Friday, March 09, 2007

Back in the DDR

[posted by Callimachus]

Hail, hail East Germany
Land of fruit and grape
Land where you'll regret
If you try to escape
No matter if you tunnel under or take a running jump at the wall
Forget it, the guards will kill you, if the electrified fence doesn't first.

One of my favorite Cold War stories gets a good re-telling here, and here. Dean Reed was a mediocre American musician who ended up a rock star in East Germany.

Yes, dear readers, before there was "Christian rap," in which everything is the same and nothing is the same, and the product does honor neither to religion nor rap, there was commie rock 'n' roll. Michael C. Moynihan, author of the "Reason" article, writes, "I get the impression that Reed was popular the same way grass soup is popular in North Korea ...." He's right. Take it from one who was there.

If Western military willpower contained the Soviet Union, it was Western pop culture that ate away its foundation while it was paralyzed in place, by capturing the minds and imaginations of its youth. The DDR sensedw this threat, on some level; its Ministry of Culture even established a Sektion Rockmusik to promote "youth music" without the subversion. Dean Reed, then, was a ham-handed bid at counter-cultural warfare: Hapless, but essential if the East was to stay Red.

Thank the gods it was all doomed to failure. A totalitarian rock 'n' roll may be theoretically possible, but it can't exist on a planet where the real thing is allowed to breathe, because, well, "You've gotta feel it in your blood and guts! If you wanna rock, you gotta break the rules. You gotta get mad at the man!" And "The Man" doesn't get any more The Man-ly than Erich Honecker.

The paradox of Dean Reed is that he owed his success to being an American, and at the same time to rejecting all his native American-ness except the shabby posture of a rock star. Only the Cold War's frigidity kept him from falling through the thin ice. As Moynihan writes, "For teens starved of an authentic native youth culture who were looking enviously west, that was, initially anyway, a mark of authenticity."

The Dean Reed story, as told by Moynihan (in reviewing "Comrade Rockstar," Reggie Nadelson's biography of Reed) goes like this:

In the late 1950s Reed-a moderately attractive, semi-talented guitar player and would-be actor from Colorado-set off for Hollywood with the distinctly un-Bolshevik goal of superstardom on the bubblegum pop circuit. There he met Paton Price, a Daily Worker-reading acting coach and party ideologue. Price schooled Reed in the socialist realism of Brechtian theater, left-wing politics, and, as Reed's sad filmic record suggests, little else.

After a short and largely unsuccessful stint with Capitol Records, Reed abandoned California for South America, where, inexplicably, his singles were outselling those of Elvis Presley. Possessed by his newfound ideology, he underwent a transformation among the bitterly impoverished natives: He shed his "false consciousness" and subsumed the artist's prerogatives beneath those of the Party. After a few years, Reed was expelled from Argentina for agitating against the government and moved to Italy, where he landed a string of minor film roles, including the lead in Karate Fists and Beans, billed as the world's first western/kung fu cross­over film.

Nadelson's account offers few details of what motivated Dean's political journey. Like many radicals of his generation, he claimed to have been inspired by that common inventory of 1960s grievances: Third World poverty, the Vietnam War, CIA machinations in Latin America. So when, in 1966, Reed was approached by a friendly Russian apparatchik offering a truly socialist variant of fame, he boarded a plane for the Soviet Union as an Officially Approved Rock Star -- the genuine American article, playing ersatz rock 'n' roll.

After making the rounds touring behind the Iron Curtain, Reed chose to settle in East Germany, where he became a compliant ward of the state, recording for the GDR's lone record label (Amiga) and propagandizing for the regime. As a reward for his boundless sycophancy, Reed was elevated to superstar status, afforded lavish recording and tour budgets and plum film roles (which he immediately turned to wood), and awarded the Komsomol Lenin Prize. Despite these achievements and an intense disdain for American capitalism, Reed privately craved a second shot at bourgeois success.

In 1985 Mike Wallace extended an invitation for Reed to appear on 60 Minutes. Asked to justify the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Reed happily obliged, arguing that it was merely a defensive action against American imperialism. Ditto for the Berlin Wall. By program's end Reed had successfully propelled himself from obscurity to minor fame as the Lord Haw-Haw of the Cold War.

It was all downhill for him after glasnost kicked in, but I won't spoil the ending.

Deja Vu: Don't take it so hard Nick, life is filled with it's little miseries, each of us in his own way must learn to deal with adversity in a mature and adult fashion. [Sneezes into hands, looks at it in horror, screams, and jumps out window]

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