The Sunday Times - November 21, 2004
Comrade Rockstar by Reggie Nadelson
REVIEWED BY ADAM SWEETING
John le Carré has never displayed the faintest glimmer of interest in rock'n'roll, but he would surely appreciate Reggie Nadelson's mysterious voyage through the crumbling squalor of the old USSR in search of American expatriate Dean Reed. Reed was born in Colorado in 1938, and was found drowned in the lake behind his home in East Berlin at the age of 47. In between, he had abandoned a potential career as a Frankie Avalon-style American teen idol to become the eastern bloc's token Yankee pop star, strumming his guitar and plugging Marxist ideology far more enthusiastically than the citizens of the Warsaw Pact who flocked in improbable numbers to his concerts.
An earlier version of Nadelson's book appeared in 1991, after her interest in Reed had been piqued by seeing a 60 Minutes television documentary in 1986 and then, a few weeks later, chancing across his obituary in the New York Times. Rewritten to include much new post-cold war information, it has been resurrected because Tom Hanks optioned it and is planning a Reed biopic. When Reed's story first swam across Nadelson's horizon, the Soviet empire was teetering on the brink of calamitous change, and his strange saga of fame-in-exile seemed to vibrate with particular resonance. As she tracked down participants and eyewitnesses, initially as research for a drama-documentary, then for a film for BBC2's Arena, the tale began to shape itself into a paradigm of the cold war. Over the years Reed morphed from a heroic American rebel who had seen the ideological light (as the Soviets eagerly marketed him), into a despicable patsy of a monstrous political system (as a new generation of listeners came to view him, when the permafrost thawed between east and west). The disintegration of the USSR left the singer in limbo. Without the cold war, "Dean Reed had no role", says Nadelson, whose evocations of the sad, threadbare listlessness of East Berlin provide the most powerful passages in the book. Reed's death prompted countless conspiracy theories - was he a mole or a double agent, and was he murdered by the CIA or the KGB? - but the author concludes that he killed himself when it became clear that he had no future in his now unsafe European home, and would never be welcomed back to America.
Yet you have to admire the boldness with which Reed turned his back on America and flung himself into the arms of the Red Peril. Perhaps it was a lack of imagination which enabled him to overlook the repression, poverty and corruption of his adopted homeland, but he had the balls to sing liberation anthems in Chile while fascist death squads stalked the streets, and brazenly rebutted Soviet orders not to sing My Yiddishe Mamma by arguing that anti-semitism ran counter to Marxist doctrine.
A self-admiring character with Ricky Nelson hair and Rock Hudson bone structure, Reed began his long march to socialist superstardom via South America, after hearing that his song Our Summer Romance was zooming up the charts in Chile. Experiencing the glaring social inequalities of his homeland's southern neighbours ignited a previously undetected political consciousness, and before long he was hobnobbing with poet Pablo Neruda and doomed protest singer Victor Jara, and urging Chileans to write to President Kennedy to oppose nuclear testing. He seems never to have suffered a moment's doubt about abandoning a promising career in California. It was 25 years before he started wondering what he might be missing in his homeland.
Nadelson recounts, in speedy, Dashiell Hammett-esque prose, how Reed was whisked to Leningrad in 1965 after being spotted performing We Shall Overcome at the World Peace Conference in Helsinki. The Russians were amazed to find Reed was a zealous Marxist-Leninist, and his cheesy good looks and rangy cowboy's physique won him instant acceptance as a politically rewired American icon. As the Iron Curtain Elvis, he was mobbed in all the socialist republics, where they shouted "Deanrid!" at him.
Evidently, he had an ego bigger than the Kremlin, but, with hindsight, it seems that his music was insipid and his singing feeble, while his tawdry state-sponsored films made Presley look like Laurence Olivier. It is fortunate for the Reed legend that his films and records have never been available in the West, and vanished from eastern Europe immediately after his death. We're left with a lingering myth and a story destined to remain hauntingly incomplete.