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‘There is no such singer’: Dean Reed, Communism and Rock ‘n’ Roll

MILES ELLINGHAM charts journey from true-blue crooner and cowboy actor to the man would become known as 'Red Elvis' for his radical Marxism before defecting to the Soviet Bloc

DEAN REED was the epitome of the all-American boy; born in Denver 1938, he was athletic, attractive, a frontiersman, boy scout as a child, track star and musician as a teen. He showed all the promise of a Jimmy Stewart, Van Heflin or John Wayne, and sure enough, at 20, Reed dropped out of college in pursuit of Hollywood stardom.

His big break came that same year in 1958, when he signed a contract with Capitol Records, and even got a slot on TV’s Bachelor Father.

Proceeding the Capitol contract, Reed’s music saw initial popularity in the United States, but in the wake of Elvis, and the dawn of The British Invasion, singles like The Search — a Vegas-style toe-tapper about the quest for love — were viewed as quintessentially non-radical during a time in which the radical and the rebellious formed the rock-and-roll datum.

In Latin America, however — where the genre was slower to establish itself — Reed’s music began to stack an otherwise unused cultural shelf and, suddenly, his three-minute, rip-roaring love songs became an emancipatory symbol of the new. Reed went gold in Chile and decided to go on a lengthy Latin tour.

Life in South America was a different world for Reed. After tepid reception from American studio audiences, now, in Santiago, Buenos Aires and Sau Paulo he was regularly crushed under a tsunami of adoring fans, all wanting to touch him, give him surprise hugs, ruffle his hair, and even cut pieces off his jacket.

As the 1960s rolled in, trailing the cold war behind it, so did Reed’s political sensibilities. During his time in Chile, Reed befriended the communist singer-songwriter, Victor Jara, and crossed the political rubicon in 1964 when he joined Argentina’s revolutionary movement.

Reed’s political shift was brazenly flaunted in his music: in Argentina, his songs transformed from titles such as Tutti Frutti, to Las Cosas Que Yo He Visto (Things That I Have Seen).

Reed suffered violent reprisals from the Argentinian right: his dog was poisoned, his bedroom was shot up, and his home was vandalised.

But this only served to spur his political motivations further and he embarked on a trip behind the Iron Curtain. Reed writes of his trip: “probably my greatest surprise during my trip inside the Soviet Union was to find that in the Communist countries of Russia and Czechoslovakia I found the people have more liberty from fear of the future.”

Upheaval in Chile, upheaval in Argentina, and Reed became the blue-eyed “cantante” in the midst of it all — friends with Salvador Allende and Argentine union leaders, he was nicknamed “Mr Simpatico” by the idealistic teens who attended him.

There seemed to be an innocence to Reed’s radicalism: as an all-American, he didn’t indulge himself in any of the drug-addled introspection of the hippies, nor did he endorse violent dissent or paramilitary groups — but rather, he was the red-blooded bard of utopia, and essentially unthreatening to most conservative Americans as his influence never extended homeward.

For that reason, even after meeting with Castro, Reed was rarely picked up by the likes of J Edgar Hoover’s anti-communist crusades — yet in Argentina, Ongania had deported him after the coup as a radical and dangerous Marxist.

After leaving Argentina, Reed filmed spaghetti westerns in Italy, but his heart lay with communism and the USSR: in 1973 he decided on a move to the Eastern Bloc.

Although the 18 intermediary years between 1964-1982 are often dubbed “Gody zastoya” (the years of stagnation), they actually began with a notable economic growth, with Soviet GDP rising after Khrushchev’s “thaw.” This was the USSR that Dean Reed was introduced to and adored.

Though Reed’s fame in South America was widespread, it was only after he arrived in the USSR that his popularity hit dizzying new heights: he packed out stadiums throughout the 1970s, filled concert houses and headlined government marches.

Reed’s fame rose in tandem to Brezhnev’s infrastructural expansion, and in this way Reed became an increasingly unwitting cog in the Kremlin’s PR apparatus. The video for his rousing cover of This Train cheerfully showcases the construction of Soviet rail infrastructure, with Reed bound for glory, strutting atop carriages, half-constructed bridges and mixer trucks.

The Soviet 1970s was Reed’s heyday. Rock and roll was established and, in agrarian states like Czechoslovakia, country music was a popular successor to the folk tradition.

Reed eventually settled in the GDR, but toured the USSR most every year to throngs of baying crowds. He also furthered his career in film: notable mentions include 1977s The Singer, a camp biopic of Victor Jara that Reed both directed and starred in, and Aus Dem Leben Eines Taugenichts (From the Life of a Good-For-Nothing — 1973), a folkloric romance complete with countesses, bandits, and, of course, Reed himself as its traipsing, heart-throb protagonist.

It was during this period that Reed met Renate Blume, a young East German starlet, immortalised for playing Jenny Marx in Karl Marx Melodye Gody (The Early Years), who he subsequently married. In 1979, for his years of stardom, Reed received the Lenin Prize for the Arts — the only American to have ever done so.

But, alas, it was not to last. The Brezhnev era began to fall victim to socio-economic hardships. Social reforms frustrated the populations of major cities, with large families living in the same kommunalki (communal appartments), whose shared kitchens were fast becoming a symbol of administrative shortfalls, neighbourly spying and distrust.

To make matters worse, the Afghan War was reaping havoc amongst civilian families, as the US-backed Mujahedeen inflicted a heavy toll on Soviet troops.

Reed’s music, therefore, once revered for its idealism, no longer seemed relevant to the historical moment. As anti-utopian, more individually-minded movements like the Siberian punk rebellion were galvanising the youth against the state, Reed’s music was beginning to garner the reputation of state puppetry.

The 1980s was marked by cultural and ideological collision, and nowhere more so than in Reed’s adopted GDR. As the spectre of the West wafted eastwards, and liberalist mentalities moved towards a united Germany, Reed’s Marxian utopianism was swept backwards under the tide of monetarist neoliberalism that was beginning to define the age.

In 1986, Dean Reed appeared on the US channel CBS’s famous 60 Minutes programme. There he made his stand, defending the construction of the Berlin Wall, negatively comparing Reagan to Stalin, and praising Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.

Tragedy struck six weeks later, when, having been recently accused of being a traitor to the US, Reed was found dead in Zeuthener Lake near his home in East Berlin. A sleeping pill was said to have been found in his stomach and a note scribbled on the back of one of his own screenplays. Rumours of a CIA and a Stasi conspiracy followed but were not established.

Reed’s is a story of ideological structuralism, the fluctuating parameters of East and West and the surprising currents of pop music. When the US propaganda radio station Voice of America broadcast to early 1980s Moscow, an interpreter requested a song by Dean Reed. The DJ told him “there is no such singer…” before promptly playing a record by The Doors.

Miles Ellingham works as a writer and poet under the pseudonym Max Eevi. He also edits the literary journal MASS.

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