Dean Reed was pretty well unknown in the US and Western Europe but he had a huge following in Latin America and then behind the Iron Curtain. Born in Colorado in 1938, he was groomed to be a teen idol by Capitol Records in the late 50’s. While he had some modest success with songs like Our Summer Romance and Whirly Twirly his career never really took off in the United States. However Our Summer Romance was a hit across Latin America. He moved to Argentina where he made numerous albums, movies and even had his own tv show. It was while in Argentina that he became politicised and started to protest against oppression, poverty and US foreign policy. He was deported from Argentina in 1966.
At around the same time his popularity behind the iron curtain began to rise. In 1966 he played an concert in Moscow in 1966, providing the audience with a mixture of folk songs, show tunes and rock and roll. For the next six years he commuted between South America, Western (making a few spaghetti westerns in Italy) and Eastern Europe before settling in East Germany.
The East Germans apparently thought they had scored a massive coup when he came to live there. 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. However, by the 80s his star was well and truly on the wane. His declining popularity apparently made Reed disillusioned with the communist system but this did not stop him from defending the building of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in a 60 Minutes interview for CBS in 1986. Following the interview, Reed received large amounts of hate mail from the US branding him a traitor (surprisingly throughout the whole of his residence in East Germany he filed tax returns with the IRS) and a mediocre talent. Six weeks later, he was found dead in a lake near his home near Berlin. Officially his death was ruled to be an accidental drowning. Suicide now appears to be the real cause of death.
Dean Reed’s popularity behind the Iron Curtain is described by Artemy Troitsky, (who is himself described as the Soviet Union's first and best rock critic) thus: "No living western performer of rock'n' roll ever came to the Soviet Union Dean Reed was young. He played guitar. He was American. Rock 'n' roll meant a lot to absolutely every Soviet kid. It made them feel free and different from their parents. It was also like a door into another way of life, into the west. We didn't care about politics, but we did care about what an awful thing is official Soviet pop music. The west was something good. And Dean Reed wore cowboy boots and he came from the land of the free and the home of the brave and Chuck Berry."
In essence Reed brought escapism to a part of the world starved of western music. On the other hand his popularity appears to have reflected changing moods in Eastern Europe. By the 1980s Reed became identified as part of the establishment (in no small part due to his relentless support of the system). His fall from popular grace was underlined in early 1986 when a benefit concert was held in Moscow for the victims of Chernobyl; Reed showed up but no one asked him to play. Victor Grossman, an American who had defected to East Germany in the early 50s and who was a friend of Reed's, said: "People who were becoming disillusioned with the system didn't like somebody who supported it. Fewer people went to his concerts, and it's not so nice being a star playing in an empty theatre. By the mid-1980s, Dean heard the doors shutting one at a time."
Cut to the chase and Dean Reed’s life seems to have been a typical story of success then waning popularity and an early death (albeit a story without much of the apparent excess of the typical rock star). He nailed his colours to the mast of a despicable system and paid the price. He was not a hero, he was not much of a performer but I suppose he was a curiosity.