Twisted Tales: Dean Reed, the 'Red Elvis,' Rocks the Eastern Bloc
by James Sullivan
When rock 'n' roll gets political, it tends to lean left. Pop stars rally around war protest, humanitarian efforts and personal liberties. One early American rocker veered as far left as he could go, and he ended up at the bottom of an East German lake.
Though Colorado-born Dean Reed was practically unknown in his native country, he was a superstar in South America, in Italy and behind the Iron Curtain. The New York Times once called him the "Johnny Cash of Communism," but another nickname stuck: Reed was the "Red Elvis."
Born in 1938 to a well-traveled family, Reed moved to Southern California in the late 1950s to try his hand as a teen idol. After a brief stint recording for Imperial Records, he signed with Capitol. Despite no success in the States, Reed's song 'Our Summer Romance' oddly became a hit in Argentina. The singer began touring South America; already interested in leftist politics, he liked the socialist movement so much he decided to stay. Advocating workers' rights and protesting the new war in Vietnam, he became a celebrity in Buenos Aires, earning his own TV show and the nickname "Mr. Simpatía."
After a military coup, Reed was expelled from the country. He landed in Italy, where he took acting roles in spaghetti Westerns. (Sample title: 'Robin Hood, Arrows, Beans and Karate.') Given his political affiliations, he was soon persuaded to perform in the USSR, where he became a state-sponsored star in a culture that was starving for rock 'n' roll. By the early 1970s, Reed was settled in East Germany, recording for the government's official record label.
"We used him," the last leader of socialist East Germany once admitted. "We told him what to do." But if Reed willingly cooperated, he developed other political relationships of his own, befriending Yasser Arafat and posing for a camera holding a guitar and a Kalashnikov rifle.
Still, Reed was homesick for America. 'Nobody Knows Me Back in My Hometown,' as he lamented in one song. While working on a movie about the Native American standoff at Wounded Knee, he began talking about a US comeback tour. In 1986, '60 Minutes' flew to East Berlin to interview the self-proclaimed Marxist singer, who told Mike Wallace he hoped to run for a Senate seat from Colorado someday.
He also defended the existence of the Berlin Wall and compared Ronald Reagan to Stalin. Portraying the singer as a naive political opportunist, the '60 Minutes' segment drew the ire of many viewers, who deluged him with hate mail.
A few months later, Dean Reed's body was discovered in a lake near his East German home. The official state report called his death an accident. Some claimed he was murdered. Most believed he committed suicide.
In recent years, this forgotten man of the cultural Cold War has been resurrected as the subject of several books and documentaries, even stage musicals. One biography, called 'Comrade Rockstar,' has been optioned by Tom Hanks for possible film development. The mystery behind Reed's death was apparently solved with a discovery in his file in the archives of Stasi, the East German secret service. It seems the Red Elvis left behind a suicide note, scribbled on the back of a movie script.