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2/1/11

Dean Reed, The Rock Star Who Wanted To Come In From The Cold

In 1986, the same year that Dean Reed mysteriously died, I went through Check-Point Charlie into East Berlin. American army Military Police, no problem; East German guards looked carefully at my passport and finally nodded. East Berlin was a grim place, and if you weren't paranoid it made you so. I imagined informers tailing me everywhere.

This is about a young man who went through Check-Point Charlie, defected, and never returned. He found his fortune there--celebrity and wealth--mainly because he was a propaganda tool, but then he was erased from Soviet history after he was deemed no longer useful. Speculation has it that he was considered no longer useful after he grew tired of the communist system and wanted out.

I recall watching 60 Minutes a long time ago, and learned about Dean Reed, born in Colorado, defected to the USSR, and made a rock star by the Soviets. With an Amerikanski they had a great story and good talent, as well as a young man with looks. They molded him into what they needed, something to counter the West and sent him to one of their satellite states, East Germany. Reed died mysteriously and suddenly. In 1986, a few years before the Wall came down, his body was found floating in a lake. Here are snippets of an account from an old National Public Radio piece.

The NPR narrator described how he looked in East Berlin for a Dean Reed music record. For somebody once so immensely popular, he had great difficulty finding one. The narrator concluded that the Party had tried to expunge Reed’s name from history. He finally finds a music record at a store on Alexander Platz and buys it from a hostile clerk. Then he and another guy drive to Reed’s former residence. Finally they drive to visit his grave.

Reed had a good life in East Germany while it lasted. He was not a hostage behind the wall but could visit West Berlin. (Why didn't he escape before it was too late?) Whenever he re-entered East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie he apparently always said "hi" to the guards, and Hans, or Heinz, or Hermann, whoever was on guard duty, would go home and say, "Dean Reed passed by today." He was so famous that for years you could just write DEAN REED, EAST BERLIN on a postcard and it would get to him.

The NPR guy tells us of his experience in the record shop looking for an LP by the rock star. " 'I want a Dean Reed record, please,' I said to the clerk at the Melodia record shop on the Leipzigerstrasse, where 'Winter Wonderland' was playing."

"The woman with thick glasses turned away impatiently, nodding brusquely towards the door, and so I began to speculate that, even dead, Dean Reed was a non-person, a subject not for discussion in this country where you could not discuss much, not out loud anyway."

"In the record store on the Alexander Platz, flipping albums methodically, front to back, in bin after bin, long after I had given up, Leslie scanned each cover and found nothing. Not for the first time that day I had the eerie sense that Dean Reed had never existed in this strange country, where the rules were made to fence people in, to make them conform, to keep them quiet. How could the exuberant cowboy I'd seen on TV have been part of it?"

"Suddenly, Leslie whispered at me, 'Over here'."

"The album was titled Country Songs and Dean Reed's picture was on the cover. He wore a cowboy hat and he was smiling and he looked wonderful, full of life."

"Outside, we located the rental car and climbed in and decided to risk the trip to Schmockwitz, where Dean Reed had lived."

"We would miss closing time at Checkpoint Charlie; we were way out of bounds, beyond the limits of our visa."

They finally locate the house Reed had lived in. The NPR man describes it. "6A Schmockwitzer Damm was a low-lying, white stucco house with an orange tiled roof, a garage, a lawn. A large carved wooden R was perched on a post in the yard as if it were a ranch: the Double-R ranch; the Dean Reed Dude Ranch of Schmockwitz."

How did Reed meet his tragic end? The evidence points to murder. A British journalist, Russell Miller, by chance had arranged to interview Dean Reed for a magazine the weekend the rock star died. "He had called on the house at Schmockwitz. The interview was scheduled for the next day, but Mrs. Reed told him that Dean was ill and could not see him. In the middle of the conversation, a man came on the line—it seemed to Miller that he had snatched the phone away from Mrs. Reed." He told Miller that Dean was in the hospital and that he should go home and would be contacted at a name and a telephone number in Potsdam--the name was a Mr. Weiczaukowski, the man told Miller.

"Puzzled, Russell Miller went back to London and, on the following Tuesday, when he heard the news that Dean Reed was dead, he called Potsdam. There was no Mr. Weiczaukowski at the number he had been given." The journalist raised questions about the rock star's disappearance. Had Reed grown tired of his Soviet “Utopia” and expressed a desire to go home? Had the STASI desired to liquidate him to head off potential embarrassment?

Russell Miller had little doubt what happened. Western newpapers trumpeted Reed's disappearance. Here is one headline:

DEATH IN BERLIN FOR DEFECTOR WHO CHANGED HIS TUNE. MYSTERY OF POP STAR IN LAKE: IT WAS MURDER SAYS MANAGER. DEAN REED, THE SINGER WHO WENT EAST AND THEN WANTED TO COME IN FROM THE COLD.

The NPR man tried to understand what it must have been like for Reed during his final days. He and his driver got back in the car and searched for Reed's grave site.

"Leslie drove a few hundred yards and stopped and got out of the car. I followed him to the little cemetery by the side of the road. A few wet flowers lay on a headstone. It seemed incredibly sad somehow that the dazzling American I'd seen on TV should end up in this lonely place. I bent down. On the headstone, in German, was inscribed simply: Dean Reed. Born Colorado, 1938. Died Berlin, 1986."

Leaving the grave site, they made it back through Check Point Charlie. The two men talked about Reed, wondered about him. The narrator has some concluding thoughts.

"Over that year, during my first encounters with the world where Dean Reed lived, I finally saw why. He had been a star. He was an American guy singing the music that everyone yearned for, the music that made you feel alive if you were young. It was the best, most joyful expression of the sedition which was the only way to keep from shriveling up in an oppressive society."

"The Berlin Wall had gone up in August, 1961, which was just about the time Dean Reed had left America. He never lived there again, and he died in this lake in East Berlin. Who killed him? Who was he? A true believer? A spy? Just a guy, an American with a guitar and great looks and a lot of ambition?"

Here is the NPR piece on Reed.

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