Thursday, August 16, 2007

Remembering...the 'Red' Elvis...Dean Reed

Today being the 30th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley, there is a huge amount of media attention on the life and legacy of 'The King' , for example,

Elvis Presley's status is now approaching that of a deity, and there are some who would even subscribe to the view that the Presley phenomenon is morphing into a quasi-religious status as the years go by.
All this discussion of Elvis Presley set me to thinking about the singer they used to refer to as 'Red Elvis', Dean Reed was a hugely popular figure in the rock and folk scene in the socialist countries in the 1970s and 1980's, now 20 years after his tragic suicide Dean Reed's life is being re-examined in a documentary which will open in Germany later this month, clips of which can be seen on You Tube here
I recall being rather sceptical when other young people in the DDR enthused about Reed's music, but in fact I was quite impressed when I actually heard some of his singing.After his dream of stardom in the US in the 1960s failed, Reed turned to Latin America, where his records sold well and he began to be seen as an all-American hero. He toured Chile, Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina and embraced Marxism. He recorded a song called "Our Summer Romance," while on a tour of South America. That song soared up the charts there . In fact in Latin America he would become more well known than Elvis. He settled in Argentina.In Argentina he became involved leftist politics. He opposed nuclear weapons, and performed free shows in barrios, and prisons. He was deported in 1966.His records sold millions, even though many critics said he could not sing.
In 1971 he made the German Democratic Republic his home. The government gave him a lakeside residence for which he paid a peppercorn rent, and in return Reed visited schools, factories and workers' clubs where he sang his pro-Marxist protest songs. Things turned sour for Reed later on in his life. In 1986 at the height of the 1980's Cold War Reed conducted a television interview on CBS's '60 minutes' programme, he defended the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and the Berlin Wall , which angered many in the US, including family and friends. Following the interview, despite the fact that he never renounced his US citizenship and continued to pay his taxes to Uncle Sam, Reed received large amounts of hate mail from enraged US right wingers. Letters which not only accused him of being a traitor, but also a mediocre performer who could never expect to have the same fame or popularity in his own country as he had in the Socialist countries .Tragically six weeks after his appearance on US TV , Reed was found dead in a lake near his home, near East Berlin . Though it was officially ruled an accidental drowning, his friends in Germany suspect his death was a suicide.
Reed still enjoys a huge following in many parts of the world, especially in the countries where he enjoyed most popularity during his lifetime, this can be seen by the enthusiasm still evident in fans websites, one excellent example being 'The Dean Reed website' which is a project created by Dean Reed friends from all over the world.
Also to get some idea of the following that Dean Reed still enjoys in the former USSR it is interesting to read this google translated version of one of his fan-sites, remembering that its a computer translation of course!


straight_talk said...

In a cold war context Dean Reed was undoubtedly a brave and principled individual.

Yet his elevation to iconic status in order to counter [even imitate] capitalist popular culture was tragi-comic and symptomatic of the degeneration of socialist culture in 1970's and 1980's.

As an antidote to such capitulation, I strongly recommend 'Behind the Scenes in Two Worlds' a comparative study of the performing arts in the GDR and USA study by US communists Elaine and Harry Mensh published by International Publishers in 1978.

This excellent book explores the relationship between the arts, politics and social systems. It offers a critique of capitalist culture, mainly in film and theatre, which has impressively stood the test of time given the seismic changes in the world balance of forces since 1978.

Gabriel said...

Many thanks for that tip, it sounds like an interesting read. As for the elevation of Reed to iconic status being 'tragi-comic' I'm not so sure about that, he seemed to build a substantial fan base by dint of his music and his political message, which was as far as I know consistently progress. I remember he had a huge and genuine following amongst young people in the DDR, the strength of which is confirmed by the continued popularity of the websites dedicated to him, over 20 years after his death. If he had been just a tame musician promoted by the governments of the time I suspect he would have been forgotten a long while since.

Juan M. Garcia said...

Hi Gabriel: Thanks for visiting and for your greetings. You have a very good blog. Dean Reed performed in Cuba several times. I was a kid at the time, but I remember him very well. Unfortunately, he died very young.
Take care. Greetings from Cuba.

Renegade Eye said...

I was introduced to Dean when he visited Minneapolis in the 1970s. Talk about charisma.

ajohnstone said...

Strange how the media and music press can pass by someone as interesting

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phil said...

I went to Wheat Ridge High School in Colorado with Dean Reed. We graduated in 1956. We played a couple of gigs together. I played steel guitar. Frankly, I thought his singing was awful. I saw him again sometime in 1985 when he came to Colorado. Several old friends from high school met at a classmate's house. At that time, I thought his singing had improved by a factor of 10 and I understood why he had become so successful.

Although he didn't speak totally frankly, I thought he seemed depressed and very interested in returning home. Some of us even discussed raising the money to pay for his relocation. A short time later, I learned of his death. We often speculated that the KGB had him killed. Only recently I learned of speculation that he committed suicide. Watching his u-tube performances, I have concluded that he was totally charismatic. We disagree politically but I am glad to have met him.

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