In the basement

Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the crossroads

Greil Marcus <em>Faber & Faber, 297pp, £12.99</e

Nineteen sixty-seven: the Summer of Love. Thousands of hippies made the pilgrimage to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, wearing flowers in their hair as Scott McKenzie said they should. The Beatles released Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Jimi Hendrix unleashed Are You Experienced and set fire to his guitar at the Monterey Pop Festival after playing a stunning rendition of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone".

As for Dylan, he was nowhere to be seen, holed up in the Catskills in upstate New York, in the basement of a house called Big Pink. With him were Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson, members of the Hawks, the band that had toured with Dylan in 1965 and 1966, and which, as The Band, would tour with him again in 1974. They spent the summer of 1967 playing and recording songs for their own amusement, and something more than amusement. The songs were not for general release, but they leaked out, making their way on to bootlegs and cover versions, and 24 of them were officially released as The Basement Tapes in 1975. Greil Marcus wrote the sleeve notes.

Two decades after that, in Invisible Republic (1997), Marcus showed how the songs on the basement tapes belonged to the tradition of American folk music, a tradition stretching back to the 17th century. "For 30 years people have listened to the basement tapes as palavers with a community of ghosts . . . As it happens, these ghosts were not abstractions. As native sons and daughters, they were a community. And they were once gathered together in a single place: on the Anthology of American Folk Music, a work produced by a 29-year-old man of no fixed address named Harry Smith."

Smith's Anthology, released in 1952, was a compilation of 84 songs recorded in the late 1920s and late 1930s, the work of musicians such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Dock Boggs. It revealed a territory - which Marcus calls "the old, weird America"- that is also mapped by The Basement Tapes. Invisible Republic is the key to that map, and it is a revelation. It would be wrong to say the book made sense of the songs on The Basement Tapes; but it transforms the way you listen to them, seems to let you in on their secrets without giving anything away.

Bob Dylan had dropped out of sight after a motorcycle crash in 1966. Some people even thought he was dead. In the sum- mer of 1965, he couldn't have been more visible. "Like a Rolling Stone" entered the charts on 24 July: at more than six minutes long, it took up both sides of a 45rpm single. On 25 July, Dylan was booed off stage at the Newport Folk Festival for playing with a band and an electric guitar. The crowds remained hostile across the United States and in Britain. In Manchester on 17 May 1966, someone called out: "Judas!" "I don't believe you," Dylan replied. "You're a liar!" Then he turned to the band: "Play fucking loud." The last gig of the tour was at the Albert Hall in London on 27 May. "Like a Rolling Stone" was always the last song of the set. The performance at the Albert Hall that night was "the best I ever heard in my life", Bob Johnston, Dylan's producer, told Marcus. "Because he was angry, they were screaming at him - he said, Fuck those people, let's play this thing."

In Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the crossroads, published to coincide with the 40th anniversary of its being recorded (in New York, 16 June 1965), Marcus considers the song in every context imaginable: musical, cultural, political, personal. He writes about the songs that surroun-ded it, on Highway 61 Revisited and in the Billboard charts; about the songs that preceded it, such as Robert Johnson's "Hellhound on My Trail", the Drifters' "Money Honey" and Muddy Waters's "Rollin' Stone"; and about the songs that followed, from "You Can't Always Get What You Want" by the Rolling Stones to the Pet Shop Boys' version of the Village People's "Go West".

He also writes about the men who performed it: for example, Michael Bloomfield, one of the most talented guitarists of his generation - "If I could be anything in the world," one of Marcus's friends said to him in 1968, "it would be to be Michael Bloomfield's notes." But something went wrong: "as Bloomfield found his sound he couldn't keep it". He carried on making records, "but fewer were listening with each release, and there was less and less reason to". He died of a drug overdose in 1981, at the age of 36. "Without his presence in 'Like a Rolling Stone'," writes Marcus, "his name might be forgotten today."

As the contexts accumulate and the stories unfurl from around the song, it is impossible to resist Marcus's contention that "Like a Rolling Stone" not only represented but actually created a moment of unique emancipatory potential: "An old world was facing a dare it wasn't ready for; as the song traced its long arc across the radio, a world that was taking shape seemed altogether in flux." It's more than the tale of a spoilt rich girl who has fallen on hard times; it's a challenge to the whole of society to do away with itself and start again, a "storm that clears the ground of the familiar and reveals a thousand roads".

The trouble comes when you get to the end of this marvellous, exhilarating book, put it down, and listen to the song again. Because "Like a Rolling Stone", great though it is, struggles to carry the burden of significance Marcus lays upon it. It does not merit such relentless attention from a book as good as this. What's more, it doesn't even want it.

While "Like a Rolling Stone" is in many ways a savage song, it saves itself from brutality because the voice is not only taunting, but yearning, too. The singer pretends to speak from the point of view of a rolling stone, asking the woman how it feels to be one of us now, but he isn't one of them: quite the reverse. When he asks how it feels to be "a complete unknown", you get the impression that he'd really like to know. When he sings, "You're invisible now, you've got no secrets to conceal", there is real envy in his voice - or, rather, he sounds as if he is caught up in a fantasy of what invisibility might feel like. In the basement of Big Pink, he found a way to explore it.

Thomas Jones is an editor at the London Review of Books

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Why Oxfam is failing Africa

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The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis