Music

Red Elvis

The strange tale of the Soviets' favorite rock 'n' roll star

|

Comrade Rockstar: The Life and Mystery of Dean Reed, the All-American Boy Who Brought Rock 'n' Roll to the Soviet Union, by Reggie Nadelson, New York: Walker & Company, 352 pages, $14.95

Soft memories of East Germany's lost "glories" are depressingly common in today's Germany, a country still cleaning up from the 2003 hurricane of ostalgie-a nostalgia for the travel restrictions, covertly transgendered Olympians, and free health care of the cruelly misnamed German Democratic Republic. The frenzy of socialist fetishization began with Wolfgang Becker's popular film Good Bye Lenin!, which in the slippery style of big-budget ostalgie manages both to condemn Erich Honecker's barbarous fiefdom and to subtly celebrate its insulation from Western consumerism. It reached its vulgar crescendo when the former East German figure skater-and former Stasi asset-Katarina Witt, clad in the powder blue uniform of the Young Pioneers, hosted The GDR Show, an airbrushed walk through the East's recent past.

It's possible this recent German trend toward "historical re-evaluation" helped prompt the American publication, 15 years after it first appeared in Britain, of Comrade Rockstar, Reggie Nadelson's travelogue cum biography of Dean Reed. Nadelson, a New York-based writer of detective fiction, has written the story of a failed American musician who became the "Red Elvis" of the East Bloc. In the late 1950s Reed-a moderately attractive, semi-talented guitar player and would-be actor from Colorado-set off for Hollywood with the distinctly un-Bolshevik goal of superstardom on the bubblegum pop circuit. There he met Paton Price, a Daily Worker-reading acting coach and party ideologue. Price schooled Reed in the socialist realism of Brechtian theater, left-wing politics, and, as Reed's sad filmic record suggests, little else.

After a short and largely unsuccessful stint with Capitol Records, Reed abandoned California for South America, where, inexplicably, his singles were outselling those of Elvis Presley. Possessed by his newfound ideology, he underwent a transformation among the bitterly impoverished natives: He shed his "false consciousness" and subsumed the artist's prerogatives beneath those of the Party. After a few years, Reed was expelled from Argentina for agitating against the government and moved to Italy, where he landed a string of minor film roles, including the lead in Karate Fists and Beans, billed as the world's first western/kung fu cross­over film.

Nadelson's account offers few details of what motivated Dean's political journey. Like many radicals of his generation, he claimed to have been inspired by that common inventory of 1960s grievances: Third World poverty, the Vietnam War, CIA machinations in Latin America. So when, in 1966, Reed was approached by a friendly Russian apparatchik offering a truly socialist variant of fame, he boarded a plane for the Soviet Union as an Officially Approved Rock Star-the genuine American article, playing ersatz rock 'n' roll.

After making the rounds touring behind the Iron Curtain, Reed chose to settle in East Germany, where he became a compliant ward of the state, recording for the GDR's lone record label (Amiga) and propagandizing for the regime. As a reward for his boundless sycophancy, Reed was elevated to superstar status, afforded lavish recording and tour budgets and plum film roles (which he immediately turned to wood), and awarded the Komsomol Lenin Prize. Despite these achievements and an intense disdain for American capitalism, Reed privately craved a second shot at bourgeois success.

In 1985 Mike Wallace extended an invitation for Reed to appear on 60 Minutes. Asked to justify the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Reed happily obliged, arguing that it was merely a defensive action against American imperialism. Ditto for the Berlin Wall. By program's end Reed had successfully propelled himself from obscurity to minor fame as the Lord Haw-Haw of the Cold War.

Wounded by the flood of hate mail that followed, he retreated to his East Berlin estate to start work on Bloody Heart, a film about the American Indian Movement with Alexander Nevsky-like pretensions. But with the advent of glasnost and the increasing availability in the East of authentic American rock records, Reed's fans defected en masse. His state subsidies became increasingly difficult to obtain.

Nadelson recalls seeing a videotape, shot during Reed's final, disconsolate days, of Reed on Soviet TV popping-and-locking to the Ghostbusters theme song, bellowing, in pidgin Russian, that "he wasn't too old" for such public indignities. It was, she writes, "one of the saddest things I ever saw." His career unsalvageable, the prospect of international success all but finished, and his third marriage dissolving, Reed swallowed a sleeping pill-the only thing Red Elvis and the real Elvis seemed to have in common-and threw himself in a lake. The East German authorities declared the death "an accident."

Reed's fame was a state construct that, through repetition, achieved a measure of independence. Reed traded in Americanness. For teens starved of an authentic native youth culture who were looking enviously west, that was, initially anyway, a mark of authenticity. After charting his rapid descent into obscurity, Nadelson writes that "not even the security of socialism could protect him from the defection of his fans." Curiously, she does not consider the fact that it was the "security" of socialism that created his fan base. Her book is packed with anecdotes of Beatlemania-like hysteria in Moscow and astronomical record sales in Bulgaria, but I get the impression that Reed was popular the same way grass soup is popular in North Korea: When choice is eliminated, people make do with what's available. Reed existed in a market without competition, where all records released were subject to state approval. (So desperate were the authorities to coopt counterrevolutionary trends that East Germany's Ministry of Culture established a Sektion Rockmusik to offer "youth music" neutered of subversive content.)

Inexplicably, Nadelson avoids citing lyrics or engaging in any significant discussion of Reed's discography, though she repeatedly hints that his musical oeuvre-a mix of sock-hop cover tunes and slow-strumming celebrations of dialectical materialism-is underwhelming. His catalog of self-penned lyrics is cringe-inducing, full of songs leaden with Hallmark poetry and dorm-room philosophizing. Take this couplet from the song "Wounded Knee '73," a schlocky folk number memorializing the siege that year of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation: "The White House smoked a pipe/Love and peace were ripe." Or this bathetic tribute to the South Vietnamese communists: "Freedom…la la la/For they want their freedom today/The brave ones of Viet Cong/Know from where the bombs they come."

But the material isn't always so kumbaya. Performing for GDR television, Reed explained, in Colorado-accented German, that his next number would celebrate the "ideal of freedom." His paper-thin voice thundered, his veins contracted, and he issued an order to his fans: "Love your fellow man, but hate your enemies." It's Phil Ochs crossed with the Shining Path.

Unlike many radicals who maintained dubious political allegiances-the singer Paul Robeson and the composer Hanns Eisler come to mind-Reed left almost no artistic legacy. So on what are we to judge him if not his lifelong commitment to the Soviet project?

Despite Reed's spirited defense of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Nadelson offers a raft of wildly implausible explanations for his unwavering commitment and subsumption to the state: "Maybe he remained a tourist in Berlin and Moscow, seeing only what officials intended him to see, unaware of the corruption." Or maybe he "was working for democracy from within." Maybe. But what if Reed, as certainly seems to be the case, was simply a guitar-strumming agent of totalitarianism? And what of those who really were working for democracy from within?

Comrade Rockstar offers few clues, for Nadelson's story is told in near total contextual isolation; it's a story of a collaborator that never explains what became of those who resisted. In her book Stasiland, the Australian journalist Anna Funder offers a compelling counterexample: the story of Klaus Renft, former front man of the mildly "subversive" East German rock band Die Klaus Renft Combo.

After a two-record stint with Amiga, the Renft Combo was abruptly disbanded by the state's music licensing board, upon the instruction of the Stasi, for its perfidious lyrics and lewd performances. And when two of its members were presented with offers of conciliation-a promise of anointed status in exchange for total subservience to the state-they heroically refused and were sentenced to prison. In typical totalitarian fashion, Renft's records were expunged from the state record label's catalog; the band was curtly informed that it "no longer existed."

Reed was comfortably housed in a suburban Berlin villa; the Renft band was caged in the notoriously brutal Stasi-operated prison Hohenschönhausen. Reed, the Russian music critic Art Troitsky rightly notes, was a traitor to the very ideals of rock 'n' roll.

Reed apparently never noticed the rather obvious disconnect between the Soviet notion of communism as the creator and liberator of art and the GDR's aggressive attempts to portray him as an authentic purveyor of a capitalist art form. When rock music was establishing its anti-authority credentials in America, Reed was attempting to adapt it to authoritarianism. With characteristic understatement, the socialist folk singer Pete Seeger observed that Reed "allowed the Soviets to boost him to 'stardom' and found out too late what a trap that can be."

While cruising through a Soviet Union in its death throes, Nadelson confesses that she too is gripped by a sort of ostalgie. "How dull travel in the Soviet Union would be one day without the terrors of Aeroflot and without the drunks, the horrible hotels, and the listening devices," she writes. The rock underground-once the counterrevolutionary vanguard, the contra-Dean Reed-was suddenly devoid of meaning. "As a political act, as the music that let you declare your otherness, when the state withdrew its opposition, rock and roll lost its heart," Nadelson writes, suggesting that oppression alone is the motor of great art and, in one sentence, nullifying her sympathy for Reed.

In a new afterword, Nadelson lets the reader in on a little secret: Tom Hanks has purchased the film rights to Comrade Rockstar. Dean Reed, the proletarian "rock star," may finally get the American star treatment he so craved, courtesy of the Hollywood system he so despised.

Michael C. Moynihan (michaelm@timbro.se) is a fellow at Timbro, a free market think tank in Sweden.