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The life and mysterious death of a rock 'n' roll radical
By the time Reed finished making collect calls from the jail, he had telegrams flooding in from all over the world to President Jimmy Carter and Gov. Rudy Perpich. With the telegrams came news coverage, and soon local reporters were supplemented by reporters from East Germany, the Soviet Union, and (perhaps oddest of all) People Magazine—all converging on the Twin Cities.
At the time I was a senior journalism student at the University of Minnesota, and I was intrigued by a fellow who I considered goofy for living in a communist country, but who was obviously good copy. When he died, I didn’t believe the official East German government line that it was “a tragic accident.” There were plenty of people, from plenty of countries, that wanted to see Reed dead for his activism.
When the Berlin Wall came down, I started thinking about how I could get my hands on the East German Secret Police files. I knew the Stasi had to have kept a close watch on this American in their midst during the Cold War. By 1994, I had obtained four volumes of files, and with the help of Eagan High School German teacher Gayle Carlson, I had a front-row seat for the final years of Reed’s life and his death.
It was great to see the video of an East German variety show host putting the next guest on hold so he could talk to Reed live from Minnesota after his arrest in Wright County.
I also had FBI, State Department, and CIA files on Reed, and interviews with family members and friends including Bonnie Raitt’s mother and Phil Everly. Reed's first wife, Patricia, had a treasure trove of letters, movie posters, and song lyrics that she graciously shared. What emerged was a fascinating tale of a good-looking, strong Colorado boy who left college after his sophomore year and signed with Capitol Records to be a rock ‘n’ roll singer. He had minor success here, but he was a huge star in South America, where he was mobbed by fans. He saw the injustice there, and he used his fame to work for peace and social justice.
His reward was to be shot at, tortured, and jailed. Finally he fled to Italy, where he made movies with the likes of Yul Brynner. He became the first American to sing rock ‘n’ roll in the USSR. And he was always protesting: for an end to the Vietnam War, for an end to the brutal dictatorship of Gen. Pinochet in Chile, and for other causes.
|To rate and comment on Der Rote Elvis and every other film in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, see tcdailyplanet.net/filmfest.|
Most illuminating, though, were the conversations with East German and Russian women who had been excited by Reed’s music and performances. They said they paid no attention to his politics. The American simply made them happy in what they described as dark times behind the Iron Curtain. With all of his faults, and despite his willingness to be used by Communist leaders for propaganda purposes, Dean Reed may have been America’s best ambassador. All it took was his smile and his songs.
Chuck Laszewski (zewski [at] comcast [dot] net) is communications director at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and was a St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter for 25 years.
©2008 Chuck Laszewski