Volume Magazine, February 2007
The Red Elvis
By Alexander Benenson
June 18th, 1975. Seven weeks since Saigon was overrun, reuniting Vietnam under Communist rule. The final death knell of a war that had aged to adolescence, as the two adults, Mother Russia and Uncle Sam, had tired each other out with spies, paranoia, and the silver shadows of rockets and submarines.
"Rhinestone Cowboy," Glenn Campbell's sappy ballad, had just fallen from number one on the pop charts.
There is a microphone set up in the center of University of Minnesota's quad. Hippies, preachers, hobos, anyone can use it for just about anything. Today there is a very special appearance behind that mike — or there isn't. Either the most famous rock star ever is signing his signature classics, or a no-name goofy Kurt-Russell look-a-like is warbling a through ridiculous rendition of "My Yiddish Mama." Either a gaggle of crazed fans is nearly paralyzed by joy at seeing this superstar in real life, or there are a dozen bored college students paying more attention to their Frisbees.
Actually, it's all of these things. Today, Dean Reed, the legend and the no-name, is playing an impromptu concert, and two worlds are colliding.
The story of Dean Reed is an improbable mix of American Rock 'n' Roll and Soviet culture — equal parts Elvis and Brezhnev. It is a story about the cultural wars that lived in cracks between the nuclear threats and trade embargos of the Cold War, and the revolutionary music that provided the soundtrack. It is a story about the culturally depressed youth of the USSR, their almost impossible passion for Rock 'n' Roll, and the middling musician who became their hero.
Put simply, Dean Reed, who was all but unknown in the States throughout his two decade long career, was the most popular American musician ever to perform regularly in the USSR. He was also the only one.
But despite his legendary success behind the Iron Curtain, the Red Elvis (or the Communist Johnny Cash, as others called him) never was able to make even a modest career for himself in his home country. It was a failure, which, in spite of his radical diatribes against the imperialist West, would remain an obsession even as he plunged himself deeper into the culturally isolated Eastern Bloc. He was a musician who owed the jagged rhythm of his incredible successes and total failures to the dissonant harmonies of Cold War cultural schisms, a crazy song stopped only by his bizarre death in East Germany shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
This small performance in June of 1975, at the height of his Soviet career, was one of the only concerts Reed would ever perform in the States. Chuck Laszewski, who recently published the book Rock 'n' Roll Radical about Reed, writes that as Reed performed, a Soviet tourist group happened to be walking across the campus. They were stunned to see their most famous entertainer right in front of them while the onlookers passed by apathetically. In Russia, Reed routinely had his clothes torn to shreds by fans at sold-out stadiums, and here he was in his home country, playing to a handful of kids who seemed like they couldn't care less.
Reed's early life is filled with events from the verses of an ancient, hokey country-western song. He was born on a farm in Wheat Ridge, Colorado in 1938. In high school, an obscure dispute led the first entry into the very long book of unverifiable legends about Reed's life: supposedly, Reed raced a mule through the entire town to win a bet. Soon thereafter, he fell out with his father, Cyril, and bought a '57 Impala convertible. Having already wooed his share of homecoming queens with his twangy country voice and shaky guitar, he aimed the huge boat of a car across the desert towards Hollywood, looking to score a recording deal.
According to Reggie Nadelson, whose book about Reed, Comrade Rockstar was published last year, Reed picked up a hitchhiker who bartered the name of a record executive in L.A for a pair of clean pants. Reed scored a short term deal with Columbia Records in 1958, which in itself didn't mean much of anything — at the time, Hollywood was Elvis-crazy and was throwing one-shot contracts at anyone who looked the part. No one could deny Reed looked right: he had a glossy helmet of wavy corn-gold hair and a wide, handsome American face that could flip from boyish toothy innocence to Kirk-Douglas far-away eyes in an instant.
In Hollywood, Reed met Paton Price, a McCarthy-era black-listed acting coach, who impressed the twenty-year old with leftist ideology. In later interviews, Reed would claim Price had been like a father to him. Others cynically speculated that Price pulled all the strings throughout Reed's career, taking in a green country boy and turning out a communist cowboy. Reed bounced around Hollywood recording several sides and landing a few spot appearances on television. In 1960, Reed recorded "Our Summer Romance", the song that in two years time would make him more popular than Elvis.
At least, that's how Reed would have put it. "Our Summer Romance", a saccharine pop song smithed with simple boom-shuckah guitars and ohh-wah-ohh overdubs, actually didn't break out of the regional charts in America. It did, however, explode in Chile. In 1962, Columbia flipped Reed's bill to South America. After a short tour, he was, according to one Chilean teen magazine, more popular than Elvis by nearly five thousand votes.
Over the next few years Reed's politics drifted left under the socialist government of Allende as his popularity expanded across South America. Workers in the poor barrios dubbed him Mr. Simpatico. He learned Spanish, developed his own TV show, and settled into a comfortable life with his wife Patricia, whom he had met in Hollywood. He learned how to mask his musical shortcomings with a range of charismatic tricks: riding in on a horse, walking on his hands, augmenting the lyrics of well known songs with local touches.
As an increasingly outspoken left-wing activist, Reed traveled to Helsinki in 1965 for a World Peace Conference. His set was a mix of Chubby Checker covers, original material, and crowd-pleasers like "We Shall Overcome". The head of the Soviet Youth Organization, a delegate to the conference, watched on as the good-looking, young, and (most importantly) socialist American captivated the audience.
Within a year, Reed's first Russian release was distributed by the state-controlled Melodiya record label, until then a repository for jangley folk balalaikas and tinny sing-song marching anthems. The self-titled fifteen-track album made history as it soon as it was released: it was the first Rock 'n' Roll record Soviet youths were legally allowed to own.
The album was at least ten years out of style as soon as it came out. And, within months of Reed's release, The Beatles exploded the world of music with the release of Sgt. Pepper Lonely Heart Club Band, utterly annihilating any earlier memories of Rock 'n' Roll for most of the West. Even behind the Iron Curtain, the new sound of the Fab-Four was trickling down via practically un-listenable bootlegs and word of mouth. Still, Reed's album was immensely popular in the USSR. Soviet youth who knew better couldn't do anything about it: Reed's album went for only slightly more than street-corner kids charged for renting a Beatles poster for a day.
As Reed's success in countries opposed to American policy grew, his penchant for denouncing his homeland publicly grew accordingly. According to the Soviets, it was the latter which caused the former, but reversing that order reveals a shrewd career move by Reed to ride his momentum. He knew that his success behind the Iron Curtain was determined by politics as much as music.
Reed, having been deported from South America for his radical politics, was now living in Rome making outrageous spaghetti-westerns like Dio li crea... Io li ammazzo! (God Makes 'Em... I Kill 'em!). He shuttled between Italy and the USSR, shedding John Wayne as he took off from balmy Rome and arriving in snowy Moscow bundled all up in Elvis Presley, John Lennon, and Mick Jagger.
In 1971, Reed, without getting an official divorce from his first wife, married Wiebke Dorndeck, a 30-year old East German part-time model who had met him at a concert in Leipzig. When Laszewski interviewed Patricia Reed in 1996, her anger had given way to caustic hindsight. "Wiebke was a masturbation for him," she told the writer. "She was his first Communist wife. He wanted to... actually live [a Communist] life, not just talk about it. He was a man without a country."
Now with permanent residence in a Communist country, Reed became a full-blown Communist rock star. Nadelson, who traveled to Germany a decade later to meet Reed's friends and fans, retells a notorious story in her book: In the mid-70's it was said that Reed was so popular that you could send him a postcard from anywhere in the USSR by simply writing DEAN REED in place of an address.
Still, Richard Rybeck, whose book Rock Around The Bloc chronicles Rock 'n' Roll in the Soviet Union, recalls the harsh split between his Soviet success and American anonymity. After a soldout 70,000-person concert, Reed was marauded by fans; when a Russian fan asked an American standing next to him if this sort of thing happened to Reed in America, the American responded "I Don't know. I've never heard of him."
In Russia, Reed appeared on state-run television as the famous American Cowboy who had renounced his violent imperialist homeland. If the government didn't understand the youth culture's obsession with Rock 'n' Roll, they certainly knew how to exploit it.
Reed, the paradoxical blend of west and east, was the ultimate success story for their propaganda machine. He sang at events celebrating Potemkin railroads the Soviets would never build. He made state-sponsored movies about Cowboys and Indians with the Urals standing in for the Rockies and dark equine gypsies in place of the Indians. He was even intermittingly used as a low-level spy by the East German Secret police during his frequent tours to political hotspots around Europe. (It's said that at their peak, the Stasi had one in four East Germans under some such "contract").
In return, the US State Department took its own interest in Reed, producing secret memos, available now under the Freedom of Information Act. They are both insightful looks into the Reed phenomenon and some of the most ridiculous music-reviews ever:
"Reed's boyish good looks have attracted a following among local teeny-boppers, but that is about the extent of his gifts as a performer." "A particularly obnoxious character... [who] attacks the United States in a fashion so hysterically scurrilous that it is clear why he lives abroad."
One State report written shortly after a Soviet TV performance wrote that Reed had an average voice, less than average ability at the guitar, sang songs which weren't particularly confrontational (though allegedly, he once sang one of his favorites songs, "My Yiddish Mamma", to Yassar Arafat), but possessed incredible charisma.
It was more than charisma, though. Reed's Soviet success depended on the peculiar cultural mix of stark contrasts that existed in the USSR at the time. On the surface there was that bleak, iron party-line which effectively outlawed, or made financially impossible, any culture outside a thin swath of folk songs, and Soviet holidays. But below that, the youth culture burned with a passion for Rock 'n' Roll which would have made Beatle-maniacs blush in shame.
Because it was nearly impossible to smuggle in real records from the West, most of the music that was available to Soviet youths was in the form of miserably recorded bootlegs, which were sometimes even confiscated between bootlegger and listener, recorded-over with stern Communist scolding. The cheapest form of soft plastic for these bootlegs were the medical X-Rays that hospitals discarded, and for several rubles (no bargain), you could buy a noisy version of Sgt. Pepper recorded onto the ghastly black and white patterns of a broken femur or cracked skull.
Enterprising youth would steal telephone wires and string them across tables to make makeshift guitars. And when someone figured out that you could use the amplifier in a phone receiver to transform an acoustic guitar into an electric one, all the phone-booths in the USSR suddenly stopped working — Nadelson claims it's nearly impossible to find a single working Russian pay-phone from the 70s.
In response, the state government produced all sorts of outrageous anti-Rock 'n' Roll propaganda. An editorial to a prominent Russian paper once claimed the popular Rock 'n' Roll pompadour hairstyle was a metaphor for the atomic-bomb, and that the pulsing beats were somehow being used to sedate the Russian youths before an impending invasion. In 1958, when Elvis, a U.S army private at the time, was shipped to guard the Western side of the Berlin Wall, the Soviets became convinced the singer had been sent on a secret Rock 'n' Destroy mission.
The few Russian bands that were formed in that era exist only in the memoirs of Russian Rock 'n' Roll historians like Vladimir Pozner, who remember them from their own experience. There are no recordings. Their material consisted almost wholly of American covers. The best thing any member of these bands could posses besides electronic equipment was even a basic knowledge of Rock-English. Their names range from the weirdly imitative (Purple Catastrophe) to the surprisingly plausible (Cosmonauts) to sublimely ridiculous (Glass Cactus, The Economists, Bald Spot).
Pozner thinks Reed's popularity was a complicated mix of this lust for Rock 'n' Roll, a uniquely Soviet sense of humor, and a genuine appreciation for the Reed aesthetic. The cowboy songs that Reed sang — rugged ballads about rural self-sufficiency, scraping by but always with a responsibility to something greater (love, usually) — struck a chord with many Russians, who on average had more in common with Reed's cowboy persona than most Americans could at the time. Pozner also admits Reed wasn't a particularly good musician, but that he was seized upon specifically because of that. It was a sort of self-deprecating ironic reversal by rebellious teens meant to humiliate the traditional Soviet artists. That isn't so hard to believe: as soon as the real threat of KGB began to subside in the 80s, secret-service uniforms became all the rage in Soviet teen fashion.
After Reed's abortive trip to the states in 1975, and a short but theatrical prison stay (which turned out to be the result of him refusing to pay a $300 fine for trespassing), Reed returned to the USSR, determined to be a rock star somewhere. Reed's popularity began to decline as Soviet culture gradually thawed under more relaxed laws, the pre-cursor to the 80s cultural explosion under Gorbachev's so-called détente and glasnost period, which eased state-censorship. As the Soviet Bloc matured musically, Reed was increasingly marginalized to rural audiences and the last generation's fans.
In 1986, a year after a small American documentary, American Rebel, was made about Reed, 60 Minutes sent Mike Wallace to Reed's East German home for a feature segment. In Nadelson's book, Bill McClure, the project producer, remembers thinking even then that Reed was a fake: "He was approaching fifty, and he was frightened." Reed prepared obsessively for the interview, having friends pound him day and night with questions. Wallace and Reed got along fantastically; Reed says he played Wallace "My Yiddish Mama", on Wallace's request, and that they had both cried. When filming ended, Reed felt confident that the airing of this show in America would finally secure his glorious return to the states. In a half-pathetic, half-hopeful moment, Reed had a long-time friend print up bumper-stickers to stoke up interest about his return. They simply read "Who Is Dean Reed?"
When the segment aired, it started out with a big red DEFECTOR stamp on Reed's face. It went on to show Reed defending the Berlin Wall and Russia's controversial invasion of Afghanistan. Absent was the clip of Wallace crying.
Reed got hate-mail, death-treats, and earnest entreaties from friends back in Colorado to not come back home. In the meantime, Reed's most recent pet project, a film called Bloody Heart, was wrapped up in East German politics and looked to be sinking fast. One night in the second week of June 1986, Reed's wife found Reed hysterical in his upstairs office. He stood in tears, holding a machete from an old movie set in his hand. As his wife pleaded with him, Reed cut into his arm and began attacking himself with the giant blade.
A week later, when he was found at the bottom of a nearby lake in his car, he had cuts all over his body.
Eventually a suicide note was found, but his friends continued to insist it had been an accident. His family was sure it was murder. Someone even suggested it had been someone at 60 Minutes. His mother, who now lives in Hawaii, told Nadelson she has collected close to 3,000 different scenarios for his death. In a sense, they could all be right. Reed's death contained the same type of logically mutually exclusive opposites that defined his entire life. It was self-induced and also caused by a cultural war. He was a no-name and he was a rock star.
Volume is Yale University's only music magazine. It is entirely student-run and is published twice per semester.