Who Was Dean Reed?

The Berlin & Beyond German film festival is going on at the Castro Theatre, and one of the films that caught my eye was one called “The Red Elvis.” Who was that I wondered? I know of several Russian rock icons; maybe this was a film of one of them. But rather, “the red Elvis” of the title was an American, who thanks to circumstance, his youthful ideological leanings, and a behind-the-Iron-Curtain fascination with all things American, had been a famous singer and actor in East Germany and Russia.

His name was Dean Reed, but I’d never heard of him before, either in the West or in the East. By the time I went to Russia, the Russians I know passionately preferred their own rock stars, such as Boris Grebenshikov and the band Alisa, and just as passionately hated their own pop pap, such as Alla Pugacheva and Modern Talking. Dean Reed was long gone and forgotten.

I couldn’t get to the movie, so I looked up his story, which I found rather poignant. As a singer/songwriter, he had a minor hit in the United States in the early 1960s, slightly better success as a singer and actor in South America later in the same decade. Like many young people of that era, he found Marxist ideology compelling, and like many before him (and to this day) believed it was the cure to poverty and the key to world peace. A girlfriend tried to set him right by telling him to take a trip to Russia, where he could see how such an ideology played out, but instead it was that trip was to set up the rest of his life.

A bored Russian bureaucrat discovered Dean Reed playing his guitar in a Helsinki park. (Back in the day, one almost always ended up in Helsinki on the way to Russia–I know, ’cause that’s how I went in and out myself.) When he spoke to Reed, the bureaucrat was delighted to find a handsome cowboy-type American who believed in the great socialist empire. Quickly, Reed found himself with a singing and acting career bigger than he’d had in either the U.S. or South America.

Eastern Europeans were fascinated with Americans, but the only American music they could get was through Voice of America (and then only in large cities) or in barely-audible copies of copies of copies of smuggled recordings. But you could buy Dean Reed records, since they were published by the Soviets’ monopoly music company, Melodia Records, and he was American and he sang American music. Despite what many say was a mediocre music talent, his concerts drew thousands of genuine fans. He furthermore acted in several East European movies, often playing a Lucky Luke like cowboy caricature.

He made a home for himself in East Germany, and married an East German film star. But he wasn’t a defector, since he kept his U.S. citizenship, and he insisted on being paid in hard currency, which he would be able to use in the U.S. As he aged, and tourism and glasnost made it possible for East Europeans to get Western music and movies, he knew his career was fading. And certainly life in the communist countries is wearing, no matter how ardently you believe in the communist cause.

He visited the U.S. and dreamed of a career, maybe even a modest one, but one back home. But as he discovered, you can’t leave 20 years of life behind so easily, and politics, especially radical ones, can do a lot to hinder popularity. After being featured as a curiosity on 60 Minutes in 1986, Reed received bags of hate mail from Americans, which he took seriously, since having become an East European by lifestyle if not by citizenship, he knew how much he wanted to leave. Unlike most East Europeans, though, he couldn’t expect a warm welcome.

Six weeks later, he drowned himself in a lake near his German home. Within 3 years, the Berlin Wall would be torn down, and Russian rock stars would be touring the U.S. Peter thinks Reed was just a crass opportunist; I see a man who’s heart was broken by not being able to go home.

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