Rebel with a cause
Reed 'em and weep.
By Robin Chotzinoff
There's an American Rebel in town and I don't mean the ghost of James Dean. Dean Reed, a Wheatridge boy who hasn't been home in twenty-five years, lives in East Germany and is the closest thing to a superstar in the Soviet bloc. Over there he travels with a police guard to avoid being mobbed by eager fans. In the early Sixties he was known - and rightly so - as the Elvis Presley of Latin America. His movies - most of which he writes, directs, produces and stars in - are mega-hits in communist Europe. Over here, except for a few agonized relatives who think he's a traitor, he's almost unknown.
Filmmaker Will Roberts discovered the Dean Reed phenomenon in Russia and was so intrigued he spent the last five years of his life making a documentary of Reed's story. American Rebel debuted at the United Bank - Denver International Film Festival last week. That brought Reed home - for a visit, anyway.
When I met him, he said he was anxious to skip politics and talk about art. After all, he said, he's just a humble guitar player, not a spokesman for Soviet principles. That was fine with me. We settled down to talk about the Soviets as people, and Reed as a musician.
After all, he said, he's a socialist. "And I do believe," he said, "that socialism has solved the problems of hunger, medical care and unemployment... The main purpose of socialism is to make people happy... nobody lives in poverty or hunger or lacks medicine."
I said I thought that was nice, but what were the people like?
"Yes, no one gets an idea of what the Soviets are really like. I know of no other country that wants peace as much... In Russia, before you drink, you always toast the others at the table. In Russia, every toast is to world peace, and they mean it! After all, they know what war is..." Reed began a small outline of Russia in the face of war. It started with Napoleon and progressed through the siege of Leningrad. His face began to glow. He leaned forward, inadvertently tapping my knee in his enthusiasm. I couldn't bring myself to change the subject.
"You know, I always thought America won the war against Hitler," he said. "But without the Soviets we couldn't have done it. We actually used to be on the same side! It's especially important to realize that this year - the fortieth anniversary of the end of the war. Why are we enemies? The only enemy is that people want to eat!" I nodded. Can't argue with that.
"And who made the first atomic weapon? America! Who dropped it on the civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? America! Who divided East Germany from West Germany? It was the Americans' idea. The Soviets wanted a unified Germany!"
"You know," I ventured, "Denver is one of the places where Soviet jews come when they leave Russia. Some of the Soviet Jews I know aren't so thrilled with life in Russa. Can you imagine why that could be?"
"Yes, let me see if I can explain that to you." Reed began drawing numbers and diagrams on his napkin. "First of all, 85 percent of the Jews who have asked to leave have been allowed to." Then he explained that the Soviet state hardly thinks it fair to educate these Jews and then have them leave to make money in the U.S. instead of helping to build socialism. "And in the Academy of Sciences, for instance, 12 percent are Jews... that's more than in the population! Nevertheless, a discrimination is beginning against Jews in Russia, and I think it's tragic."
"So why," I asked, trying to remain calm, "do you think all these Jews want to leave?"
Reed became pensive. "Wanting to leave is a problem with Jews throughout the world. It's a problem Zionism created. But this inn't my area of expertise, I'm a musician. You would have to ask a Jew about that."
I looked around, trying to spot a passing yarmulka. No such luck.
Reed continued: "140,000 people left East Germany last year, but they all said it was for economic, not political reasons... I don't have the statistics with me, but there are statistics... the urge to make money is rather human and I don't condemn it."
"Don't you want to make money?"
"People are always asking me why I don't need to make a million dollars if I'm a big star. I don't think that's the highest priority... I have a nice home in East Germany, nicer than most because I am famous. It's like a middle-class home here. It costs me thirty-five dollars a month. Every time I need to see a doctor or a dentist - it's fee! I got this cap last week [he showed me his front teeth] it was free." I wished I could say: "Gee, Dean, that sounds great - where do I sign up?"
Whether consciously or not, Reed was trying to communicate the enthusiasm he felt when he first grasped the concepts of socialism, and found they worked for him. How a cowboy/folksinger from Colorado even strayed into such a completely different lifestyle is an intersting exercise in fate.
In 1961, Reed, then an unremarkable singer under contract to Capitol Records, traveled to Latin America, where his records were for some mysterious reason far more successful than in the U.S., often ranking above Elvis Presley and the other greats of the time. He was received so well there that he never returned to Hollywood (his home since 1958), which he hated anyway. The political turmoil in Latin America provided his first exposure to socialism, and he had always been an idealistic thinker. In 166, he was offered a concert tour in the USSR, where he was showered with praise. The eastern bloc accepted him - the west had been indifferent. Here he could be a star.
We talked about the nuclear freeze movement. I don't know if you realize this, but the proliferation of armaments seems to be completely the fault of the U.S. The Soviet Union, forced to catch up, cinches its belt and builds more weapons, all the time stealing food from the masses. It's immoral and it has to stop. I tried to steer the conversation back to the Russian people.
"I have never seen poeple who read so much. On the subway everyone has a thick book, Tolstoy or Mayakowsky..."
Mayakowsky, a poet of the twenties who became terribly disenchanted with the Soviet state he helped promote, evetually shot himself. He wasn't exactly required reading in Russia after that. I pointed this out. "I have the impression that a lot of good Russian writing has been censored over the years," I added.
"Well, they censor books, of course." Reed was annoyed. "Certainly it's against the law to preach violence and war, it's not allowed. But that's not my area..." I smiled at him. He smiled back. "I know of no people who are so cultured. You see big fat peasant women at the opera and symphony - the fil houses are packed."
That's nice, I said, and asked if he knew any musicians in Russia.
"Well, as you know, I live in East Germany, and I only tour Russia every three years for a concert tour. I am very good friends with Alla Pugachova, who is a superstar."
"What does she sing? What kind of music is it?"
"It's Russian pop, very rhythmic, like American music, but the people love her for her words."
"What are they about?"
"She has a lot of peace songs, of course, and she even sings about problems within the socialist state, she's very open. She sings about bureaucracy, opportunists, human failings... I sang with her at a youch concert, and we ended the show with 'We Shall Overcome.'" Reed paused to allow me to imagine how moving that must have been.
"How did you meet your wife?" I asked. Renate Blume-Reed (his third) is also a superstar - the only East German film actress ever to receive the Lenin Prize for Culture. Reed met her while working on a film - they were both married at the time and nothing happened. A year later, they both divorced; they have now been married for four-and-a-half-years.
Reed is infatuated with her. "My wife makes fun of me for eating too much vitamin C - she says 'You are a fool, my husband'" (It sounds like a Russian fable: "Once there were three sons - the eldest and the youngest were wise and handsome, but the middle son was a fool.")
Reed has a 17-year-old daughter in Hollywood who wants to be a singer. He discourages her on the rare occasions he gets to see her. "So many hearts are broken. I was lucky. What percentage of singers are successful? There are so many bad people in Hollywood who just want to exploit you. I hated Hollywood."
(Hollywood, though, was kind to him. The young Colorado folksinger landed acting jobs and record contracts within months of his arrival. He also met up with Paton Price, an acting coach who influenced Reed's thoughts and actions from then on. Price had spent two years in prison, as a conscientious objector who refused the draft in World War II. This didn't keep him from being in heavy demand as an acting coach at Columbia and Warner Brothers studios after the war. "Paton used to refer to what Dante said, that the worst part of hell was reserved for those who did nothing in times of great moral crisis," Reed told me. With Price and a few other like-minded people, Reed was able to form a sympathetic enclave.)
"What does he want to be when he grows up" I asked.
"That's a problem. He doesn't know and he has to decide because he state pays to train him. Sometimes he says he wants to be a director but my wife and I - we're both in the film business - we don't think he would make a very good director. I think he should be a mathematician. He's a genius, and he isn't emotional enough to be an artist. He's too smart for that."
"Do you write songs from an emotional perspective?"
"Oh, yes, for a lot of reasons."
"What are some of the latest?"
"Well, I wrote three songs in the past two weeks. One is called 'American Rebel,' and it's about my philosophy of life. Then I wrote 'Give Me a Guitar' [he pronounded it 'git-tar'], which is about some people I admire: Mohammed, Martin Luther King, Che, Joe Hill, John Kennedy, Ghandy, Lincoln, Jesus..."
Here Reed's voice took on a cowboy timbre - maybe left over from his Wheatridge days, or the years spent making spaghetti westerns. The rest of the time he sounded slightly European, pronouncing his words carefully. At forty-seven he looks older than his promopictures, but he's in excellent shape. His hair is graying and his eyes are crinkly cowboy blue. When he put his glasses on ("I'm getting old, mah ahs are goin,' he says in Western-ese) he looked like an ascetic Marlboro man. He doesn't drink or smoke. Never has. "I'm already crazy enough," he said.
This is how the opening words to Give Me a Guitar go:
Give me a guitar and not the drums Give them the bread and not the crumbs Let me sing to my poeple...
From Colorado to communism in one easy sentence.
"The other song I wrote is a comedy song. No one likes it but I think it's great. I was thinking about MacArthur the other day - you're probably too young for this - but I was remembering how my father - a John Bircher, very right-wing - loved MacArthur... When MacArthur made that speech that ended 'old soldiers never die, they just fade away,' my father cried. So I wrote this song called 'Old Cowboys Never Die, They Just Smell That Way.' It goes like this, I sort of talk it..."
He recited the song. It included likes like this: That perfume that he's wearing comes straight from his toes, and Don't try to warsh him cause he'll put up a fight.
Reed was a real cowboy in Colorado and in South America, as well as having played that type in every movie he's made, including the popular Sing, Cowboy, Sing, a "cowboy comedy." I hate to think what the jokes were like if the smelly cowboy song is any indication. The press has, however, been kind to his film work - even the West German paper Der Tagesspiegel, which wrote: "Scenario, staging, main actor: Dean Reed. Such things usually turn out badly... The more astonishing it is, that in this case ... nothing went wrong ... the quick pace ... made the film ... so attractive..."
"How come you never got a star complex?" I asked.
"What's your defintion of a star complex?" he countered. ("What's your definition?" is a favourite Reed question.)
"You were the Elvis of South America. Look what happened to the Elvis of Tennessee."
"M old acting coach, Paton Price, used to say you're in trouble when you start believing your own publicity. I think it might also have helped to switch countries so often. I was never famous when I arrived. I had to start fresh each time."
"Weren't you ever lonely?"
"I think many people are lonely. There's that drop afterward. You're singing to screaming people and there are beautiful women in the front row. After the concert I go back to my hotel room. I can't even go down to the restaurant to eat because Russians want to drink vodka with you and they're insulted if you refuse. So I sit in my hotel room and eat alone... also I'm insecure. With 16,000 people screaming I always see the one guy who says 'Fuck You' and walks out... another thing they say in Hollywood is with every success you come closer to failure."
"My last movie, 'Sing, Cowboy, Sing,' was a huge hit, and then my TV special, which I do every year, was even bigger. Each time I do it, it has to be better. The pressure gets to you and you get fearful."
"How do you handle it?"
"I take sleeping pills. Yes, really, every night. If I didn't, I'd never sleep at all. My wife doesn't like that, either. I also have an ulcer, that's another way I handle it."
"How does it feel to be that famous at home but to sit here and have no one recognize you?"
Reed laughed. "Until now, it's okay. I spent two days in New York with Will Roberts and we walked in the streets. It was so fun to be crazy - I broke into song. I was free for the first time. Do you know what it's like to be able to eat in a restaurant and not worry about everyone staring at you? I could spill my orange juice on my pants now and no one would care!"
Denver, he said, is unrecognizable from twenty-five years ago. Seeing it again must make him remember his family - a strange combination of people. His father, who spent his life on the extreme right end of the political spectrum, commited suicide two years ago. His two brothers, one in Washington state, the other in Alaska, are both horrified by Reed's life and think of him as a traitor.
His mother, who divorced his father at the age of 51 (when the boys were grown), is a different story altogether. After the divorce, she moved to Honolulu, "where she knew no none," Reed says. "And that's why she did it." Having been a housewife all her life, Reed's mother went to school at night after working eight-hour days as a secretary and earned her degree at 61. She became extremely active in women's movement, and has a weekly radio show in Honolulu focusing on the movement. Now in her seventies, she is working on her masters. She has been all over the world to see her famous son perform. None of his family lives here anymore. He is free to look at his beginnings without interference.
He's planning to stay on after the film festival to shoot genuine American footage for his next film, which will include shots of him walking down Colfax. His character is a photographer who gets involved in the 1971 uprising at Wounded Knee. His wife is to play a journalist. The other dead role is for a hippie, who hasn't been cast yet. "Before I left I was in Tashkent, looking for Indians. I found wonderful Indians, with high checkbones." As the actors speak German, English, Russian and Bulgarian, everyone will have to speak the lines in their own language and the film will be dubbed into whatever language is necessary. Reed is unhappy with this approach, as he is with singing in English to Russian audiences. He knows they can't understand his lyrics.
Before I left, Reed autographed an album for me. He wrote: "...Continue searching for your thruths, and when you find them, defend them no matter what the consequences..." I had to respect him for his strength of conviction, and I hoped the album would sound good. After all, the first cut was Blue Suede Shoes.
I listened to the whole album when I got home. Reed's voice was gravelly or emotional, depending on what emotion he was projecting. The backup band, the Studiovy Orchestr under the direction of Vladimir Popelka, was weird. Suffice to say it sounded like a Czechoslovakian orchestra playing American pop music. The guitar player, Otakar Petrina, is either a misunderstood genius or one of the worst guitar players I've ever heard: I'm honestly not sure. Reed's original songs were predictably idealistic and surprisingly dated. On one, he yells "Love your Brutha!" rather like Jesse Colin Young in the early seventies. In "Together," a love song, Reed interrupts the lush but tacky orchestra to say: "Tell me you need me," at which point an unexplained female voice answers: "I need you." Later on, she answers: "I wuv you," and "I wespect you," sounding like Elmer Fudd. Reed's taste in covers runs to John Denver, Rod McKuen and Jacques Brel. He even wrote Spanish words to Beethoven's Ninth. They are indescribably bad.
And yet he means well. He believes in his doctrines. He really wants us all to make peace with each other. He wants to feed the hungry. He and Yasser Arafat are pals, and he wants us to understand that Israel is doing to Palestine what the Nazis did to the Jews. He believes the "large Jewish lobbies" in the U.S. will undermine his film. He thinks it's a tragedy. However unorthodox his views, he always expresses them in a calm, respectful manner. He realizes he'll never be America's most popular expatriate. He realizes he may never be America's most popular anything.
Which is more than can be said for KNUS talk-show host Peter Boyles, who interviewed Reed on his show last Friday. Boyles, clearly aligned against Reed from the start, began baiting him early into the show, accusing him of being a commie, and stirring his audience into phoning with threats - which included physical violence as well as calling a boycott of American Rebel. Reed was polite for twenty minutes, after which he observed that Boyles sounded like one of the neo-Nazis who killed "your friend Alan Berg." Boyles immedeately kicked Reed out of the studio. Angry calls continued to come in to KNUS for the rest of the day. Reed insisted on a personal bodyguard. He can hardly be more enchanted with capitalism than he was before he got here last week.
In the end, you can hardly begrudge Reed his opinions, particularly since the more outrageous ones don't seem to be his own, but instead the party line. In this country he had the potential to become a Grade-B singer who would be singing, by this time, at a respectable Holiday Inn Lounge. In his chosen society, he's a superstar. That situation istn't about to change. It looks like there's no room at home for this hometown boy.