Morning Star 29.12.2004
STAR INTERVIEW: Reggie Nadelson
Karen Shook speaks to REGGIE NADELSON about her adventures into the world of unlikely Soviet rock'n'roll hero, the US singer Dean Reed.
The biggest Yankee rocker that the US had never heard of, Dean Reed was the Soviet bloc's very own all-American star.
He was a big, handsome Colorado boy with charm and a 1,000-watt smile - one of countless thousands who made the journey to California in the late 1950s looking for his fortune in Hollywood, rock'n'roll, or whatever was going.
In this, he was hardly unusual. One of an endless stream of Tab Hunters, B-movie chancers, good-looking boys with a yearning for fame.
But, as New York writer Reggie Nadelson's fascinating and poignant biography-cum-cold war thriller Comrade Rockstar: The Story Of The Search For Dean Reed relates, what happened to one particular boy between his largely unsuccessful Hollywood days and his death in mysterious circumstances in east Berlin on the eve of glasnost was unrepeatable, incredible and stranger than fiction.
Small wonder, then, that - over a decade after the first version of Nadelson's book and nearly two decades after Reed's death - movie star Tom Hanks has bought the rights to Nadelson's story and plans to turn Dean Reed's life into a Hollywood film.
You can see why. You just couldn't invent a story like this.
For over two decades, the charming six-foot US citizen who started his acting and singing career as one of thousands of wannabes would live a truly one-off life on the other side of the world instead.
Somehow, he became the Red Elvis, the cold war cowboy and the biggest rock star in the history of the Soviet world, with his icons sold alongside those of Lenin on what passed for the celebrity-merchandise stalls of the Soviet world.
He was the embodiment of the whole country's dream about the US, said a Moscow woman that Nadelson interviewed.
"Here, it was like it was for the Beatles in England," enthused a Soviet official. And no-one in the US had ever heard of him.
How did it happen? Nadelson's book is genuinely gripping as it travels from West to East, interviewing Reed's family, wives, apparatchik minders, school pals and the lovelorn, starstruck coterie around him, as she sifts meticulously through the often conflicting recollections, points of view, theories, homages and regrets.
As she relates, it was an early-1960s coming-of-age sojourn in Latin America - "almost on a whim," as Nadelson says - that exposed a young Reed to leftist politics and engendered a friendship with Chilean protest singer Victor Jara.
"It was the first time in his life that he'd been out of the States," says Nadelson of his warm reception there on the back of a syrupy, unexpected local hit Our Summer Romance.
"And he also probably discovered that it made him very, very glamorous," she observes shrewdly.
This foray, as modestly as it began, was also the start of the making of him.
After successes in Chile and Argentina, his growing involvement in leftist groups would eventually bring Reed behind the Iron Curtain, where, as Nadelson details, cultural entrepreneurs would spot what was, for the Soviet bloc, his USP - a sexy, on-message rock'n'roll US citizen ready and willing to work in the "evil empire."
From there, Reed's records would go on to sell in the millions from Berlin to Bulgaria and his Eastern Western movies - with Uzbek "Indians" cast as the good guys - filled the cinemas.
For many, many years, Dean Reed was indeed Comrade Rockstar - friends with Honecker, screamed at by girls and greeted by full houses.
Listening to his records now, the breezily antique tunes are hard to defend too strongly, but, even from a temporal and geographic remove, the charisma is palpable.
But as the cold war drew to an end - as Nadelson pitilessly details - Reed's story turned from oddball triumph to tragedy.
The downward trajectory of any successful entertainer past his prime is always a mixture of sadness, embarrassment and pity, but Reed's even more so.
As glasnost rolled on, even Eastern Bloc youth and cultural commentators saw the forty-something singer as an embarrassing stooge, an uncool anachronism and an ersatz song-and-dance man for "the peasant young people."
Homesick, or scenting the way the wind was blowing, Reed made an abortive attempt to return to the US and restart a career at home that had really never got off the ground in the first place.
He had high hopes for a largely sympathetic 1986 interview with Mike Wallace on the US television programme 60 Minutes, but it attracted mailbags full of abuse from US viewers who called him a commie traitor.
Of all the yesterday's men of the era, Reed was one of the saddest and, in June of 1986, he was found dead - a suicide or an abortive self-willed accident - in the lake near his East Berlin home.
His wife Renate - a GDR film star herself - thought that it may have been murder.
Others suspected political involvement - CIA or Stasi. Nadelson eventually makes a convincing case that it was Reed's own hand that ended his life.
"It was his death that made it into a story," admits Nadelson, whose book doesn't hesitate to detail the mix of opportunism, sincerity, humane fellow-feeling, political naivety and careerism that marks Reed's life - and, indeed, as anyone who's ever considered the pronouncements of rock stars may suspect, that of everyone from Bono to Bob Geldof.
"Nobody had ever heard of him in the West. He was fantastically interesting for what he did, but not nearly as much for who he was," says Nadelson.
"The much harsher stuff said about him by people like glasnost-era hipster and rock critic Art Troitsky, was, I think, what a lot of people came to feel," she adds.
"It really represents what a lot of people felt when the curtain was drawn back and they came to understand that, although they had thought Reed was the real thing, a real rock'n'roll hero who represented himself as having left a real career in th US to come to the socialist cause, they eventually discovered that they were only ever allowed to have him because he was a creature of officialdom."
Asked if she herself would have liked Reed - she did, after all, spend some time following this story - Nadelson pauses and delivers a very American reply.
"I probably would have had a soft spot for him on some level. I mean, I liked him in so much as he kind of made something of himself out of nothing.
"I think I probably would have liked him now. I would have had much less patience for him 10 or 15 years ago.
"I think he was pretty pleased with himself and he was a tremendous political naive.
"I think he didn't get it and never got it and saw things exactly as he saw them for 20 years. I think he was very stubborn and very set in his ways.
"I also didn't think that he had much talent," she says flatly. "But I think there was something also tremendously - I don't know if appealing is the right word - but he had a lot of balls. He certainly never gave up.
"I think he had the great middle American virtues of doing something, making something of yourself, pulling yourself up out of the shit and getting a new life.
"It's the great immigrant story of the US. It's really about not sitting back and not letting things pass by. I think that it's that that makes him a mythic US figure."
Some people interviewed in the book clearly suggest that he was a shrewd careerist. Others take the view that he was a stubborn idealist.
"You're left to decide whether his left politics - certainly unusual for a young man of his background and career aspirations - were genuine.
"I think it was a bit of both. I think that the politics he got in Latin America probably were sincere.
"And I think, from then on, there was a real back-and-forth between the politics and the career. One fed the other. I don't think that he was totally cynical. I think that he came to believe in his politics.
"But I also think that he understood that it was part of the making of him."
Nadelson says, in Comrade Rockstar, that her conversation with Tom Hanks - who may shortly be playing the older Reed on screen - suggested that Hanks "got" the story perhaps even better than she did.
"I know that Hanks is very interested in both the cold war and communism and that he's done a lot of reading about the cold war and the US relationship to the Soviet Union and how it is expressed.
"It's a subject that's so consuming, so enormous and I think that what he understood was that you could only see it on an individual level.
"To me, it had always been a historical subject, a political subject and one of the ways in which there were so many misunderstandings was that there was so little coming out, or going either way, about everyday life, whether it was rock'n'roll or washing machines.
"He seemed to be interested in the story because of it, because it was a way to get a fix on how life looked during the cold war."
From a 21st century perspective, it all looks like a million years ago and, in following one singer's rise and fall, Comrade Rockstar is particularly telling on the speed with which the seemingly impregnable world of the Iron Curtain dissolved.
One tiny anecdote, among all the compelling detail in this book, sticks with you.
When Nadelson recounts her attempts to buy a Reed record in Prague only a few years after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, an old lady in carpet slippers searches the dusty racks for discs by the era's biggest recording artist without success.
"Dean Reed?" the old lady says. "I am so sorry, but it was a very long time ago."
Comrade Rockstar: The Story of the Search For Dean Reed by Reggie Nadelson is published by Random House priced £7.99.