Thursday, February 02, 2006

Comrade Rockstar

Back in the day, I was doing my bit to help Our Russian Friends take their full place in today's global economy by drilling the past participles, showing them how to stick their tongues out to pronounce "th" and extensive in-class use of find-a-words.

One day we were killing time consolidating new structures by asking and answering "Who's/what's/where's the [superlative] ...?" questions, one of which was "Who's the most famous person you've met?" One middle aged studentka, let's call her Olga, if for no other reason than that was actually her name, replied brightly:


D ..... ?

Din Rid!

.... ?

Diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiin Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiid!

Dean Reed, it turns out. The Red Elvis. The most famous American in the USSR. The man who took rock and roll behind the iron curtain. Friend to Phil Everly and assorted dictators, and maybe murdered by the Stasi. Well, maybe not. I recently read the very engaging Comrade Rockstar: In Search of Dean Reed by Reggie Nadelson.

Music, politics, showbiz, dreams fulfilled and dreams devastated. What's not to like?

Picture this. All American boy nicknamed Slim from Wheat Ridge Colorado sets out for Hollywood in the late '50s and somewhere along the way picks up a ragged looking hitchhiker. Bum says, hey, I've got contacts in the music biz out there. You give me a new pair of trousers and money for a hotel room and I'll pass on your name. Yeah, sure but Dean helps him out anyway. Turns out the guy knows Voyle Gilmore, primo producer at Capitol and suddenly Dean has a contract. Classic showbiz story, or what? The rest is hardly less remarkable. Off to South America to capitalise on a small pop hit he discovers two things: leftist politics and how he loves to be adored by a crowd. The Communist Johnny Cash is born.

Nadelson recounts her story of researching a BBC docudrama on Reed (which never happened) but the search becomes more personal as she seeks to untangle the contradictions across three countries. It's not a straight biography in that way, which is good and Nadelson's observations of Reed, his various women, fans, friends, assorted Communist Bloc hucksters are rather astute and often amusing. Her take on the politics is totally unsentimental thank god and since her journey covers the ten years up to and just after the fall of the Berlin Wall there's atmosphere to burn.

It's easy to be cynical about Reed. I mean, you've got a choice be a bit player on the Warners lot or feted as a god by half the world. Talk about selling out for success. I've got a Dean Reed CD and its competant, sometimes pleasant, soft rock. Even an Aussie connection with a cover of 'Rock & Roll I Gave You the Best Years of my Life' (but the Beatles medley is atrocious). He's got a nice voice, a nice face (if you like that square jawed Troy McLure thing) and wore cowboy boots, so exotic they may have seduced the Soviet Union all by themselves. But he could probably only be a star in that place and that time.

Still, being arrested a couple of times singing Victor Jara songs on the streets of Santiago is hardly the work of a complete opportunist.

Reed died "in mysterious circumstances" in the lake behind his home in East Berlin in 1986. Many are (were) convinced it was the work of the Stasi. Or the KGB. Or the CIA. Or all three. Or someone else. Anything but an accident or self-inflicted. Phil Everly dismisses the idea of suicide since "men who laugh like that don't kill themselves." Well, yeah Phil, they do. The real reason people can't accept it is that for such an extraordinary life, it is such an ordinary end.

Right: Dean Reed, not just a pretty face.

If you don't know about DR already, you may soon since Tom Hanks bought the rights to this book. He's slated to play the lead but he's getting a bit long in the tooth and is anyway not the square jawed All American type you'd require. Me, I reckon there is only one candidate: TV's Ronn Moss.

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