Rocking the State
Rock Music and Politics in Eastern Europe and Russia
by Sabrina Petra Ramet
"The Dean Reed Story" by Nick Hayes (Chapter 8, p. 165-178)
These 11 essays constitute what editor Ramet, who teaches international studies at the University of Washington, calls "the first scholarly attempt" to systematically address rock music in Eastern Europe and Russia. The wealth of information presented here should absorb specialists. Ramet asserts that rock was the beat behind the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe, and, indeed, the essays, most of which focus on a single country, show how music there is infused with politics.
For example, in Czechoslovakia, Ramet writes, a 1976 trial of the group Plastic People of the Universe led to the drafting of the human rights document Charter 77. In East Germany, observes Olaf Leitner, rock music was the art most in conflict with the state. Though essays like Laszlo Kurti's on Hungarian rock lapse into academic jargon, they nevertheless, through analysis of song lyrics, show how musicians have constructed alternative views of sexual and social mores.
Particularly intriguing are a 1989 interview with a Sarajevan musician who presciently predicted war and an essay on Dean Reed, an American actor/singer who became an East Bloc star, only to die mysteriously in East Berlin in 1986.
From Publishers Weekly
1: Rock: the Music of Revolution (And Political Conformity)
The Dean Reed Story
The twentieth century has often fooled us.
DEAN REED, the American superstar of the East, had his annual winter getaway vacation in the communist variant of the Club Med winter spree. Every holiday season since the mid-1970s, Dean Reed took a week's spa and cross country ski break at a party lodge outside of Moscow. There, he was the American invited to mix with the Soviet smart set of the communist party and their favorites in the pop arts.
The Colorado native could cut it on any ski trail. Zipping through the forest trails, he once almost collided with an elderly comrade whose memory, if not his sense of the passing of time, was sharp:
"John Reed," he exclaimed!
"Net, Dean Reed," Reed replied.
"Net, vy (you're) - John Reed."1
The confusion had occured frequently in Dean Reed's visits to the USSR. And why not? This Reed looked the way we wished the original communist Reed had looked. Dean Reed had the looks to match Warren Beatty's role in Reds. John Reed didn't have it. An American in East Berlin, Dean Reed had also embraced the communist East. On CBS's "60 Minutes," Mike Wallace extended the metaphor in 1986 to suggest that, like John, Dean Reed was becoming a prisoner of the communist system.2 Disillusioned with the communist system he had once embraced, Dean Reed had come to resent his entrapment and had started making moves to return to his native land.
Six weeks after the Mike Wallace report, the press could complete its metaphor. On 12 June 1986, Dean Reed died under suspicious circumstances in East Berlin. Every report of his death picked up the lead. The American expatriate had become disillusioned with the communist system and longed to return home. A suicide. Or perhaps the sinister forces of East Germany wanted to stop him. Perhaps his death was not a suicide or an accident, as the East German press had reported. Perhaps someone stopped him from making it to Checkpoint Charley...
Perhaps. But, there were at least two flaws to the comparison of the two Reeds. History was not repeating itself. The press was. The media wanted to play the Dean Reed story as a rerun of Warren Beatty's Reds, with the change that this Reed was to be cast as a farce. The second problem was that the story was wrong.
"Dean who? Right? Who's Dean Reed? That's what you want to ask me." Dean Reed used this opener in interviews with the American press. He would steal the reporter's first question with a disarming sense of humor that let the interviewer know that Dean Reed already knew that if his reputation had preceded him, it had arrived as a joke.
The Western media that picked up the Dean Reed story in the 1970s and 1980s liked to play it as the pop joke of the Cold War. The Soviet press routinely heaped public praise on the American, but the private view often corresponded to the Western opinion.
The more knowledgeable in the USSR were more skeptical. The television journalist Vladimir Pozner said of Reed: "I once said to him. Look! How come I took a class in high school in New York on American folk music and I know Pete Seeger and never did anyone mention you?"3
The real story of Dean Reed had all the banal and the beautiful of the best Hollywood script. Dean Reed as an actor/singer of enough talent to make it in the American pop scene. He ditched that life for fame and radical politics in Latin America and later for fame and love in Eastern Europe. The real meaning of the Dean Reed story is that if you're a pop star in the East or West, they'll kitsch you in the end. Dean fled the commercialization of American culture in the age of excess only to fall into the trap of communist kitsch in the era of stagnation. And he knew it.
Born in 1938 in the high plains of eastern Colorado, Dean Reed had the looks and athletic prowess in high school to compensate for an otherwise bitter home life. His father, Cyril, was a Goldwater Republican who tried and tried without success to make it out of the depression that held on to the Colorado plains well beyond the 1930s. His mother, Ruth Anna (later Ruth Anna Brown), was a schoolteacher; she left his father for California and later for Hawaii, where she became a feminist activist. After graduating from high school in 1956, Dean had a full ride on an athletic scholarship to the University of Colorado. He gave it up after two years and decided to head West. But he had no money. He then tried a stunt: He bet the town boosters that he could race and beat a team of mules across the continental divide. He got $200 for winning the race. With the prize, he bought an old Chevy and headed for Hollywood. A hitchhiker he picked up on the way gave him the telephone number of a contact at Warner Brothers.
The telephone led to Paton Price and the Hollywood Left. Blacklisted in the McCarthy era, Paton worked as an acting coach for Warner Brothers. A former roommate of Kirk Douglas and a pacifist from Texas, he had refused the draft in 1940 and went on to protest his confinement in a conscientious objector camp. He ended up waiting out the war years in a cell at Danberry with DAve Dellinger as his cellmate. When Dean Reed arrived in Los Angeles, Paton's acting class became his family. One of his classmates, Jean Seberg, the future star of Bonjour Tristesse and St. Joan, would remain a close friend and confidante of Dean until her tragic death in 1969 . Paton Price became a surrogate father for the boy from Colorado. In every crisis of his life, Dean Reed would turn to him for advice and support. Reed was there in 1983 when Paton died of cancer.
"When I showed up in Paton's class, he knew I was totally naive," Reed recalled about their first meeting. Like his classmate Jean Seberg, Dean Reed picked up radical politics as well as acting from Paton. Dean also learned something else. "I was a virgin!" Reed went on, "and Paton told me that to act I had to know my sexuality and one of the first things Paton did was to get me laid."
The boy from Colorado was a quick study. In 1955, Dean Reed landed an acting contract with Warner Brothers and a recording contract with Capitol Records. In 1961, his hit single "Our Summer Romance" made it on the top ten and he appeared on Dick Clark's "American Bandstand." He was under consideration for the lead in Spartacus. Dean Reed was making it.
As the fan mail poured in, Warner Brothers and Capitol Records noticed that Reed received an unusually high number of letters from Latin America, where "Our Summer Romance" ran higher on the charts than any other American hit, including the best from Elvis. Warner Brothers concluded that it had a shot at making Reed into the King in Latin America and sent him on a promotional concert tour.
Throughout Central and South America, Dean Reed played before enthusiastic audiences in stadiums and clubs. What Dean Reed found in Latin America was not merely the mass adulation and the stardom he craved. At the time, he wasn't doing too bad on that score back in the United States. In Latin America, Reed encountered mass poverty and oppression such as he had never seen, and what is more important, the cheers of the Latin fans made him believe that his songs could make a difference. When he returned, he told Paton Price that he was leaving the United States for Argentina, where he had been offered a job as the host of a Buenos Aires television program.
Arriving in 1962, Reed mixed politics and rock into a sensational career in Latin America for the next half decade. He delivered a series of hits that dominated the Latin charts for the next three years; at the same time, he mixed with the communist party and the radica Left. In 1966, he had an affair with a Soviet actress who was in Buenos Aires as part of a Soviet delegation. He accepted her invitation to come to the Soviet Union.
I November of that year, Dean Reed, dressed in denim blues and wide bell-bottoms with red, white, and blue flairs, arrived in Moscow. Billed as the first American rock singer to perform in the USSR, Reed sold out Moscow's Variety Theatre, where he went through three encores, twenty-five minutes of sustained applause after that, and the hands of screaming fans who grabbed and tried to tear a bit of his clothings as he beat it to the exit.
The call to the East was there, but Reed returned to Buenos Aires only to discover that political pressure had forced Argentine television to take him off the air. In 1970, he performed in Chile at rallies on behalf of the communist party and Salvador Allende. In protest of the war in Indochina, he burned the U.S. flag at the entrance to the American Embassy in Santiago. The gesture earned for him a deportation order by the Chilean government. It also earned him the permanent admiration of Pablo Neruda, who met Reed as he boarded the plane and returned his American flag. The Nobel laureate also gave him a copy of a poem dedicated to Reed that included the following lines:
The American flag has the blood of Vietnam on it.
By 1970, Dean Reed had to divide his time between radical causes in Latin America and making a living in Italy. Together with his first wife, Patty, an American and former Miss Universe turned actress, Dean Reed had first gone to Italy in 1967. He would play in Italy on and off for the next half decade in eight spaghetti Westerns with the likes of Yul Brynner and Clint Eastwood.
In 1971, he fell in love with and eventually married photographer Vivka Wiebke from East Germany. Married in 1975, he moved to East Berlin with Vivka. She had contacts in the East German film industry who showed an interest in his prospects as a filmmaker. At the end of 1975, he directed and starred in his first film, Blood Brothers, a story of the Ute uprising. For the next three years he worked on his dream project: the film El Cantor, based on the life of Victor Jara, the Chilean singer and activist incarcerated in 1973 and presumed to have been murdered by the Pinochet regime. Dean Reed wrote the script, directed, and starred as Victor Jara.
While working on the film, he met the star of East German screen, Renate Blume. Renate became his third wife and the passion of the last decade of his life. "I live in the German Democratic Republic, not because I'm an expatriate, but because of Renate, for reasons of love, not politics," Reed later explained about his decision to settle in East Germany. "I can work in any country, but my wife can have her career only here in the GDR."
This was probably true for Renate, and Dean could have had other careers elsewhere. But only in Eastern Europe could Dean Reed have had the career that was to be his for the next decade. Since 1972, Dean Reed had been packing stadiums across Eastern Europe with throngs of fans chanting "Din Rid! Din Rid!" He recorded thirteen albums, which together sold over 10 million copies. His personal correspondence documented a first-name relationship with virtually every leader of the Warszaw Pact. In 1979, Moscow honored him with the Lenin Prize.
The ties to home still bound him. He retained his American citizenship and with it the right to travel as he pleased. He kept in regular touch with his mother and a daughter (Ramona, from his first marriage) who lived in California. He brought his second wife to Los Angeles to meet Paton in 1975 and from there to visit his longtime friend in Minnesota Marv Davidov, a peace and civil rights activist.5
In November 1978, en route to give a concert in Havana for an international socialist youth festival, Dean took a detour to visit Marv Davidov in Minnesota and plug the film El Cantor. Marv apologized that he would miss the screening of the film because he expected to be arrested the next day in a protest against a power line that cut across the farms of nearby Buffalo, Minnesota. "I want to be arrested with you," Dean replied.
Eighteen people, among them longtime activists, local farmers, and Dean Reed, were incarcerated in the Wright County jail in Buffalo, Minnesota. Dean announced the first night that he had some friends who could turn on the political pressure. The locals were cautious. Dean Reed's friends were not exactly what Minnesota farmers wanted for allies. But finally they agreed. The sheriff, shaking his head in amazement, brought in the first one. The first telegram in protest of Dean Reed incarceration arrived from Yasir Arafat. Others came from Erich Honecker, Gustáv Husák, and even a copy of a telegram sent by Andrei Gromyko to President Carter.
The ploy worked. What would have been a story for the local news became an international media curiosity. Within three weeks, a sumpathetic judge acquitted Dean Reed, together with the other eighteen protesters, of the trespassing charges. Yet throughout fall 1978 letters and telegrams continued to pour in while the press in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe heated up its campaign for Dean Reed's freedom. Komsomolskaya pravda published a letter from a high school class in Chelyabinsk in the Urals: "We are indignant about the arrest of Dean Reed. We demand his liberation. Freedom to Dean Reed. Freedom to all political prisoners in the United States."6 The Buffalo incident gave Dean a new slant in the Soviet and East European press. His name joined the litany of Angela Davis, the North Carolina Wilmington Ten, Leonar Peltier, and others whose human rights the Soviet press defended in the face of American opression.
The New York Times called him "the Johnny Cash of the Iron Curtain." His rock and folk videos were a popular and regular feature of Soviet and East European television entertainment. His next film Sing, Cowboy, Sing (1981) was a box office success throughout the Warszaw Pact. Yet the superstar of the East kept up his ties on the other side. On invitation from Daniel Ortega in October 1985, Reed gave a concert in Nicaragua  in protest of the Contras and U.S. policy. Taking a risk, he returned the same month to Chile . He performed the songs of Victor Jara in Santiago and was beaten by Chilean soldiers who broke up what had turned into an anti-Pinochet rally. Vernon Bellecourt, a leader of A.I.M. (American Indian Movement), had accompanied him on the tour. With Bellecourt's encouragement, Reed started working on a film on the 1973 uprising at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. The project was a joint GDR-Soviet production called Bloody heart.
In November 1985, he returned to the United States to promote a 1985 documentary portrait of his life, An American Rebel, produced and directed by Will Roberts. He screened the film and gave concerts in Minneapolis and Denver.
In early December, Dean Reed returned to East Germany. By February, he was working on location in the Crimea for his film on Wounded Knee. He complained to friends back in the United States that the project was stalled. For the first time, the Soviet partners balked. He repeatedly argued with his East German producer, Gerhardt List. He returned to East Berlin in the spring to work out some production and financing problems. On the evening of 12 June, he left home to drive to the television studios to meet List. Five days later the East German police reported that they had found his body clothed in a lined overcoat with his American passport in the pocket. Reed had drowned in less than a foot of water in the nearby lake (Zeuthener See) that he had often swum across for exercise.7
The East German press described the death as a tragic accident. In August, the Soviet television news Vremya profiled the life of the American and concluded that Dean Reed died of "unnatural causes and the circumstances are still under investigation."8
TAKE A SWORD
"Take a sword and cut it around me on every side," Reed said in 1985. "There are no strings attached. I'm a puppet of nobody. I don't belong to any party." The winner of the Lenin Prize did not have a party card. The only political organization he belonged to was the World Peace Council in Helsinki. Since his days in Argentina, however, he had been keeping company with communists and professing his support for socialism.
Reed's faith in socialism, however, was born not from a strong belief in the "advanced socialism" of the Brezhnev era but from a loss of faith in the United States in the age of the Vietnam War and military intervention in Latin America and the Third World. The conversion experience came in Latin America. "You can't live there for five years, if you have eyes and a conscience, without changing," he said. "They have these dictatorships against the will of the people only because the U.S. government supports them financially, militarily, and politicaly. That was a great shock to a boy from Colorado, and I began to change."
OK. But years later didn't the winner of the Lenin Prize ever suspect that the Brezhnev Doctrine was not exactly in force in Eastern Europe by popular mandate? Privately, Reed often expressed contempt for the corruption and privilegs of the communist party elites. Publicly, he lived their life-style. If he had reservations about the conditions of socialism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the Brezhnev era, he kept them to himself. There were a few remarks to the U.S. press in 1985. In a television interview in November 1985, he rejected Soviet socialism as a model for anyone (expect perhaps the Soviet people) and advocated that the future of socialism would involve the discovery by each nation of its own socialist path. There was significant gesture in East Berlin. In July 1985, together with the American folk singer and activist Larry Long, Reed gave a concert in East Berlin that included a few numbers in defence of Polish Solidarity. The gesture brought a reprimand from Erich Honecker.
His occasional remarks in the socialist press implied that the American in East Berlin was a political expatriate. Not quite so, Reed explained:
I'm a U.S. citizen and a resident of what you call East Germany, what I call the German Democratic Republic. I live in the German Democratic Republic not because I'm an expatriate, but because of Renate - for reasons of lov, not politics. I haven't defected or asked for asylum. But my wife is East Germany's most famous actress and she speaks only German. Besides English, I speak Spanish, Italian, and German, and I can work in about any country, but my wife can have her career only in the GDR.
Reed didn't even want the label "protest singer." His repertoire included some politically oriented standards - "We Shall Overcome," or in its Spanish version as "Venceremos," and his own "We Are the Revolutionaries." The rest, the majority, were simply love songs, rock, and country because, as he liked to say, "politics is only a half truth and I want people to laugh and to cry, to inspire them to continue, which is often difficult, and to give them knowledge." Unless you count the Robin Hood motif in his Italian remake of Zorro, only El Cantor and the unfinished Bloody Heart stand out among his films as decidedly political. Reed would always describe himself as an artist first but one who accepted "my obligation to use my art and fame for world peace and socia justice."
Dean Reed had his own recipe for mixing politics and art. It was part Hollywood Left, part Pete Seeger, and part Wobbly, but in the Warsaw Pact it was mixed into an American entrée for the cultural diet of communist kitsch in the heydays of Brezhnevism. At his best, Reed was acutely sensitive to the plight of the underclass of Latin America and brave in the tradition of the best of the American antiwar movement when he protested American military intervention in Vietnam and Latin America. At his worst, he was conveniently blind to the plight of Eastern Europe and opportunistic in courting the powers that were in the Eastern bloc.
The real Dean Reed, Paton Price's orphan in Brezhnev's bloc, was a displaced person from the late history of the Hollywood Left. Reed's genuine politics were irrelevant to the Soviet and East European youth who desperately wanted to believe that the folk-rock cowboy from Colorado was giving them a tast of something close to the real rock Americana. His politics, moreover, were somewhat useful to communist regimes from East Berlin to Moscow. So why not let them have Dean Reed?
THE DEAN REED PHENOMENON
The Dean Reed phenomenon demonstrated that the hunger for American pop culture was so extreme in the East that they were willing to accept substitutes. From the stilyagi (style-conscious faddist) to the khippi (hippie), the communist world responded to the hunger of its young for American rock by assuring them that if their hunger could not be controlled, then at least it would not be satisfied on communist terms. How convenient that Dean Reed existed. Otherwise, he would have had to be invented. Reed benefited from this starvation diet that had preceded his arrival in Eastern Europe. They were ready for anything that walked in denim and sang.
Then, into the Eastern bloc walked the actor/singer looking like he had just stepped of the set from Giant. To his credit, Reed evinced a warm and simple directness, a natural gregariousness, a lack of pretension as well as sophistication, and classic western American good looks that fed into Eastern Europe's fondest stereotype of the American. And he could act, perhaps only as a B-grade actor to some, but then this script didn't require much. And, he could sing - not the best, but goog enough.
Listening to Dean Reed records is like listening to someone singing in the shower - a lot of zest, energy, and exuberance delivered in a slightly flat and occasionally off-key voice. But then, that was part of his charm and appeal. The amateur voice was compensated for by energy and sincerity that threatened no one and gave Eastern Europe a performance that might have been at a state fair bandstand or at sing-along night at the local college.
The communist regimes had an obvious use for the political remarks of the hero of the Buffalo jail in the years when Washington was heating up its campaign over human rights abuse in the Warsaw Pact. The incident in Minnesota came four months after the trial of the human rights activist Anatoly Shcharansky. Moscow had moved toward a harder line on dissidents, and bracing against the negative publicity to come from the West, the Soviet media searched for its angle on the human rights story. It picked up Ambassador Andrew Young's remark that there were "hundreds, perhaps thousands of political prisoners in the United States." A Soviet television crew and an Izvestya reporter had followed Reed to Minnesota, where they found the copy they were looking for. From Washington, TASS announced that Reed's only crime was his "active struggle in defending the rights of political prisoners in the U.S." Within a week of Reed's arrest, the labor paper Trud prepared Soviet readers for a long wait for their hero's release but gave them hope: "It is possible to throw the singer in jail, but impossible to put handcuffs on his songs. ... Numerous friends of Dean Reed believe that he will overcome his ordeal and come out of it even stronger, with new songs of struggle and solidarity."9 Of course, he did come out of it - in three weeks. As for the new songs, well, the following New Year's Eve television program broadcast live from the Hotel Rossiia included a video from Dean Reed thanking the Soviet people for their support and then singing "This Land Is Your Land."
The heat over Dean Reed stayed on. Throughout the year, guides for a USIA (United States Information Agency) exhibition of American culture reported facing confrontations in every Soviet city on the tour with angry Russian fans who demanded to know why the USIA was not playing or displaying Dean Reed records. If American militarism refused to recognize its own son, the Soviet people did. In spring 1978, before the incident at Buffalo, Minnesota, Reed had already received the Champion of Peace Medal from the Soviet Peace Committee. What better gesture next than to award him the Lenin Prize for Art, which came in May 1979!
The Soviet media hype of Dean Reed's "active struggle" on behalf of political prisoners played into the hard side of the U.S. image in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and early 1980s. The Dean Reed video of "We Shall Overcome" that rolled into the Soviet central television's program "Peace and Youth" provided the b-roll for Vremya's frequent interviews with Leonar Peltier in prison or reports on Angela Davis's speeches.10 At the same time, Reed, the winner of the Champion of Peace Medal of the Soviet Peace Committee, fed into the soft side of that Soviet image of "progressive" and peace-loving America. A decade of Dean Reed's songs had prepared the way for the early 1980s Soviet hype of the Soviet-American paeace crusades that brought to the Soviet television screen the play The Peace Child or the making of Samantha Smith.
Hard or soft, the specific political tags attached by the Soviet media to Dean Reed were far less important than the cultural politics of the Dean Reed phenomenon. His music was mellow in the extreme. His mixture of folk, folk-rock, and rock oldies came off as an exercise in soft rock hootenanny prepared especially for communist tastes. Everything that communism had found repugnant in Western rock, from Beatlemania to metal and punk, was conspicuosly absent in the Reed sound. It could not have been by accident that Reed was the first American rock singer invited to perform in Moscow (in 1966). In that year, the Ministry of Culture had authorized the creation of the vocal-instrumental ensembles (VIAs). These soft rock groups, such as the Happy Kids (Veselye rebyata) of Moscow or Leningrad's the Singing Guitars (Poiushchie gitary), were to feed the Russians appetite for rock with wholesome music. In that year, Minister of Culture Ekaterina Furtseva had leaked rumors that Moscow might invite the Beatles. But instead Moscow got Dean Reed. Moscow could still control which Western rock groups could perform there and what the local national groups could play. As long as Moscow could not suppress the craving of its young for rock, then let them eat kitsch. Thus Dean Reed was the foreign complement to the music fo the VIAs. He was the musical image in the American mirror to the bubble gum rock of Prague's Karel Gott or Leningrad's Valery Leont'ev. If the socialist youth could believe that Dean Reed was the best of American rock, then the message was that kitsch was inescapable in both West and East.
In the end, the Dean Reed sound went the way of the kitsch that failed in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. There was more behind his popularity than could have been ascribed to some clever political ploy ot to the cultural politics of the Brezhnev Doctrine in music. But, unfortunately for Dean Reed, there was also much more behind his popularity than he could satisfy. For over a decade in virtually every communist capital in Europe, Reed had sellout crowds of wild and hysterically devoted fans. He gave them his all but they wanted more.
Even as Dean Reed climbed to the top of Soviet pop in the late 1970s, Soviet tastes were switching to the real thing. B.B. King toured in 1978, hitting the USSR about a month after Dean's liberation from the Buffalo jail. Earlier in 1978, ABBA released an album on the Melodiya label and Boney M. had played in Moscow.
The real thing was also being made at home. Reed had a mass popular following but no influence on rock music. The decade of Reed's popularity coincided with the coming of age of Russian rock, for example, but if you mention his name to Boris Grebenshchikov, Sergei Kuryokin, or Mike Naumenko, you'll get only a laugh. By the time of his death in 1986, glasnost was already opening up more competition inside the socialist cultural world and letting in a wave of U.S. and Western pop culture that would have made it a bit tough for Reed to stay on the top of charts east of the Elbe.
Images of the United States were also changing in the Soviet media. Dean Reed videos were still a regular feature of Soviet youth programming. But on Vremya, stories about Leonard Peltier and Angela Davis were on the wane. In Soviet television, the producer of "Peace and Youth" and "16 and Older" had already sensed by 1986 that Dean Reed videos wouldn't cut it much longer and had started to search for other rock video material from the West.11
SAY WHAT YOU WANT
"Say what you want, but my life has been unique," Reed said, summing up his life in 1985. Most of the Western media chose to speak of him with a sneer. Yet Reed's list of admires was impressive: Paton Price, Jean Seberg, Martin Sheen, Kirk Douglas, Pablo Neruda, and others.
Reed had hoped that his reputation would stand on his achievements as an artist. As for his music, Reed was always reasonable candid. Never trained as a singer, Reed knew that "there are thousands of singers in America who are younger than I, better looking than I ans who can sing better than I. ... I shall never be of commercial quality for the normal American." He took his acting more seriously, however. So did some others. El Cantor, for example, picked up a few favorable reviews in the West German press. For his critics to demonstrate that Reed was not a great artist showed their mastery of the obvious. They might as well have proven that Lee Majors would not stand the test of time in comparison with Marlon Brando. More important, they missed the point of Reed's career.
As a singer, an actor, or a director, Dean Reed did not have the makings of an artistic genius, but he did have a shot at being a star. What made the Dean Reed story unique was not his political radicalism. Others, from Jane Fonda to Vanessa Redgrave, hat that radicalism plus successful acting careers in the West. What made Dean Reed unique was that he was good enough to make it in the American pop scene, that he was making it in the early 1960s, and that he gave up a good shot at commercial succes in Hollywood for a long shot at art and revolution in Latin America.
The chance for a pop comeback was still there. Into the early 1980s, agents courted him for the daytime soaps. In 1985, he had solicited help from friends in Hollywood and received a few favorable replies. But, as he said, "I'm not going to sing for Coca Cola. ... I want to work in my own country, the United States, but I also want to keep my dignity and my ideals."12 He was going to give it a try in fall 1987. He had plans for a book on his life, a concert and lecture tour in U.S. colleges and universities in conjuction with Will Roberts's documentary film on Reed - An American Rebel - and hoped that a new generation of student radicals of perhaps "thirteen million" would be ready for him.13
What made the Dean Reed story tragic was that in the Eastern bloc he ended up playing the roles for communist kitsch that had made him despise and flee the commercial kitsch of the West. Why did he accept it? The temptation of virtually limitless opportunities to make the films or records he wanted was irresistible. Besides, he did have millions of fans at his disposal across half of Europe. El Cantor was not bad. Bloody Heart might really make it. And, finally, he was forty-something. Should he throw the life of a superstar in the East away on the chance that Hollywood was ready for an aging pinko cowboy? Why not hang on to what he had and hope for a niche in the U.S. university circuit come 1987?
In the offices of U.S. embassies and consulates and U.S. press corps across the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the mention of Dean Reed's name brought out snickers. It was easy to take cheap shots at Dean Reed at a cocktail party but nerver to his face.
For fun, Dean Reed liked to jump motorcycles. He still did fifty push-ups, a hundred sit-ups, and pumped iron every morning. But he was forty-seven. The first triumphant tour of South America was twenty-five years behind him. He had his regrets. Most men in their forties do. Paton was dead. His third marriage was on the rocks, bur this time he was holding on. The tan came from a tanning bed. He dyed his hair. He had his doubts about what he was doing. Who doesn't? He died.
"And I still mis him," said Marv Davidov, a peace and civil rights activist for more than thirty-five years, shaking his head and not hiding a few tears at the mention of Dean Reed's name.