Lonely Planet Writer

76-Second Travel Show: 'How to visit Red Elvis'


Even in the grayest of days under the Iron Curtain, East Berlin had its high-end housing. Fine homes, and patches of woods, circle the clear Zeuthener Lake in southeastern Berlin, a spot where GDR actors and artists called home. And also Dean Reed.

Known as the 'Red Elvis' during his life, Dean Reed was a US pop singer, cowboy and actor, who was, by some accounts, known by a billion people in his lifetime, essentially all outside the US.

Huge in South America and the Soviet Bloc, Reed never made much of a hit in his home country. His politics probably didn't help – a self-proclaimed Marxist who claimed on a 1986 episode of '60 Minutes' in the USA that the Berlin Wall was built to keep the West out, not East Berliners in.

His life is an interesting story few from the west know of. Reed once out-ran a mule 110 miles on a 25-cent bet, starred with Yul Brynner in an Italian spaghetti western, spied (briefly) for the East German secret police, dinner-dated with Che Guevara and became the first person to play rock'n'roll in the USSR.

There are a few books about Dean – Rock'n'Roll Radical is the best – and Tom Hanks has long planned a bio-pic. The best source of info (including free MP3s) is the German-run website DeanReed.de and Will Robert's 1986 documentary "American Rebel," completed shortly before Reed's mysterious drowning in Zeuthener Lake 25 years ago this week.

I recently went to track down the spot where, some say, he was murdered, others say killed himself. Locals came out to help me track down the spot where his ashes were once kept, a simple stone memorial and show off signed photographs Reed gave area grandmothers. It's not particularly easy to visit – though the lake would make for a nice summer swim – but it's fascinating just watching a few videos from the period (eg Reed's take on 'Give Peace a Chance').

Red Elvis

'Reed was Marxist, but a wild card to everyone, even in the East,' Will Roberts told me by phone recently. 'People couldn't believe when he recorded a Jewish song on [the Soviet label] Melodiya. And that's a bit what made him sexy to the people: his commitment to peace.'

For more on Berlin, read our tips on 'How to see the Berlin Wall' and the 'Best of secret Berlin.'

Lonely planet Berlin travel guideFor the full scoop on Berlin, see Lonely Planet's Berlin City Guide with the latest expert tips for making the most of your trip to the German capital.