The Atlantic Times, April 2008
The Commie Crooner
Dean Reed found fame and adulation behind the Iron Curtain
By Scott Roxborough
He was East Germany's rock'n'roll cowboy, its pop music poster boy. They called him the Red Elvis.
Dean Reed could have lived the American dream. Instead, the Denver, Colorado-born singer became one of the biggest stars on the far side of the Berlin Wall. A musician, movie actor and socialist activist, Reed played to thousands of adoring fans in East Berlin, Leipzig and Moscow throughout the 1970s and 1980s but remained unknown in the West.
His story is too incredible not to be true. So incredible, in fact, that Tom Hanks has acquired the rights to make a movie of Reed's life. It seems a perfect fit for Hanks, coming after "Charlie Wilson's War," in which he starred as the liberal Texas senator who masterminded the United States' covert financing of the Afghan Mujahideen in their fight against the Russian army.
Like Charlie Wilson, Reed was a Cold War warrior full of contradictions.
Born and raised in the comfy Denver suburbs, Reed took his guitar and movie matinee idol good looks to Hollywood to become a star in 1958. Afterward, Capitol Records quickly signed him to a recording contract. His first four albums tanked in the U.S. but his music caught on in South America. One tour and crowds of screaming fans later, Reed decided to settle down there.
His songs were typical teen love ditties but Reed's politics were more radical. He was an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy and counted Chile's socialist president Salvador Allende among his circle of friends.
In 1966, after a successful tour of the Soviet Union, Reed settled for a while in Rome, starring in several forgettable spaghetti westerns with titles such as "Twenty Paces To Death" and "God Made Them... I Killed Them." Then came a fateful invitation to the Leipzig documentary film festival in 1971. Reed fell in love with his German interpreter and decided to stay in East Germany.
"His political convictions were not just talk, he really believed them," said Leopold Grün, the director of "The Red Elvis," a German documentary about Reed released last year. "He originally went to East Germany because of a woman but I think he stayed because he felt it was the right place for him. Politically, he was on the right side."
With the subtle support of the state, Reed's music and movie career flourished. He starred in major productions from Eastern Germany's DEFA studios, playing alongside greats such as Armin Mueller-Stahl, who remembers Reed in Grün's film as "this amazing guy from America."
Reed somehow combined the image of the Wild West all-American rebel with the message of state socialism.
"I remember seeing him for the first time on East German TV when I was a kid," Grün recalled. "He was pounding his fist in the air. Another time he was riding a horse, like a cowboy. He was quite a sight, smiling with those toothpaste-ad teeth of his. Even then, I thought it was all very strange."
Although he never joined the Communist Party, Reed's politics drifted further left during his time in the GDR. He supported left-wing terrorism and traveled to Lebanon in 1977 to meet with PLO leader Yasser Arafat, brandishing a machine gun and calling for world revolution.
Throughout it all, this Commie crooner kept his U.S. citizenship and dutifully paid his taxes to the I.R.S.
The GDR regime jumped at the chance to exploit Reed's popularity for its own purposes.
"According to my understanding of propaganda – which I don't think is a bad thing – we did use him, yes," said Egon Krenz, the last leader of the GDR in "The Red Elvis."
Reed let himself be used. Like an East-bloc Andy Warhol, Reed posed for the cameras with one Communist dignitary or left-wing revolutionary after another.
But Reed's fans were genuine, not state-sponsored. He toured to sold-out crowds across Eastern Europe and was a fixture on East German TV. That probably had more to do with Reed's tight-fitting jeans and "toothpaste-ad smile" than any between-song chatter about social revolution.
"As a kid in the 1980s, I was at one of his concerts in Leipzig," a former fan recalled. "He was on stage with another American singer, speaking in English. I remember being surprised. I never knew he was an American."
Like the real Elvis, Reed's death is surrounded in controversy and conspiracy theories. In 1986, his body was found in the lake near his home outside East Berlin. The death was ruled an accident. Later evidence suggested suicide.
But his family and friends insist Reed was murdered, perhaps by the East German secret police, the Stasi. They point to his supposed disenchantment with East Germany and state-run Communism in general.
Shortly before his death, Reed had talked about returning to the United States. In an interview for CBS Television's "60 Minutes," he mentioned the idea of returning home "to run for senator of Colorado." Six weeks later, he was dead.
In some ways, Reed's life resembles another Tom Hanks' character: Forrest Gump - the naïve idealist who bumbles his way through the great events of history. But for his East German fans, he was a star. They don't remember his politics or his propaganda, just his songs - and those great teeth.
– Scott Roxborough is a Canadian journalist living in Cologne and German bureau chief for the leading trade daily The Hollywood Reporter.