Dan Reed Network: the unlikely rebirth of funk rock’s nearly men
How funk rock pioneer Dan Reed overcame death, drama and drug addiction to make the Network’s first album in 25 years
He doesn’t remember the exact date that he hit rock bottom. He was drinking so heavily, and doing so many drugs, that the days and nights were slipping past in a blur. What he does remember is the moment of clarity that came to him as another long night was stretching into the dawn. As he sat alone in a darkened room, he placed his crack pipe on the table before him and stood up to gaze at his reflection in a mirror on the wall. What he saw, he barely recognised. He said to himself: “You’re either going to die any minute now, or you’re going to quit this one day and it will be a story you’re going to tell.”
It was 2002 and Dan Reed, at the age of 39, was lost. The promise of his career as a rock singer had come to nothing. In the late 80s his multiracial funk rock band, the Dan Reed Network, had been hyped as the Next Big Thing in rock’n’roll. But now, eight years after the band had broken up, the days of performing in stadiums with the Rolling Stones were just a distant memory.
In Portland, Oregon, where he was born and had lived for much of his life, Reed retained a connection to the music business as co-owner of a nightclub called Key Largo. Rock bands would play in the evenings, before star DJs filled the club with rave music. Reed liked to mix with the rave crowd; he also loved the warm buzz he got from ecstasy. He’d pop a couple of pills each night, mixed with shots of Jägermeister and lines of cocaine. Most nights the party would continue after the club’s doors closed, upstairs in Reed’s private room, with a few friends, more drinks, more coke. But after a while it always seemed to end the same way, with Reed alone in that room for hours on end, out of his mind, and wondering whom he could call to score more drugs from at six in the morning.
There was a guitar in that room. He hadn’t played it in years. Although he had experimented in making electronic dance music, he couldn’t remember the last time he had written an orthodox song – a song with lyrics. But after he’d stared into the mirror that night and faced up to what he had become, he picked up the guitar. And it all came flowing out him: the music, just simple chords; the words, profound.
Reed had written so many great songs in the past. This one was unlike any other. He named it The Rush. What it amounted to was a confession. ‘Go climb your broken ladder to your lowest high/Go do your happy dance pretending you can fly/Go light a candle in the name of your last tear/The rush can be deadly… the rush is your only friend, your lonely friend…’
This was not the end of drugs for Dan Reed. The very next night he was back on the pipe, whacked out of his brain. But he knew he couldn’t go on like this. Writing that song would be the first step on a long road to redemption.
Dan Reed was 12 years old when he realised he could sing, and that this made him cooler than the other kids at his school. “I started impersonating Elvis,” he says. “Kids would pay me a dime to sing a song. I was like a human jukebox.”
It was 1975, and Reed was living with his mother and stepfather on a 200-acre farm in South Dakota. The nearest town was Chelsea. Its population was fewer than 70. “If you wanted to go to a movie or McDonald’s,” he says, “it was fifty miles away.”
Born on February 17, 1963, Dan had been raised in Portland by Elizabeth and her first husband, Edward Morris. When she remarried, to Thomas Reed in 1970, she took his surname, and so did Dan. In those early years in Portland, he was an unruly kid. “I was raising hell all the time,” he says. “Doing crazy shit.” What changed him was the calm authority of Thomas Reed. “He was such a decent man,” Dan says. “He straightened me out.”
This, he explains, was instrumental in how he dealt with the turmoil he experienced at the age of 14. “I didn’t know I was adopted till then,” he says. “I didn’t look like my mom, but I never really questioned it much. But the kids in school were giving me a hard time. They’d say: ‘That’s not your real mom and dad.’ So I asked my mom about it.” He learned that his birth mother was just 19 when she gave him up for adoption, having separated from his father, a Filipino who was serving in the US military. Reed says now that he has since been reunited with his mother. He has never met his father. “My real dad doesn’t even know I exist.” he says, without a trace of bitterness.
By 14, Reed had become obsessed with music. Two years earlier he’d bought his first album – Stampede, by the Doobie Brothers – and attended his first concert when his mother took him to see Johnny Cash and June Carter in Minneapolis. He was also playing the trumpet. Then in 1978 he heard the debut album by Van Halen. And it changed everything. “I quit playing trumpet a week later,” he says, “and ordered a guitar from a Sears & Roebuck catalogue.”
Within a few weeks he had started writing songs and had formed his first band, Nightwing, with a bunch of school friends.
By the turn of the 80s, Reed was making regular trips to Minneapolis to see big rock shows – Van Halen, the Doobies, Ted Nugent – and to buy records, including the early albums by local hero and rising star Prince. Reed liked Prince’s androgynous image. “He wore ladies’ panties,” Reed says, laughing. “That was a culture shock for us farm boys from South Dakota.” Above all, he loved how Prince combined hard funk with a rock’n’roll attitude and edge. “I was always drawn to music with a groove, whether it was Aerosmith or James Brown.”