Twin Cities Daily Planet 27.04.2008
The life and mysterious death of a rock 'n' roll radical
By Chuck Laszewski, TC Daily Planet
When American singer and actor Dean Reed was found dead in a lake in communist East Berlin in 1986, it was surprising that the Pioneer Press and the Star Tribune devoted so little attention to the story. After all, Reed had come to Minneapolis several times in the 1970s and 1980s to visit his friend Marv Davidov. Then, in 1978, Reed had been arrested in Buffalo, Minnesota and spent more than a week in the Wright County Jail for protesting, with farmers and others, against a high-voltage power line. In a wonderfully inventive tactic, Reed managed to call his friends the Everly Brothers, the Smothers Brothers, actress Jean Seberg in Paris and others in Chile, East Germany, and the Soviet Union, and turn the episode into an international affair.
By the time Reed finished making collect calls from the jail, he had telegrams flooding in from all over the world to President Jimmy Carter and Gov. Rudy Perpich. With the telegrams came news coverage, and soon local reporters were supplemented by reporters from East Germany, the Soviet Union, and (perhaps oddest of all) People Magazine - all converging on the Twin Cities.
At the time I was a senior journalism student at the University of Minnesota, and I was intrigued by a fellow who I considered goofy for living in a communist country, but who was obviously good copy. When he died, I didn't believe the official East German government line that it was "a tragic accident." There were plenty of people, from plenty of countries, that wanted to see Reed dead for his activism.
When the Berlin Wall came down, I started thinking about how I could get my hands on the East German Secret Police files. I knew the Stasi had to have kept a close watch on this American in their midst during the Cold War. By 1994, I had obtained four volumes of files, and with the help of Eagan High School German teacher Gayle Carlson, I had a front-row seat for the final years of Reed's life and his death.
I also had FBI, State Department, and CIA files on Reed, and interviews with family members and friends including Bonnie Raitt's mother and Phil Everly. Reed's first wife, Patricia, had a treasure trove of letters, movie posters, and song lyrics that she graciously shared. What emerged was a fascinating tale of a good-looking, strong Colorado boy who left college after his sophomore year and signed with Capitol Records to be a rock 'n' roll singer. He had minor success here, but he was a huge star in South America, where he was mobbed by fans. He saw the injustice there, and he used his fame to work for peace and social justice.
His reward was to be shot at, tortured, and jailed. Finally he fled to Italy, where he made movies with the likes of Yul Brynner. He became the first American to sing rock 'n' roll in the USSR. And he was always protesting: for an end to the Vietnam War, for an end to the brutal dictatorship of Gen. Pinochet in Chile, and for other causes.
The Stasi files point to the culprit for Reed's death, as I chronicled in a biography: Rock 'n' Roll Radical: The Life and Mysterious Death of Dean Reed. I was excited to see a new German documentary at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival: Der Rote Elvis (The Red Elvis). Perspective is everything. When you mention Dean Reed here, you have to explain who he was. In Germany, he's well-known and the filmmakers didn't feel compelled to provide a lot of background. They spent almost no time on his first 22 years in the U.S. and only a little on his time in South America, where he came of age ideologically. Most of the film dealt with his days in East Germany. The director was at least as interested in Reed's illicit affairs as he was in his politics, but it was fun to watch Reed performing. It was great to see the video of an East German variety show host putting the next guest on hold so he could talk to Reed live from Minnesota after his arrest in Wright County.
Most illuminating, though, were the conversations with East German and Russian women who had been excited by Reed's music and performances. They said they paid no attention to his politics. The American simply made them happy in what they described as dark times behind the Iron Curtain. With all of his faults, and despite his willingness to be used by Communist leaders for propaganda purposes, Dean Reed may have been America's best ambassador. All it took was his smile and his songs.
Chuck Laszewski is communications director at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and was a St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter for 25 years.