Denver Post, July 17, 2006
Red, maybe, but Reed was no Elvis
By David Harsanyi
The 1985 documentary "American Rebel" opens with a surreal scene. Hundreds of young people swarm a tall, handsome rock star, begging for an autograph and reaching out to touch him.
The thing is, it takes place in the middle of Moscow's Red Square.
"Oh, my God, it's Dean Reed!"
"Who's Dean Reed?"
"I can't believe you've never heard of him. Why, Dean Reed is the most famous American in the world."
The most famous American in the world was born in Wheat Ridge in 1938. I'd never heard of Reed. And I assume most folks in Wheat Ridge are in the same boat. His tale, however, is a fascinating one - as strange as it is tragic.
Reed split Colorado when he was 20. Traveling to Hollywood, he settled in as a third-tier Ricky Nelson knockoff, finding himself in bit acting parts and releasing cover singles.
He finally scored a hit in South America in the mid-'60s with "Our Summer Romance." This is when Reed is said to have embraced communism.
Reed craved the revolutionary limelight. He was deported from Argentina for agitation. He hung out with the Sandinistas and the Palestinian Liberation Organization - in "American Rebel," Yasser Arafat is seen tapping his fingers to Reed's "Ghost Riders in the Sky."
Half-baked Marxism and schmaltzy rock 'n' roll turned out to be a fortuitous mix for Reed.
His new politic outlook, good looks and the Eastern bloc's lack of Western music resulted in a record deal in Moscow.
Red Elvis was born.
His records "went gold from Berlin to Bulgaria," writes Reggie Nadelson, author of "Comrade Rockstar: The Life and Mystery of Dean Reed: The All-American Boy who Brought Rock 'n' Roll to the Soviet Union."
Nadelson claims that Reed was "part Forrest Gump, part political hustler, part rock 'n' roll star." (Which is appropriate, as Tom Hanks purchased the rights to "Comrade Rockstar.")
As European communism expired and popular music filtered its way behind the Iron Curtain, inevitably Reed's career began winding down.
It's around this time that Reed made his infamous return to Colorado for the 1985 Denver International Film Festival. "American Rebel: The Dean Reed Story" was showing at Tivoli Center that night. In the morning, Dean appeared on Peter Boyles' radio show.
"Do you consider yourself a defector?" Boyles began.
Referring to himself in the third person, Comrade Dean was agitated: "Peter, I resent that. Dean Reed is not what you said. Dean Reed believes in equality for all mankind. You sound like a fascist; you're talking just like one of those neo-Nazis that killed Alan Berg."
Boyles, a close friend of the recently slain Denver radio host, replied: "Don't you ever accuse me of that." Then he directed Reed to "take a walk," and a scuffle ensued.
And honestly, who among us wouldn't like to see more fisticuffs in radio?
Reed also appeared on "60 Minutes," where he praised the Berlin Wall and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Yet, Nadelson reports, Reed's trip to Colorado had made him homesick for the U.S. and he planned a return.
The homecoming never came to be. In 1986, Reed was found dead in a lake near his East Berlin home, an apparent suicide. Conspiracy theories about his death are too numerous to relate.
Reed was a curious sideshow of the Cold War. Today, undergraduate students at the University of Colorado's Conference on World Affairs sponsor the absurdly named Dean Reed Peace Prize essay.
He was an advocate and defender of repressive regimes and terror organizations. But, in my estimation, his worst sin may have been his awful music.