Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Biggest Rock Star Nobody Knows

Often, customers and coworkers at the Spendorama Department Store make me feel like Charlton Heston in “Planet of the Apes”. When that happens, I save my sanity by spending my dinner break at a small bookstore in the mall.

It was there, among the stacks of sudoku books and manga anthologies, that I ran across the most intriguing biography I’ve read in a long time: Reggie Nadelson’s Comrade Rockstar: The Life and Mystery of Dean Reed, the All-American Boy who Brought Rock n’ Roll to the Soviet Union (Walker & Company, $14.95). I literally could not put this book down until I’d read the whole damned thing.

Dean Reed, Ms. Nadelson writes, started out typically enough. Born in 1938 to middle class parents, Reed was raised, “Leave It to Beaver”-style, in a small town near Denver, Colorado. In adolescence, the handsome lad discovered he could carry a tune—and how this talent, when coupled with a guitar, could draw females like syrup draws flies. After spending a few summers honing his performing skills in local venues, Reed packed up his six-string and headed for Hollywood. Young Dean meant to be the next Elvis, or at least the next Ricky Nelson.

Arriving in California in 1959, Reed lived out the fantasy of countless show biz hopefuls. In short order, he snagged a recording contract with Capitol Records and a screen test with Warner Brothers Studios. To sharpen his budding acting chops, the WB enrolled the boy in a class taught by master thespian Paton Price, where Reed’s fellow students included the Smothers Brothers, Jean Seberg and the Everly Brothers. The vaunted Warner/Capitol publicity machine began cranking out interviews with, articles about and 8” X 10” glossies of the star-in-waiting. Success seemed to be within Reed’s reach.

But fate can be fickle. By 1961, hard work, Capitol and the WB had brought Reed nothing but one minor pop hit, a bunch of flops and a guest appearance on a now-forgotten sitcom. Just when he was ready to quit, Reed learned that one of his records was perched at the top of the charts in Chile. Yes, in South America. For the hell of it, Reed hopped a plane to Santiago to see what the fuss was about.

The crowd which greeted Dean Reed in Chile, writes Nadelson, made the throng that met the Beatles in New York in 1964 look pitiful by comparison. Seizing the day, Capitol Records sent Reed out on a concert tour of Chile, Argentina and neighboring countries, where he played to packed houses. Recognizing which side of the bread his butter was on, Reed learned Spanish and moved to Buenos Aires. Dean Reed records sold faster than those of any other rocker, including Elvis. Popular movies and a TV show followed. In Latin America in the early 1960’s, this Colorado crooner was the king of rock n’ roll.

If the story had ended there, it would’ve been no big deal. As David Hasselhoff can tell you, many American entertainers find success far from home. But under the tutelage of liberal activist Paton Price, Reed had developed a “conscience”, as well as a desire to use his fame to help his fellow man. In South America, Nadelson explains, Reed witnessed widespread poverty and abuse of the poor by governments that were supposedly bankrolled by the United States. The experience radicalized the singer, transforming him into a left-winger and an outspoken critic of his native land. He incorporated political material into his act and often performed benefit concerts for like-minded organizations. Reed dubbed himself a “socialist”. Stateside, the favored term was “pinko”.

By the mid-1960’s, Reed had been driven out of South America for his leftist beliefs. For a time, he settled in Rome; he put his acting skills and American looks to good use by starring in a series of Italian “spaghetti” Western movies. He was also active in the anti-Vietnam War movement. By the end of the decade, Reed had moved to East Berlin and into the apex of his career.

In the 1970’s, Dean Reed was one of the Communist world’s premier stars. His albums of American rock, folk and country standards were gobbled up like auditory forbidden fruit. His films and TV shows, many of which he directed himself, were received with similar enthusiasm. Reed was the first American rock singer to tour the Soviet Union, and he did so annually. The highlight of a Reed concert, Nadelson writes, was the point at which he’d venture out into the audience, serenade a young beauty and treat her to a peck on the cheek. Tame stuff in the West, for sure. But to the stoic Russians, it was delightfully risque. Imagine how teenaged Natasha must’ve swooned: “He’s dreamy, talented and a loyal Marxist, too!

Just when you think you know where this story is headed, Nadelson reveals another factoid that keeps you guessing. For example, Reed was a true-blue Red, a guy who rubbed elbows with the likes of Chile’s Salvador Allende, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Russia’s Leonid Brezhnev and Palestine’s Yasser Arafat—all professed enemies of America. Yet, the singer held on to his U.S. passport, filed a tax return with the I.R.S. each year and publicly described himself as “a good American”. Watching Nadelson sort through the many contradictions of Reed’s life makes for an enriching reading experience.

If you want to learn more, and there's lots more, read Comrade Rockstar. I’m not revealing too much by saying that Reed is not able to give his side of the story. In 1986, the 48-year old died in in East Berlin. The official cause of death was "a swimming accident". Those who knew Reed well, though, rejected this conclusion outright and maintained that foul play of a political nature was involved. Today, all of Dean Reed’s albums are out of print. And now, as then, he remains almost completely unknown in his home country.

Reggie Nadelson has told well the tale of a man who exemplified the pitfalls of vanity, idealism and misplaced loyalty.




Anonymous Andrea, webmaster@deanreed.de said...

We added your article about Reggie Nadelson's book to the Dean Reed website.

5:46 AM  

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