The life and death of Dean Reed….
Next month sees the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Dean Reed, the so-called ‘Red Elvis’, a remarkable character in the history of the Cold War and East Germany in particular. Dean Reed was, in the eyes of his incredibly loyal fans, the ‘Red Elvis’. A singer whose voice could be described as a poor man’s Elvis was better known for his outspoken politics than the quality of his singing.
Born in Denver, Colorado in 1938 his singing career never took off in America, he had one minor hit ‘Our Summer Romance’ which reached #96 in the Billboard Charts but proved extremely popular in Argentina following a successful South American tour. The young women of Chile treated him like a god, he was young, good looking and firmly entrenched in the Socialist ideology which swept through the West in the 1960s. The cynics might suggest that had he made it big in the US then perhaps he might have tempered his politics but for someone who realised that fame and fortune would not be found back home he took the fame, money and political platform that was South America. In Buenos Aires he recorded albums, starred in movies, played concerts and had his own television show, In Chile he began speaking out against nuclear weapons and American foreign policy in Vietnam, Africa and South America. He wrote rebel rousing songs and took part in demonstrations in Chile which would see his eventual arrest and deportation.
By 1973 he had moved permanently to East Germany, his star had risen considerably as had his politics. What he saw in the coup d’ état in Chile turned him, in his own words, from a pacifist into a ‘fighter’ and his songs and films bore that change. He stared in the film El Cantar, a biopic about his friend Victor Jara who was murdered by the Chilean military and as he immersed himself in socialist politics so his attention turned to the Middle East.
In 1977 he visited Lebanon where he met Yasser Arafat and was filmed carrying a rifle and mixing with Palestinian fighters. He spoke out against ‘Zionist oppression’ and declared swapping a guitar for a gun seemed entirely natural for the cause. He was a huge star in the Eastern Bloc countries and the East Germans seized upon any opportunity to use Reed to connect with their youth. He was light relief for the millions who themselves were oppressed and sick of their governments which seemed a blind spot for Reed and his ideals.
By 1978 he had been married twice, first to the American Patricia Hobbs who left him in 1971 to return to America followed by a five year marriage to the East German Wiebke Dorndeck. In 1981 he married his third wife the actress Renate Blome who he believed to have spied on him for the Stasi. Five years later, in 1986 he was interviewed for the hugely popular CBS show in America, 60 Minutes. He pulled no punches, comparing President Reagan to Stalin, defending the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the building of the Berlin Wall as an act of defence. His remarks sparked outrage and death threats from Americans and a great deal of upset from his American family still living in Colorado.
Six weeks later he was found dead in Lake Zeuten on the southern side of East Berlin. Mystery still surrounds his death to this day, the East German authorities declared it a tragic accident, his closest friends believed it was suicide whilst his family declared it murder. A suicide note was found in his car in which he wrote of his depression following the collapse of his third marriage and an apology to Erich Honecker for any subsequent embarrassment his death might cause the East German government.
There is no doubt that towards the end of his life Reed had become homesick and disillusioned with his life in the GDR. Artistically he was left wanting, his audience had grown up, become bored of Eat German life, revolutionary rhetoric and wanted something better. Reed’s films were poor and there were no signs that the quality was about to improve. He fought often with Renate, particularly over access to his child with Wiebke Dorndeck and Renate’s unwillingness to move to America where her own acting career would have collapsed. The 60 Minutes interview confirmed his worst fears, he wasn’t welcome in America. In the interview he expressed a desire to run for senator in Colorado to the great amusement of the watching public. In an earlier radio interview he was kicked off air for his comments but what he said about Reagan’s Star Wars policy on 60 Minutes was, in my opinion, fair. His problem was that America was not ready for anyone associated with the Eastern Bloc telling them of his desire to see a Socialist Democratic party in government. Here then was a man whose artistic career was spiralling in East Germany with no hope of an audience outside of the Iron Curtain and no hope of a return to his native America and political voice.
He spoke of wanting to return to frontline revolution in Nicaragua but few believed him, following a heated argument with Renate he tried to slash his wrists but failed. Another argument ensued and he left her, taking his scripts and a toilet bag. His suicide note was found in his scripts.
Dean Reed 1938-1986