his instincts to find new receptive audiences for his music, films, and politics.

Reed gladly called himself a revolutionary though, somewhat ironically, he was more a product of 1950s optimism than 1960s counterculture. He spent time in prison in both Argentina and Chile, and was ultimately expelled from both countries for using his mass appeal to stir up resentment against the status quo. He lived in Italy from 1967 to 1970, where he embarked on his film career by starring in spaghetti westerns, which suited his "contrarian" image and rodeo skills perfectly.

During his 25-year expatriation, Reed spent less than one year on his native soil, so the world of violent anti-Vietnam protests, Woodstock and the Black Panthers had only a general influence on him. His opposition to American imperialism and the capitalist system centered more on the impoverished campesinos than the plight of urban blacks or the call for free love and free acid. In Will Roberts' 1985 documentary American Rebel, Reed gleefully recalls how he visited the American embassy in Rome during a Vietnam protest in 1969 and managed to get in front of the crowd, stand beside the American ambassador, raise his fist and shout, "Viva Ho Chi Minh!" to the cheering throng. In 1970, Reed returned briefly to Chile to help his friend Salvador Allende in a grassroots presidential campaign, whose success was later crushed by General Pinochet's a bloody, CIA-backed coup.

Dean Reed was still only 32 in 1970. Already his career had taken numerous strange twists away from the conventional career path many expected from him. The next and last stage of his career would take him even farther away from the recording studios of Nashville and Los Angeles. Indeed, he was about to move deep into the heart of America's Cold War enemy.

Reed's most lasting impact as a singer and entertainer was in the Soviet Union, where he eventually sold several million albums and became one of the most recognizable voices and faces in pop music. He felt an immediate closeness to the Russian spirit, to the boundless frontiers and the multi-ethnic Soviet society that he said reminded him of the American ideal. In all of his years as an unofficial "goodwill ambassador" of the United States, his greatest frustration was witnessing the deep misunderstanding between two nations that were, in his view, so incredibly similar. This sentiment was shared by many smaller nations caught between the two superpowers, and in many of these countries he became a huge star.

Though he chose to settle in the East Germany, Reed toured the U.S.S.R. almost every year and had easy access to the Soviet leaders. He was the only American ever to be awarded the Lenin Prize for the Arts, which he received in 1979. He claimed that artists, scientists and athletes had an obligation to serve not only as role models, but to influence policy - just as his old Hollywood teacher Paton Price had once urged. Reed saw an opportunity to enter the world of Cold War politics as a peace activist and help bridge the gap between East and West.

The East German film starlet Renate Blume, Reed's third and last wife, suspected during her first years with Dean that he was using politics to further his career. Surely there was a large market for his brand of entertainment in the East bloc countries. Rock 'n' roll was exploding out of its time warp. Country music had a huge appeal, especially in Czechoslovakia, as did the left-wing folk sounds of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Even if Reed's work was often mediocre, as in the case of his films, he was reliable. He was safe. And he did his own stunts.

While he spoke to audiences in German, Italian, Spanish and even Russian, Reed retained an unequivocally American presence on stage - and off. Before he arrived on the scene, Soviet artists traditionally remained apart from the audience while performing. Not Reed. He would serenade a blushing young schoolgirl in the front row, then rush down and put a caring arm around her grandmother and kiss them both on the cheek. To avoid being labeled, he called himself a "Love Singer," and watching his performances now, it's not hard to imagine him at a Superbowl halftime show or headlining at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas.

Detractors claimed that his fawning audiences in the closed, communist countries had little choice but to give him the benefit of the doubt. A lurking chorus of critics on the other side of the wall charged that he could never make it in the U.S.A. - not because of his politics, but because he wasn't talented enough. Still, his following grew, as did the perception of him as a threat to those in power.

With a growing career and reputation in the Soviet Bloc, Dean Reed established a comfortable home in a small lakeside town outside of East Berlin, where he raised a family and enjoyed the adulation of fans who would greet him daily, bring him flowers and politely ask for autographs. He was not rich by Western standards, but he had, as he tirelessly maintained, "everything he needed," evidenced by the Wartburg - not a Mercedes - he chose to drive.

In June, 1986, he began preparations for his biggest film to date, and it's clear from his correspondence at the time that he intended to stage a great "comeback" in the U.S.A. In autumn of 1987, he would tour his still-beloved America.

Touring as what, however, was his dilemma. For what have might been the first time in his life, Reed needed to be packaged. He needed a way to sell himself. But how? He had been a commercial success in the absence of a commercial culture. How to reintroduce himself to an American culture still wary of the Soviet threat? How to tour a nation that had once labeled him the Red Elvis?

Sadly, he would never find a solution to this problem.

On the night of June 12, 1986, Dean Reed disappeared. Four days later, he was found floating in the Zeuthner See lake with a partially dissolved sleeping pill in his stomach. The death was ruled an accidental drowning, and the case was quickly closed.

Not everyone was pleased with the ruling. Reed was a physically fit man, and his friend Phil Everly claimed that the 47-year-old crooner could still walk on his hands. He is also known to have been a strong swimmer.

According to Rudolf Strobinger in a 1999 Metro 002 article, a German detective novelist named Peter Schrenk claimed to have new evidence of Reed's deep depression before his death, contrary to the optimism that the filmmaker Roberts and his friend Dixie Schnebley gathered from correspondence. Schrenk suggests, based on information allegedly revealed after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that Reed was dependent on tranquilizers and had chronic marriage problems that led to suicidal tendencies.

There is also evidence that Reed's popularity had peaked in Czechoslovakia as well as in East Germany. According to his producer at Supraphon, Michael Prostejovsk, Reed had a reputation as a propaganda dummy masquerading as a peace activist - partly because the press portrayed him as "a fighter for socialism" and not the "rock and roll star he had always been."

And then there are speculations concerning his relationship with both the East German secret police and higher-ups in the government. Reed often vented his frustration about a lack of progress in East Germany that he felt was directly caused by the "bureaucratic class." It's not hard to imagine a depression and paranoia born of this pressure and isolation, but nor is it hard to imagine powerful men wishing the critical Reed would disappear.

Roberts believes that the circumstances surrounding Reed's death hint not only of a contract on the singer's life, but also of tacit support by the American government of the murder. Suggesting that Reed's presence might be considered "undesirable," Roberts finds it suspect that despite being an American citizen and a major public figure, no inquiry into his death was made by the American authorities.

How is it that Reed has remained a virtual unknown in the United States, his home country, after a world-famous recording and acting career, when his less-famous American counterparts remain household names?

What Reed once called a "conspiracy of silence" is partially explained by his outspoken beliefs as a peacenik on the "wrong" side of the Cold War, and partially by the xenophobia of the American press.

While more details about his life have come to light in recent years, and more will be made public with the release of Comrade Rockstar and an upcoming biography by Jennifer Dunbar Dorn, the mystery surrounding Dean Reed's death and legacy will continue to linger. As will fascination about how this American talent strayed so far from home.

Dean Reed Remembered

Pete Seeger legendary folk singer who played Prague in 1964: "I knew about Dean Reed but never met him. He was supposed to visit me, but died unexpectedly. Poor guy. He allowed the Soviets to boost him to 'stardom' and found out too late what a trap that can be."

Michael Prostejovsk, former Chief Producer at Supraphon Records, who has lived in Cologne since 1983:

"I first met Dean in 1976 when we recorded his first album for Supraphon. He became a good friend, but was always a very complicated personality. He seemed to be addicted to his popularity, [but] he couldn't understand that the girls liked him for being American - a handsome James Dean type. He hated the corrupt way foreign artists were managed by party functionaries at Pragoconcert and wrote letters directly to President Husák. His career declined after that and his last record was a flop. I don't think he had a chance to make it in the U.S. The American television program [60 Minutes] was a catastrophe for him, but I don't think he killed himself because of it."

Josef Hrub, actor:

"No one typified the era of Normalizace better than Dean Reed. There was such a buzz when he played Palác Lucerna in 1978. When Ein Kessel Buntes [a variety show] was on television, you could be sure the streets were empty."

Gene Deitch, Prague resident since 1960:

"I met Dean Reed first at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the late '70s. I asked him, as a fellow expatriate, how he liked living in East Germany. He quickly corrected me, 'It's not East Germany, it is the German Democratic Republic'. Whatever. He was pretty full of himself."

Reds in Redface

During the '70s and '80s, the East German state film studio DEFA (originally the UFA studios) released a series of Indianerfilme that served both to inspire filmgoers who'd grown up on the adventure stories of Karl May and to retell the westerns in a decidely propagandist light.

Mostly, the traditional good guy/bad guy roles were reversed, changing Native Americans from savages into triumphant rebels. Dean Reed proven his big-screen presence in eight spaghetti westerns during his stint in Italy and was a natural star for the productions which were often filmed in Bulgaria and Yugoslavia using darker skinned Roma as the Indians and Reed as the occasional sympathetic cowboy hero.

It was on the set of these films that Reed met and befriended other stars of the East Bloc, including Yugoslav Gojko Mitic "Vinnetou" and the Czech actor-singer Václav Neckár, who starred with Reed in Sing Cowboy Sing. Reed also frequently showcased his formidable horsemanship on his own wild west shows that were widely seen on East German television and throughout the Soviet Bloc.

Reed on Film

Will Roberts is the American documentary filmmaker who "discovered" Dean Reed and chronicled his life in his 1985 film American Rebel. He describes his first encounter with the singer in 1979 in Moscow:

I was walking with my interpreter across Red Square where I was attending the Moscow International Film Festival when we came upon a mob of people reaching for autographs.

"Who's that?" I asked.

"Dean Reed." replied my interpreter.

"Who's Dean Reed?"

"You don't know who Dean Reed is?! Why he's the most famous American in the whole world!"

Roberts spent the next five years tracking the career of this man who would become his close friend and confidante. American Rebel premiered at the Denver Film Festival in April [October], 1985, and officially opened the next chapter of Dean Reed's long-awaited homecoming. The film garnered some press coverage, but it wasn't until a segment on the American TV magazine program 60 Minutes profiled Reed under the title "The Defector" that Reed finally was re-introduced to the national audience.

In the segment, hosted by Mike Wallace, Reed was portrayed as a naive and misguided expatriate living a privileged existence in East Germany to serve the propaganda interests of the regime. He was shown fraternizing with Yassir Arafat and Palestinian revolutionaries not as a peace activist, as Reed claimed, he rather with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder. He ably sparred with Wallace in the course of the interview - itemizing the East German system's benefits of free health care and education and the absence of unemployment and crime - and discussed meeting Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega and other bogeymen of U.S. foreign policy.

In the Cold War logic of the time, Reed was at the very least a traitor, and probably a spy. According to Roberts, this segment brought more hostile letters to the program than any other in its long history. Reed was not welcome in his homeland. Not as a singer. Not as an actor. And especially not as a political activist.

In an effort to counter any potential Hollywood propaganda that would depict Reed as a traitor in Comrade Rockstar, as happened in the 60 Minutes episode, Roberts plans to release a newly edited version of American Rebel. One remarkable clip from the documentary highlights the absurdity of Reed's fame, both then and now. Roberts' Russian interpreter tells of a Voice of America radio broadcast in Moscow in the early 1980s when a request was made for a Dean Reed song. The DJ curtly declared that "there is no such singer called Dean Reed," and proceeded to play The Doors.

Will Roberts is also considering an offer by DreamWorks to be a consultant on the Tom Hanks film, but he has neither accepted nor declined.

He notes that, "Personally, I can't imagine Tom Hanks playing Dean Reed."

by John Caulkins

The Dean Reed documentary American Rebel will be shown in an informal screening at Café Duende (Karolíny Svetle 30) on Sundays through January. Showings begin at 6 and 10 pm.

The Prague Pill

We would formally like to point out that the articles, reports and contributions are presented independently of their truth content. They do not reflect the opinions of the Dean Reed Website team (see detailed declaration).

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Letzte Änderung: 2011-01-26