Since the rise of gangsta rap in the early 1990s, hip-hop has become the global sound track of protests, riots, revolutions, and civil wars. From the French banlieues to the war-scarred streets of Sierra Leone, rappers are often considered the only authentic spokespeople for disgruntled youth. That role once belonged to rock stars. During the fall of the Soviet Union, rock 'n' roll was still the international language of rebellion and aspiration. Forbidden music like the Beatles' "Revolution" helped fuel the student demonstrations in Prague in 1968, and jubilant East Germans blasted heavy metal as they tore down the Berlin Wall in 1989. But ironically, one of the biggest rock stars in Russian history was a cheesy American defector now most frequently seen as a puppet of the Communist regime.
Dean Reed was born in 1938 and lived a mundane existence on his family's Colorado chicken farm until he left for California at age twenty. Then, as Reggie Nadelson details in her affectionate biography, Comrade Rockstar, he stumbled into a bizarre, Zelig-like career as "the Red Elvis." Frustrated by his C-list success as a musician, he moved to Chile and became a superstar nicknamed the Magnificent Gringo. He grew increasingly leftist in South America and ended up in Russia in 1965. Muscovites who craved Western culture adored this sexy American cowboy and his giddy covers of "The Twist" and "Ghost Riders in the Sky." And thanks to Reed's wide-eyed Socialist rhetoric and denunciations of "sick" US society, so did the apparatchiks. "Officials were on the lookout for acceptable entertainers to pacify the Soviet kids and prevent their wholesale defection to the decadent music of the West," Nadelson writes. Reed was perfectly harmless.
It seems inevitable that a man like Reed would die a mysterious, untimely death. In 1986, his body was found in a lake near his home in East Germany. Structured like a thriller, Comrade Rockstar leads the author to the Eastern bloc toward the end of the cold war, where this Manhattan-bred "red diaper baby" discovers a drab "conspiracy of mediocrity" far from the Communist utopia she imagined. "Like Dean Reed, I had been a sucker for an ideology," she writes. That's about as deep as her self-discovery gets, and her breezy prose is riddled with bad metaphors ("mired in the big rich fruitcake of a life"). Though Nadelson spent months behind the iron curtain, her slice-of-life detail is surprisingly unsurprising: Many writers have noted the East German fascination with Dynasty, the empty stores, the gleaming Moscow subways. Nevertheless, Nadelson is a tenacious reporter and an empathic interviewer: Reed's women—ex-wives, friends, a deranged countess—reveal highly personal memories aching with anger-tinged loss.
Nadelson herself often wishes Dean were still alive, even if he'd devolved into a washed-up star of kitschy Eastern westerns and a rock 'n' roll fraud. Young dissidents hungry for change were risking their freedom to form bands and stealing telephone wires to string guitars. Like American protesters in the '60s, they embraced meaningful, passionate rock as a "form of fighting back, a reaction to oppression, a catalyst for change." Meanwhile, Reed was prancing around to "Ghostbusters" and kissing Brezhnev on the mouth. Was he really a fame-hungry hustler naive enough to defend the Berlin Wall on 60 Minutes, or the sharp, courageous activist of Chuck Laszewski's 2005 bio Rock 'n' Roll Radical? One thing is certain: Had Reed lived to see the wall come down, he would've tried to become the Rod Stewart of Cuba.