Harpers & Queens 04.04.1991


Private Lives

Red Suede Shoes

American-born Dean Reed was the USSR's first rock superstar, yet few in the West even know his name. REGINA NADELSON charts his bizarre life and the mytery of his death

He sang "Tutti Frutti" in Tbilisi and "Maria" in Minsk. He made cowboy movies in Romania with Uzbeks for Indians. From Alma Ata to Ulan Bator his albums went gold; from Berlin to the Bulgarian coast fans mobbed his pictures. Dignitaries embraced him. Girls tore his clothes. For twenty years, Dean Reed was the most famous American east of the Berlin Wall. Righteous for peace and love, for revolution and the socialist cause, he was the first rock star Mikhail Gorbachev ever saw, and the only one to wins a Lenin Prize. When he stepped on to the stage in Moscow with the sun glinting off his thick blond hair, 60.000 people went berserk.

I first came across Dean Reed in April 1986, on the American TV show 60 Minutes. Six weeks later, Reed's body was found floating in the lake behind his house in suburban East Berlin. It had been there for five days .'Accidental death due to drowning', stated the East German police report. Nobody believed it. So little information was released by the East Germans when Dean Reed died that the tiny suppressed trickle of rumour grew into a hundred theories of conspiracy and murder: is was the KGB, the CIA, neo-Nazis, Scientologists. You could find a different scenario for every one of his fans, lovers and wives; everyone cut the drama to suit their politics.

Who killed him? The word on the street in the East was suicide, but why would he kill himself? At 47 he seemed to have everything to live for: a new album had just been released; a new film was on the way; and he could still walk on his hands. Suicide didn't square with the revolutionary death he had said that he wanted, either. He was a political man: politics was his drug. When the time came, he would get a gun, and head for the barricades, join the revolution, put himself on the front line in Beirut or Nicaragua.

He was a regular on the radical circuit and when he visited Yasser Arafat the PLO men danced, their rifles held aloft, while their leader smiled and beat the table in time to the music. "I always include 'Yiddishe Momma' in my repertoire, Yasser," he said. "That's OK, Dean," Arafat replied. "I have nothing against the Jewish people."

Before long, it seemed not to matter so much who killed Dean Reed - the answer was probably burned in a Stasi file, anyway, when East Germany disappeared. What mattered was the life, which had the quality of a cowboy epic: the Heaven's Gate of the Cold War. Dean played in 32 countries, he went to gaol, and prizes and fame rained down on him. He never gave up his American passport, even through he hobnobbed with revolutionaries; Ortega, Allende, Ceausescu, Gorbachev - he knew them all.

Dean Reed was born on a chicken farm in 1938 in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, which was then the carnation capital of the world. At twenty, beautiful as the young Robert Redford, Dean set out for Hollywood. On the way he met a bum, who claimed to have been a musician and to know Frank Sinatra's producer, Voyle Gilmore. In exchange for a handout, the bum promised him an introduction. Astonishingly, he turned out to be telling the truth, and Gilmore offered Reed a deal. Dean could do it: he was slick and he had a nice voice, and a couple of his songs made it into the provincial charts; if he had stuck it out he could have been another Fabian. But Hollywood, obsessed with Elvis Presley's movies success, was busy grooming young singers, and soon Reed was attending the star school on the Warner lot. It was there that he encountered the man who was to be his Godfather. Paton Price was a self-styled 'old leftie', who taught his students that they had to dedicate their fame to furthering their beliefs. Dean sucked it all up, but he was restless in Hollywood. He'd heard that his song, 'My Summer Romance', was a hit in South America and so, with his guitar on his back, he set out for Chile. He was to live in Latin America until 1968. In Santiago, half a million people in the Presidential Plaza were screaming: Viva Dean! We want Dean! Dean Reed beat Elvis Presley with 29.330 votes to 20.805 in a Latin America popularity contest in 1961. Cliff Richard scored 1.430.

Like many other Americans, he became a radical in the Sixties, and when he was not playing in the nightclubs of Latin America in a pale blue gaberdine suit he was on the radical front lines. While he was in Santiago he washed the US flag outside the American embassy to symbolically cleanse it of the blood of the North Vietnamese, and it became his favourite image. By the mid-Sixties he was known throughout radical circles in Latin America; the CIA kept an eye on him and that made his adrenalin flow.

In 1965, during an international peace conference in Helsinki at which Dean was a delegate, the Chinese and the Russian were not getting along, and Nikolai Pastoukhov, the head of the Soviet Youth League, pushed Dean on to the podium. After singing to the stony-faced Russians and Chinese, Dean leaped from the stage, made them hold hands and forced them to sing "We Shall Overcome". .

Afterwards, Pastoukhov invited him to the Soviet Union. In 1965 the USSR was still reeling from Beatlemania, and Pastoukhov needed a sop to throw to the nation's rock-starved youth. He threw them Dean Reed. When Dean played in Moscow for the first time in 1966, the audience applauded for twenty minutes.

Dean continued to live in South America for the next two years, then moved to Rome and made spaghettis western with Yul Brynner; but the Soviet Union had become his heart's home. In the shops, icons of Dean Reed were sold alongside those of Gagarin and Stalin.

"He was the best looking man I ever saw," said his second wife, Wiebke, an East German with a pudding-basin haircut. They met in 1971 and settled in East Berlin, which was convenient for his work; he could fly to Moscow, or drive to his recording studio in Prague. He mad still more movies, including a cowboy spoof which was shot in Romania and seen by over a million East Germans (out of a population of sixteen million).

In the late Seventies, Dean dumped Wiebke and married a woman called Renate Blume. Together they planned a film, the story of the siege at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, a Soviet-German co-production in which Dean and Renate would star and which he would direct. In 1985, just when everything was ready, Dean was invited to Denver for a film-festival. It was his first visit to Colorado for more than two decades. What little he knew about contemporary Denver had been learned from "Dynasty", and so much had changed that he could no longer find his way home.

Present-day America was a revelation to Dean: the goodwill, the neighbourliness and, above all, the sunshine and blue skies made him determined to come home. But America was not interested in an ageing left-wing cowboy. Nor, increasingly, was eastern Europe, as a new generation of home-grown rock stars came into their own.

Other events caught him in their web: his appearance on 60 Minutes misfired badly when he attempted to defend the Berlin Wall, even as it was beginning to be taken apart. He thought someone was following him; his paranoia grew and his relationship with Renate began to fall to bits.

On 12 June 1986 Dean Reed disappeared from his house near the lake where his body was found. Alive, Reed was of little interest to the West, but as soon he was dead his name became a hot property: film people started planning screen plays, authors began to work on biographies - and the theories about his death flew like sparks. Dean's friends mourned him, and some refused to believe that he was dead at all, claiming that he was in hiding in South America.

So perhaps it was history that killed Dean Reed. Whichever way he looked, he saw doors slamming shut. Without hard evidence to the contrary, it seems to me that his death was the suicide of a desperate man. He was a tale from the Cold War; he did not live to see the Berlin Wall come down. For some, Dean Reed was a pander to officialdom, to others a hypocrite who cut his politics to suit his ambition. But for millions of Russians, he was their first superstar.

In a way, it was a very American story. Yet in the West no one had ever heard of Dean Reed, except for emigré taxi drivers. "Ah, Deanrid", said a New York cab driver dreamily. "I am remembering him well. Everybody in the Soviet Union is knowing Dean Reed."

Regina Nadelson's book Comrade Rock Star - The Search for Dean Reed, is published by ChattoWindus

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