Newsweek, June 8, 1981


Soviet Union

Crooning for the Kremlin

The handsome singer walks down the street and is soon surrounded by dozens of fans. As the crowd falls silent, he strums a guitar and croons a ballad. An elderly war veteran claps him on the shoulder: "You're a good lad," he says with tears in his eyes. This is not a Hollywood set but Moscow's Gorky Street, and the real-life hero is American Dean Reed - a virtual unknown in his own country but a superstar in the Soviet Union. Boasts Reed: "I'm the Frank Sinatra of Russia."

That may be close. Reed's popularity is so great that promoters did not bother to advertise two recent performances in Moscow, and yet both dates were sellouts. Even Communist Party officials scrambled for seats, and scalpers charged as much as ten times the face value for tickets. Onstage, the 42-year-old former Colorado dude-ranch cowboy snapped his fingers, twitched his hips and served up a medley of American folk-rock favorites from the '60s. He drew squeals of "Yes! Yes!" from the audience when he asked if he could take off his jacket, and when a young groupie later maneged to sneak backstage in search of an autograph, she sighed: "I love everything about him, his singing, everything."

With his boyish looks and syrupy baritone, Reed embodies every Soviet fantasy of the Western pop idol. But ideological harmony has also contributed to his Russian success. His repertoire is heavily larded with songs extolling communism. Sample lyrics: "We are the revolutionaries/As Lenin taught us to make our destiny/Ho Chi Minh and Castro too have made the whole world see." Reed's Marxism has apparently earned him some influential admirers: he claims to have close personal ties to East German party leader Erich Honecker, Czechoslovak party leader and President Gustav Husak and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. Crooning for the Kremlin, however, has not been without its drawbacks. "Because of my political beliefs," he says, "I can't even get near a recording studio in the United States."

Leftist Gadfly: For whatever reason, Reed has never been taken very seriously at home. In 1962, after only one semisuccessful recording in the United States, he headed to Latin America for a series of concerts. The sight of peasants living in ramshackle barrios inspired his conversion to Marxism, Reed says, and he became a globe-trotting leftist gadfly. On one occasion he was arrested for symbolically laundering an American flag in front of the U.S. Embassy in Santiago, Chile. His activities caught the eye of Communist Party functionaries in Moscow, who arranged the singing debut that transformed Reed into an overnight sensation. Since then he has seldom ventured back to the United States.

For all the adulation, Reed seems rather unhappy. Twice divorced, he struggles each month to raise the $ 300 in American currency he needs to pay child support for a daughter by his first wife. The Soviets will pay him only in rubles that cannot be easily converted to hard currencies. In conversation, Reed frequently drops his upbeat persona to muse about the passing of time. He points repeatedly to the flecks of gray scattered through his thick brown hair and wonders when his voice will fail. Now living in East Germany, he dreams of returning to the United States and achieving the fame that eluded him. "I don't want to grow old in a country that is not my own," he says. "I don't like being an exile." Then a touch of his onstage bravado returns and he adds defiently: "But I am not going to give up my principles."

Bill Hewitt with Seth Mydans in Moscow

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Letzte Änderung: 2007-05-23