Twenty fabled moments in Denver music: #12: Denver's "Red Elvis" comes home, 1985
Reed never renounced his U.S. citizenship, nor did he ever criticize his home town. He lamented in a 1981 interview that he missed Colorado and that he would like to one day return to the Centennial State. It was a matter of principle, though: He would not return to the States until the country began adhering to his socialist ideals. In 1985, he released a song called "Nobody Knows Me Back in My Hometown."
He was not gaining many converts or sympathy, however. Popular as the singer was in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and East Germany, Americans had little patience for Reed's diatribes, especially at the height of the Cold War.
And then he came home. On October 16, 1985, Reed stepped off an airplane at Stapleton expecting the sort of reception he had grown accustomed to in Eastern Europe. There were no screaming fans, though. No police escort was needed. His family was gone, too: His father had committed suicide two years before, and his mother had long since moved to Hawaii to begin a new life. His brothers were in the Northwest and were ashamed of Reed for his politics.
The night after he arrived, Reed was interviewed by local KNUS radio-show host Peter Boyles (who is still on the air just down the dial at KHOW). Reed was in town to promote a documentary made about him, titled American Rebel, which was premiering that week. The interview quickly went south. "The callers called me a traitor," Reed reportedly said at the time. Boyles had just testified in a trial against ten neo-Nazis who had killed a friend of his, and he was in no mood to entertain communist rhetoric. "I don't know why I didn't hit the guy," Boyles said, after removing Reed's headphones and telling him to get out of the studio.
Verbally beaten and understandably let down at the lack of local support, Reed was also concerned for his own safety here. He hired bodyguards. The Denver police patrolled the streets near the Tivoli Center the night that American Rebel showed.
Reed would see a repeat of this incident, magnified exponentially, the following year. 60 Minutes patriarch Mike Wallace interviewed Reed for a segment that documented his transformation from teen idol to revolutionary. During the interview, Reed spoke of making a comeback in the U.S. and perhaps even running for Senate in Colorado. He also spoke of the need for regime change -- here in the States -- and compared President Reagan to Joseph Stalin.
The hostility the story generated, coming at the height of Reagan-era anti-Evil Empire pronouncements, was too much for the singer to take. There were hateful phone calls and letters. Reed took it hard. On June 13, 1986, he was found dead in a lake near his home in East Berlin. The official cause of death was accidental drowning, though it's widely believed now that his death was a suicide. Reed was buried in Boulder, in the same city where, at CU, a $1,000 peace prize was later named for him.
Westword's Robin Chotzinoff actually spoke with Reed during his 1985 visit. One quote from that interview, seems especially prophetic, considering the circumstances of his death: "You're in trouble when you start believing your own publicity."
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