PDXGuide.com, June 05, 2006


BOOKS - The Lost Planet of East Bloc Rock

Commie cowboys, Russian rockers and perestroika punks haunt a new biography of one weird American. ZACH DUNDAS on 'Comrade Rockstar.'

ZACH DUNDAS on  'Comrade Rockstar'

By ZACH DUNDAS, The Associated Press

Dean Reed. Dean Reed. Who the hell is Dean Reed?

That's the threshold question faced by 'Comrade Rockstar.' On the book's bright red cover, a ghostly black-and-white figure in a flamboyant Wild West shirt clutches a guitar, lanky '70s hair in mid flip. A halo of yellow Soviet-style stars hovers above. Then you scan the subtitle. "The life and mystery of DEAN REED, the all-American boy who brought rock 'n' roll to the Soviet Union..."

Again, who is this guy?

Author Reggie Nadelson began obsessing over that question nearly 20 years ago. One 1980s night, '60 Minutes' profiled an American pop singer, Dean Reed. A handsome, charismatic cowboy from Colorado, Reed was unknown in his homeland. Behind the Iron Curtain, however, it was a different matter: Reed was a huge star. Mobbed in Moscow. Beloved in East Berlin.

This near-stereotypical American hunk fled the US in the early '60s, bought socialist politics, sang of peace and love. Kids in Commieland loved it - Dean Reed was their American, a taste of rock and roll's forbidden fruit at the Cold War's icy depth. Nadelson, a journalist and filmmaker, found this phantom from the wrong side of Europe fascinating. Then, six weeks later, Dean Reed became her crusade.

"A friend told me that if you want the best stories, look in the obituaries," Nadelson says now. "So I dutifully read the obits. And there's a very short item that says 'Dean Reed, pop star in Eastern Europe, mysteriously drowns in a lake near his home in East Berlin.'" Nadelson chased Reed's ghost through underground rock-scene social clubs in Gorbachev's USSR and across dreary East Berlin.

In the heady rush of perestroika, she learned Moscow's serious rockers already despised Dean Reed and the folky-dippy '60s socialist persona he cultivated - he was regime-approved, after all. "Dean was kind of stuck, in the end," she says. "His tiny tragedy was that he sort of outlived his time."

'Comrade Rockstar' first appeared in the UK in 1991 and was just revised and republished because Tom Hanks optioned the movie rights. The book makes a deep case study of Dean Reed's strange life. (Any guy who sang "Yiddishe Mama" to Yasser Arafat is worth reading about, after all.) But Nadelson's soulful, quirky observational reporting is an even better glimpse of a hidden musical universe.

Who the hell is Dean Reed? As 'Comrade Rockstar' shows, he's just a small part of a pop music Bizarro World. "That's what was so adhesive about this for me," Nadelson says. "For a lot of people in Russia, this whole era is sort of a lost planet. They've moved so far, but not far enough to be nostalgic."

Who else inhabited this alternate dimension of rock 'n' roll? Check out a small roster of unknown (red) stars:


WHO HE WAS: Cheeseball pop crooner, socialist ideologue, spaghetti Western action hero.

WESTERN EQUIVALENT: James Taylor crossed with Pat Boone.

HISTORY'S VERDICT: While Reed was once a huge star in the USSR and Eastern Europe, posterity has not been very kind. "Now, it's mostly working-class Russians of a certain age who remember him," Nadelson says. But a German fan website still keeps the embers smoldering at www.deanreed.de.


WHO THEY WERE: An eccentric and ultra-proggy early '80s Moscow band led by whacko poet Pyotr Mamonov. Brian Eno produced their light-selling Western crossover attempt.


HISTORY'S VERDICT: Largely positive. Zvuki captured both a Slavic sense of romance and a definitely Russian absurdism. Mamonov, now a country-dwelling recluse, is still revered in Russian rock circles.


WHO THEY WERE: Celestial harmonizers from post-Castro Cuba who brought a sinuous Spanish version of '50s soul to glamour spots like...Warsaw.

WESTERN EQUIVALENT: The Platters meet Buena Vista Social Club

HISTORY'S VERDICT: Forgotten for decades, "The Sapphires" enjoyed a well-deserved revival in the early '00s, with a greatest hits release and documentary film.


WHO THEY WERE: Boris Grebenshikov, the ultimate underground rock star, formed this band as a Leningrad student in 1972. Off-the-books shows in kitchens and living rooms and albums recorded in camouflaged unofficial studios made them heroic legends. After glasnost, slowly devolved into a nostalgia act.

WESTERN EQUIVALENT: Once, the Sex Pistols. Now, the Rolling Stones.

HISTORY'S VERDICT: Still chugging along, though most think Grebenshikov's best work came decades ago.


WHO THEY WERE: Heroes of the Czech rock and political underground, Plastic People formed just after the Soviets crushed the Prague Spring. The band's run-ins with the state inspired activists - including Vaclav Havel --- to form the groups that eventually steered the Velvet Revolution.

WESTERN EQUIVALENT: Woody Guthrie's heart implanted in Lou Reed's body.

HISTORY'S VERDICT: Even though the band members always claimed they only wanted to play music (and sound like the Velvet Underground), this is one of the only rock bands ever to pack true geopolitical significance.

asap contributor Zach Dundas is a writer in Portland, Ore.



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Letzte Änderung: 2010-07-19