Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


REED, Dean

(b 26 September 1938, Wheat Ridge CO, a suburb of Denver; d between 12-17 June 1986, near Schmöckwitz, a suburb of East Berlin) Rock singer who was a huge star behind the Iron Curtain. His parents were teachers; he had two brothers, one of whom was a founder member of the John Birch Society. Reed was a high school athlete; a skinny kid with big ears, he obtained a guitar thinking to impress the girls. He went to college intending to become a TV weatherman, but he had matured into a handsome fellow and decided to try show business. As in a fairy tale, he walked into Capitol Records in Hollywood and got a contract; he attended Warner Brothers Drama School, where he met the Everly Brothers, and became life-long friends with Phil Everly. He did bit parts in movies and made some records; 'The Search' reached the Billboard Hot 100 in 1959. Then 'Our Summer Romance' was a huge hit in Chile, so he went down there for a visit: he was called 'the Magnificent Gringo', and saw signs that said 'Yankee Go Home'. He became a revolutionary, hanging out with folksinger Victor Jara (later murdered by the Pinochet regime) and poet Pablo Neruda.

At a World Peace Conference in Helsinki in 1965 the Chinese and the Russians were not speaking; Reed jumped up on stage and got everybody holding hands and singing 'We Shall Overcome'. Soviet journalists took note. In 1966 Reed played Moscow's Variety Theatre; on his first tour of the Soviet Union he played in 28 cities and was mobbed everywhere; he had a contract with Melodiya, the state record label, which had never put out a rock'n'roll record. Phil Everly visited him in East Berlin and they played a concert together; Everly said that Dean couldn't go anywhere without being mobbed. He was bigger than Elvis. Critic Artemy Troitsky explained it this way: 'No living western performer of rock'n'roll ever came to the Soviet Union . . . Rock'n'roll meant a lot to absolutely every Soviet kid . . . We didn't care about politics, but we did care about what an awful thing is official Soviet pop music. The West was something good. And Dean Reed wore cowboy boots and he came from the land of the free and the home of the brave and Chuck Berry.'

For years Dean was based in Latin America, working there, in Europe and in the Soviet Union. He made some films, including a spaghetti western with Yul Brynner; he recorded in Prague, which had the best rock scene in Eastern Europe. He was promoted as someone who had left his country in opposition to the Vietnam war; he remained unknown at home, but was not a defector: he kept his USA passport and filed a return with the IRS each year. In the 1970s he relocated to East Germany; in 1983 he married his third wife, Renate Blume, a film star, and soon they were planning to make a film called BloodyHeart, a love story set against the massacre at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, a favorite subject of anti-American propaganda.

But in 1985 Reed visited Colorado, fell in love with it and became intensely homesick; his widow later said it was all he could talk about. And the East was changing: with glasnost, local rockers were allowed to emerge, and Reed was increasingly seen as the stooge of a crumbling system. In the winter of 1985-86 Mike Wallace flew to East Berlin and filmed an interview with Dean for 60 Minutes; it was broadcast in April 1986, and Dean defended the Berlin wall, dismaying his American friends. That spring there was a benefit rock concert in Moscow for the victims of Chernobyl; Dean was there but nobody asked him to perform. He was still trying to put together finance for the film, but the doors were closing. His body was found floating in a lake near his home.

Reed had left a note, apparently, but Phil Everly never believed it was suicide. 'Dean could laugh. A man that laughs doesn't kill himself.' But Thomas Sindermann, the top East German homocide detective at the time, was convinced it was suicide. It was allowed to remain a mystery at the time, he said, because 'Reed was promoted as an idol, an American fighter for communism. The authorities didn't want to show young people that he had problems and had taken his own life.' Reggie Nadelson's book Comrade Rockstar (2004) also quotes a young Russian writer, Xenia Golubovich: 'I think he committed suicide because that's what a hero must do . . . He died having absolutely ruined himself. Dean, in his way, became what he wanted.'

(This entry has drawn heavily on Nadelson's article in The Guardian, October 29, 2004)