Dean Reed (1938–86) was a singer-songwriter and actor from Denver who enjoyed a stint of popularity in the 1960s and 1970s before experiencing a slow slide into obscurity by the end of his life. Best known for his time spent living and recording in the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, Reed’s life reflects the intense polarization of the world he wrote about as well as the political activism typical of many musicians at the time.
Born in 1938 and reared in suburban Denver’s Wheat Ridge, Reed always accomplished what he put his mind to. He began playing the guitar at age twelve, hoping that it would give him confidence around girls. As a high school senior in 1956, he excelled in track, chorus, a cappella club, student council, boy’s club, assembly, citizenship, and intramurals. During two summer vacations he played guitar at Harmony Guest Ranch near Estes Park, sometimes donating his earnings to the American Cancer Society. He also performed at Phipps Auditorium in Denver. Upon his graduation in 1956, Reed attended the University of Colorado (CU) in Boulder to study meteorology.
At CU, Reed earned average to above-average scholastic marks but excelled in extracurricular activities. He joined the gymnastics team and became president of the gymnastics honorary organization that performed for high schools, clubs, and half-time shows at basketball games. Reed joined the Independent Student’s Association and performed in the music group Sock and Buskin while continuing to play guitar and sing folk music, popular ballads, and country-western music.
Talent scout Roy Eberhart was in one of Reed’s audiences during that time, and he convinced Reed to drop out of CU after his sophomore year and go to Hollywood. Later that year, Reed packed his guitar, demonstration records, and Eberhart’s letter of introduction into his white Chevrolet convertible and moved to California. On his way to California, a poorly dressed hitchhiker caught Reed’s eye. The hitchhiker proposed a deal: if Reed paid for a night in a hotel, the hitchhiker would give him the name of an agent. Reed accepted, and amazingly the wanderer turned out to be a genuine representative of Capitol Records; within days Reed had a seven-year recording contract with Capitol.
Reed did a screen test and signed a contract with Warner Brothers’ star school. In 1958 he appeared in a few television shows and movies as a walk-on extra and bit player. Warner Brothers’ acting coach Paton Price—who taught Dick Clark, Jean Seberg, and Don Murray—became Reed’s mentor. Reed soon moved in with Price and his wife. While living with the Prices, Reed learned a lesson that would guide the rest of his life’s work: art should be a mode of promoting one’s beliefs.
By 1960 Reed had recorded four albums, with Our Summer Romance becoming a regional success in the southwestern United States and, somewhat surprisingly, in South America. That summer, Reed staged a pair of concerts at his alma mater, CU. A 6,000-member fan club in the Rocky Mountain region avidly supported his tour. Two years later, Reed’s songs still appealed to a limited pop-music audience, but he had yet to sign any significant television or movie roles. In the spring of 1962, Capitol Records dispatched Reed on a forty-day tour of Brazil, Chile, and Peru to promote his latest album, which included a composition of his own, “Once Again.”
A year after Our Summer Romance went to the top of the Chilean charts, Reed surpassed Elvis Presley in the South American Hit Parade polls. In March 1962 Reed left Hollywood for Santiago, Chile, without informing his agent or his mother. Reed enjoyed billing as the “Magnificent Gringo,” and despite sporadic flak from radio DJs, who criticized his move as a publicity stunt, Reed remained in South America. It was there he discovered an indelible force that would control the trajectory of the rest of his life: politics.
Reed lived among other North American stars in Chile, but he was the only one who emerged from their time there with a burning political message. During his travels, the sharp divergence between rich and poor nagged at Reed. He recalled Paton Price’s advice to use art to advance one’s cause, and came to believe that his music could save the world from hatred, violence, and war. Shortly after establishing himself in Chile, he placed newspaper advertisements decrying atomic testing. On April 26, 1962, Reed wrote a letter to the Chilean people urging them to demand that US President John F. Kennedy stop atomic tests. Soon the Chilean poets Pablo Neruda and Victor Jara, as well as the Chilean communist leader Salvador Allende, took Reed in as one of their own.
Partly because of his outspoken ideology, Reed’s career blossomed. By 1964 Reed and his new wife, Patricia, lived in a suburban villa in Buenos Aires as he starred in a television series, filmed a Mexican movie, and earned upward of $1,500 per day singing for wealthy people. He also sang peace songs for downtrodden workers and picketed embassies of countries testing atomic weapons. In response to an attack on their house, the Reeds armed themselves. The US State Department sent him warnings about propagating anti-American values. The FBI, wary of Reed’s views that the United States should remove itself from the Vietnam conflict and halt all nuclear activity, began secretly tracking Reed’s movements.
In 1965 Reed performed before the World Peace Congress in Helsinki, Finland—the largest audience he had ever played for. Nikolai Pastukhov, head of the Soviet Youth Organization and a delegate to the peace conference, observed how the good-looking, Socialist-inclined American warmed the crowd, whose members had been bickering for days. Pastukhov realized that Reed represented an artist who could feed the Soviet masses their daily diet of Western culture without corrupting their beliefs—exactly the antidote for the restive Soviets. He invited Reed on his train, bound for Moscow.
Reed was elated by the attention and the possibility of a new market. He returned to South America but could not stop thinking about the near-Utopia he believed he had found in Eastern Europe. He became an advocate of the Soviet system, as expressed in a birthday letter on September 22, 1965.
Reed and Patricia maintained their residence in Argentina, though he traveled frequently to make movies in Spain and Italy. In 1966 Reed went on a singing tour through the Soviet Union. Accordingly, Pastukhov arranged a recording contract for Reed with Melodiya Records, the first rock-and-roll record produced by the Soviet state. In 1967, while residing in Rome, Reed and three other foreign celebrities addressed demonstrators rallying against US involvement in Vietnam. A few months later, he wrote a letter to the International Herald Tribune decrying the “free” elections in Vietnam. Neither the letter nor the rally escaped the attention of the sedition-wary FBI. Convinced of the superiority of the Soviet system, Reed once made the strange and incorrect claim that US citizens would be lucky to live under socialism because “currently half of [United States] children die at birth because there is no money for doctors.”
Reed continued to seek out the media spotlight. In 1970, a week prior to the election of Allende as Chilean president, Reed was arrested for washing a US flag in front of Santiago’s US Consulate. He explained that he was symbolically cleansing the flag, which was “dirty with the blood of the Vietnamese people” and others living under dictatorships supported by the United States. Tired of his relentless activism and long absences from home, Patricia filed for divorce in 1971 and took their daughter Ramona back to California.
By 1971 Reed had become the USSR’s biggest superstar. His popularity was encouraged by the state, as he attacked the government of the United States. Other Eastern Bloc countries followed the USSR and wooed Reed; the Young Communist League of Czechoslovakia awarded him a medal, and Hungary gave him a peace prize. As his star waxed during the remainder of the decade, Reed stayed busy making East German feature films, writing and directing a biopic about martyred poet Victor Jara, and remarrying twice.
In October 1985 Reed returned to Denver for the first time in twenty-five years to attend the Denver International Film Festival, which included a documentary on Reed’s life entitled American Rebel. Critics panned the one-sided representation of his life, and the film’s showing enjoyed only modest attendance. While in Denver, Reed got into a heated on-air exchange with KNUS Radio host Peter Boyles, comparing Boyles to the group of white nationalists who had recently murdered liberal radio host Alan Berg. The pacifist Reed later stated that he regretted the exchange and hired a bodyguard for the remainder of his public appearances in Denver.
On April 1, 1986, the news program 60 Minutes aired a segment about Reed entitled “The Defector.” Until then, few people outside the Russian émigré community had ever heard of Reed. Ordinary Americans watched Reed equate Ronald Reagan with Joseph Stalin, defend the Berlin Wall, and dance with Yasser Arafat. The program elicited angry letters calling Reed a traitor, terrorist, and fraud. From his home in East Germany, Reed pored over every letter knowing that he would never again have a career in the United States.
On the night of June 12, 1986, Reed disappeared while on his way to meet with film producer Gerrit List in East Germany to discuss his ongoing project of many years, a biopic of the 1973 Wounded Knee standoff. Three days later, lifeguards at a lake near Reed’s home found his car. Two days later, Reed’s body was found in the lake. Even though it was hot and humid on the night of his disappearance, his body was clothed in a jacket and large overcoat, and although the incident report claimed that Reed’s body was underwater for nearly four days, his wallet remained dry the entire time, and no water was ever found in his lungs. Despite the mysterious circumstances of his death, Reed’s body was quickly cremated. Reed’s wife, Renate, originally buried his ashes near their East German home before deciding to re-inter his remains in the Green Mountain Cemetery in Boulder, Colorado.
Adapted from Ariana Harner, “The Singing Marxist,” Colorado Heritage 19, no. 1 (1999).