Rock Around the Block
Book Review by Kerri Parke, January 2005
Review of 'Comrade Rockstar', Reggie Nadelson, Arrow £7.99
Not many people in the West have heard of Dean Reed but during the Cold War he was a huge rock 'n' roll star behind the Iron Curtain. He was so famous his icons were apparently sold alongside those of Stalin. In 1986 he was the subject of a 60 Minutes programme but six weeks later he was dead. This book tells the intriguing story of Dean Reed's life and that of author Reggie Nadelson's journey to discover the mystery of his life and death.
Reed was the 'all-American boy who brought rock 'n' roll to the Soviet Union'. But how did he get there and why? Having had the usual American mid-west childhood, he picked up a guitar as a way of attracting girls. He went to Hollywood and got lucky winning small roles in some bad films, but he was restless and wanted to travel. One of his films was a hit in Chile and so he decided to go there. Thousands of people were waiting for him when he arrived shouting 'Viva Dean!' and it was there that he discovered politics. As he said, 'South America changed my life because there one can see the justice and injustice, or poverty and wealth. They are so clear that you must take a stand. I was not a capitalist, nor was I blind. And there I became a revolutionary.'
Reed continued on his travels, singing at peace concerts against the Vietnam War, and was 'discovered' in Helsinki by a Russian scout who was on the lookout for acceptable entertainers and was impressed by this blue-eyed American boy who espoused socialism. He began his Eastern Bloc career in 1966, playing to Yasser Arafat along the way.
Everybody in Russia knew about Dean Reed and he was even bigger than Elvis. Rock 'n' roll made teenagers feel different from their parents. Life was great for him for the best part of a quarter of a century, but by the mid-1980s it took a downward spiral and Reed wasn't quite able to keep up. In the spring of 1986 a rock concert was held in Moscow to benefit the victims of Chernobyl. Reed showed up but no one asked him to play. He wasn't seen as a rebellious American any more, simply part of the establishment that was being swept away by glasnost and perestroika.
Reed's body was found in a lake in East Berlin in June 1986 and there were many contradictory theories surrounding his death. Was he murdered? If so, who by? Or did he simply commit suicide, realising there was no place for him in this new world? This seems to be the most likely explanation, but nobody can say for certain.
Nadelson does well in recounting the interesting and often funny moments from what must have been an incredible life. It's worth reading to discover the remarkable story of an American rock 'n' roll star the establishment would rather you didn't know about.
However, there is something not quite right about it. Nadelson grew up in Greenwich Village in New York, so she feels she has some leftie credentials, but you can tell she doesn't really understand what Reed was about. She can't quite get her head round the idea that anyone would want to leave America, even with all its faults, to live in the drab and dreary Eastern Bloc. The idea that Tom Hanks (of all people!) has bought the rights to her book and is about to star in a film about Reed's life shows that she clearly knows very little about his ideology.
But the main thing she doesn't understand is that ultimately Dean Reed was a Marxist who wanted to change the world. He was an internationalist who knew he had more in common with the ordinary people of any country than the rulers of the country in which he was born.