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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Dear Landlord: How Obama’s new lease with America could benefit from Bob Dylan

Dear landlord,

Please don't put a price on my soul.
My burden is heavy,
My dreams are beyond control.

Who exactly is the enigmatic ‘landlord’ to whom this downtrodden tenant is pleading for spiritual respect and financial relief? If you're not quite sure, don't think twice. It turns out the mystery of his (or her?) identity has been a focal point of speculation among Dylan fans for years.

Self-styled (and far more disgruntled) ‘Dylanologist,’ Al Weberman, argues that the song was inspired by the parasitic relationship between Dylan and his longstanding manager, Albert Grossman, which by 1967 had turned completely toxic.

Others suggest Dylan wrote the song about his girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, under whose roof he lived shortly after arriving in Greenwich Village in the winter of 1961. And still some maintain the ‘landlord’ is a metaphor for God.

This third school of thought may not been as over-reaching an analogy as one might expect. A careful listen to the John Wesley Harding song cycle from Dylan's masterful 1967 album certainly suggests the seeds of Dylan’s ‘search’ were beginning to surface a full decade before the full-blown ‘spiritual conversion’ in the late 1970s.

Few, however, think the ‘landlord’ is literal. And frankly, it’s hard to fault them. In the iconography of Dylan, little often is.

There is, however, a parallel here worth pursuing. And as with many parallels, the connection revolves around the intersection of two seemingly disparate eras.

Just as the halcyon days of the “Summer of Love” were starting to turn turbulent in 1967, so, too, is our nation today faced with similar uncertainty. And as we turn to the figure at the center of that current downward spiral, we look not to Dylan, but rather to Barack Obama, whose self-appointed role as the pied piper of American politics does share one striking similarity with our fair Bob—he’s getting increasingly harder to pin down.

In three short weeks, Obama has became the de facto head of the banking system, executive in charge of the automobile industry, and now, thanks to the passage of the $50 billion Homeowner Affordability and Stability plan last Wednesday, landlord to close to nine million Americans.

Interestingly, President Obama opted not to invite the expected litany of lackeys to join him at the table last week in Mesa, Arizona, when he unfurled his solution to our nation’s housing crisis. Considering the lukewarm reception his $787 Economic Stimulus Package got from Wall Street, Obama’s unceremonious announcement was no doubt intentional.

Chances are House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid won’t be rolling out the welcome mat when the president returns home, either. This ill-conceived and woefully underfunded plan stinks to high heaven, and neither Pelosi nor Reed want the crap Obama is going to take for it tracked all around their new House.

It's no secret Obama’s solution to the mortgage crisis will likely tack on an additional $200 billion to the $75 billion the president allocated to his mortgage relief plan. But Obama had to do something. We have to shore up housing prices, stabilize neighborhoods and slow a downward spiral that has “unraveled homeownership, the middle class and the American Dream itself.” To that end, the Obama plan will provide relief to millions of Americas.

At the cornerstone of the Homeowner Affordability and Stability plan resides a $75 billion program to subsidize loan modifications that will reduce a family’s monthly payment to as little as 31 percent of their gross monthly income. To incentivize lenders to lower these monthly payments, the government will do two things. First, they will pay the lenders $1,000 for every modified loan, more if the borrower stays current on their payments. Additionally, if the lender gets the monthly payments down to 38 percent of the borrower’s monthly income, the government will match, dollar for dollar, additional reductions to bring the payment to the targeted 31 percent of monthly income.

And while this plan is a valiant attempt to solve the right problem, the problem is being solved for the wrong people.

House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio certainly thinks so.

In the days leading up to the signing of the plan, Boehner asked a very insightful, albeit incendiary question: "Does the plan compensate banks for the bad mortgages they should never have made in the first place?" The answer, of course, is a resounding, “No,” as is evidenced in the $1,000 ‘incentive’ the lenders will receive to refinance the toxic loans.

But it was Boehner’s second question that truly hit the mark: "Will individuals who misrepresented their income or assets on their original mortgage application be eligible to get taxpayer-funded assistance?" Right now it seems Barack Obama, the man who to promised to deliver the maligned middle class from their current financial morass, can’t be bothered with the annoying question of how to align honesty with home ownership.

To his credit, Obama’s plan does address the nagging concern of accountability—something that was conveniently swept under the rug when the banks and automakers were handed their bailout bonanzas. But in his haste to assuage those Americans who got in over their heads, Obama has betrayed the first rule of feudalism—a system to which he seems determined to allow our country to revert—and that rule is this: A landlord should never give the tenants the upper hand.

Perhaps Obama should have borrowed a page from Dylan—always keep them guessing.

Because once you let them in, you just might be the one who ends up out on your ass…

Dear landlord,
Please don't dismiss my case.
I'm not about to argue,
I'm not about to move to no other place.
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Sunday, February 15, 2009 is no Dyl.a.n: One’s ‘Forever,’ the other just ‘Young’

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift

Bob Dylan has been called many things over the years—poet, preacher, prophet, saint, sinner, survivor.

‘Sentimentalist,’ however, is a moniker that’s seldom associated with notoriously shape-shifting songwriter.

And while it’s pure speculation (and what isn’t speculative when it comes to Dylan), it’s probably safe to say Bob was feeling a mite maudlin when he sat down to write would eventually become one of his most enduring compositions.

Written as a heartfelt, almost hymnal homage to his son, Jakob, “Forever Young” has stood the test of time— an enduring rumination on the eternal, indomitable spirit of youth.

But if you listen carefully to the song (again, not to listen carefully to a Dylan song is to not really be listening at all), you realize the song isn’t as much about youth in a literal sense as it is about the boundless promise of what the future holds in store. Said another way, it’s a song about forging one’s identity. And if you can look at the song from that perspective, the seemingly sentimental “Forever Young” isn’t as much about sage, sanguine advice passed on from a father to his son as it is an acknowledgment that we need not wait for a new generation to refresh the world. That power resides in all of us, if we just find the courage and strength to tap into it. Which brings us to the ad Pepsi ran on the Super Bowl two weeks ago...

The concept of affecting change and embracing it are often thought to be analogous and interchangeable. The reality, however, is that these are two distinct and disparate ideas. To mix them up (or ‘mash them up’ as the case was with the Dylan ad) does a great disservice to those who are true agents of change, and those who are merely ‘catching the wave’ (to borrow the slogan from another pop soda that portends to be one beat ahead of the generational curve).

This, of course, isn’t the first time Dylan has licensed one of his songs for commercial use. And while Dylan has never gone as far as to sell flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark, he’s certainly done his part conning us into thinking we’re the one. Cadillac, Victoria’s Secret and Apple are just a few of the products to which Dylan has lent his irrepressible, iconic image.

But the Pepsi Super Bowl ad was different. amassed quite a bit of political capital during the recent presidential election. His PSA for the Obama campaign in which celebrities espouse their unwavering admiration for Barack Obama while the Black Eyed Peas front man be-bops in the background is one of the most innovative and infectious political endorsements in recent memory. The fact the video was directed by Jesse Dylan, another one of Bob's young brood, just adds to the irony of this grunt.

But the suggestion that has been passed the torch that will ignite a new generation in the way Dylan ignited his—something that was clearly implied when Dylan ‘hands’ his trademark ’66 shades to—isn’t just of-putting, it’s patently offensive. It would take a lot more than a fancy jump cut and a series of sleek song segues to accomplish that feat.

It would be easy to knock Dylan for letting Pepsi malign his pop persona the way they did. And, in all fairness, he does bear some culpability. We all Bob knows exactly what deal’s going down.

Since bursting on the scene 45 years ago, Dylan has split his time teetering between two daunting tasks—crafting his enduring music and cultivating his enigmatic image. There’s no question, he’s a master at both. For all we know, perhaps the Pepsi ad was just another piece in Bob’s ‘master plan.’ And when you think about it that way, the ad is almost forgivable. Almost.

No, the real culprit here isn’t Dylan. And it isn’t the hacks at Chiat/Day, who came up with the idea behind the ‘shades’ ad.

The fault lies squarely with, who even at the height of his creative and cultural prowess during the presidential campaign was never an agent of change. At best, he was a conduit. In reality, he was nothing more than a beneficiary of it.

In the final analysis, it would take a lot more than an ill-conceived ad to tarnish the iconoclastic image of Bob Dylan, whatever role he played in its creation. But I’m not sure the same can be said for, who should have rejected the idea of being cast as Dylan’s generational heir the moment it was proposed to him.

Yet despite the poor judgment on the part of, in the end he's got one major thing going for him. He’s still young…

And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.

Bob Dylan isn’t the first rock star to shill for Madison Avenue. For a brief history of the musicians who have lent their talent to the Super Bowl, click here.
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Sunday, February 8, 2009

‘Just Like Tom Daschle’s Blues’: A Taxing Time for Obama

Everybody said they'd stand behind me

When the game got rough
But the joke was on me
There was nobody even there to call my bluff

When Tom Daschle was nominated last week to head the Department of Housing and Human Services, few, if any, Washington insiders blinked an eye. Not only is the former Senator from North Dakota one of the nation’s leading experts on health-care reform, he played a pivotal role in Obama’s rise from relative obscurity to his present perch atop the political heap.

And while there are no real ‘done deals’ in Washington, Daschle’s nomination seemed about as close as it gets. One of the earliest backers of Obama's campaign, Daschle was critical not only in soliciting support from the Democratic party but in crafting a strategy that helped defeat Obama’s most formidable opponent for the nomination, Hillary Clinton.

Tom Daschle could have had just about any position in the Obama White House he wanted. And he made no bones about the fact he wanted to run Health and Human Services.

And even though Daschle did his best to offer a plausible explanation as to why he failed to pay over $120,000 in back taxes on the millions he’s earned since leaving the Senate, it was too little too late. Clearly, the repeated choruses of ‘mea culpa’ had become a cacophonous distraction Obama could no longer afford in these critical early days of his presidency.

And so last Tuesday, in the face of what would be the second of three tax-related scandal to ensnare this administration (the third instance of an Obama appointee coming up short with Uncle Sam would be Nancy Killefer, who had been chosen by President Obama to be the Deputy Director for Management at OMB), Barack Obama accepted Tom Daschle’s withdrew his nomination for Secretary of HHS.

Political currency aside, the withdrawal of Daschle’s name as head of the Department of Health and Human Services undoubtedly cost the newly minted president more than precious political capital—it cost him a friend, a confident and political partisanship aside, probably the best man for the job. But perhaps most significantly, it severely tarnished the cult of personality that has transformed Barack Obama into one of the most recognizable, most revered and most worshiped people on the planet.

But Barack Obama isn't the only ‘rock star’ in Washington. The people with whom Obama has surrounded himself have de facto been lumped into that category as well. Not since John F. Kennedy blew into town a half century ago has the phrase, “the best and brightest,” been bantered around with more aplomb. But even rock stars are aware of the pitfalls of not giving the Man his shake.

The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks, Pink Floyd, Willie Nelson, Billy Joel—all have tussled with the taxman. In the case of Willie Nelson, his run-in with the IRS cost him a pretty penny. $16.5 million in pretty pennies, to be exact. Ironically, the one rock star who has something to say on just about everything, has very little to opine on taxes.

In fact, of the 500-plus songs Bob Dylan’s written over the past four and a half decades, the word ‘taxes’ appears in just one, the fourth verse of the brutally vicious, “Ballad of a Thin Man”:

But nobody has any respect;
Anyway they already expect you;
To just give a check;
To tax-deductible charity organizations

Of course, the people Obama wants surround himself aren’t rock stars, they’re politicians. They’re supposed to be restoring our faith in government, not magnifying our disdain for it.

But it’s getting increasingly difficult to jump on the Obama bandwagon when it seems the ‘best and brightest’ can even file a simple tax return…which brings us back to Tom Daschle’s recent tax blues.

You don’t fly to the front of the political pack as quickly as Barak Obama has without a few people watching your back. And for Barack Obama that man was Tom Daschle. Daschle contributed to crafting Obama’s cult of personality as much as anyone, effectively serving as Obama’s de facto guardian angel to ensure the impatient junior Senator from Illinois’ ascension to the highest office in the land didn’t suffer the same fate as Icarus, the Greek mythological figure fell to earth when he flew too close to the sun.

But in an ironic twist of fate, it was Daschle, not Obama, who unwittingly assumed the role of Icarus—brought down by the simmering, slow-burn animosity growing in this country toward politicians who think they can operate at a different standard (not to mention different tax bracket)—than the rest of us.

And so in the end, maybe the ‘rock star’ mantra the media’s affixed to Obama isn’t so far-fetched. Clearly, Obama understands the most enduring tenet of rock n’ roll as well as anyone—“It’s better to burn out than it is to fade away.”

In the case of Tom Daschle, however, we all know who got burned…

And picking up Angel who
Just arrived here from the coast
Who looked so fine at first
But left looking just like a ghost

For a complete list of songs that evoke our disdain for that age-old pastime of paying your taxes, check out Dave White’s clever compilation, “Top 10 Songs To Do Your Taxes By”.
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Sunday, February 1, 2009

Obama's Stimulus Package: A 'New Morning' or deja vu all over again?

Can't you feel that sun a-shinin'?

Ground hog runnin' by the country stream
This must be the day that all of my dreams come true
So happy just to be alive
Underneath the sky of blue

Every year on the second day of February, marmot aficionados of every make and model gather in the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and wait with baited breath for a certain groundhog by the name of “Punxsutawney Phil” to emerge from his burrow. As weather folklore has it, if Phil fails to see his shadow, winter will end soon. If, however, it’s sunny and Phil does see his shadow, winter continues for another 6 weeks.

Well, my fellow Disgruntled Dylanologists, we need not wait. It just so happens Groundhog Day came early this year.

Punxsutawney Phil may not see his shadow tomorrow, but America certainly saw theirs this past Wednesday when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi emerged from the hallowed Capitol chambers and proudly announced the passage of the $819 billion economic stimulus package.

So what do the irrational idiosyncrasies of some tired, world-weary woodchuck have to do with Washington? A lot more than you'd think.

There’s no question a euphoria has been sweeping across the country in recent months. This past November, America made a deal with their elected officials, a political quid-pro-quo if you will.

The bargain was simple. Differences in point of view would be met with tempered measure; partisan decisiveness, however, would no longer be tolerated. Said another way, put your pettiness aside and get on with the business of governing.

That was the hope. The House vote Wednesday told another story. The final vote: 244-to-188. Every single Republican—all 177 of them—voted against the stimulus package. Hardly a ringing endorsement of a ‘new morning’ in America.

Let’s not lose sight of the fact, however, that $819 billion is a lot of money. The passage of the stimulus package (and it will pass in some form— that’s precisely what this whole debate is about) will not only define the Obama presidency, the programs the stimulus package will fund will define our nation’s priorities for generations to come.

Transforming our economy with science and technology; modernizing roads, bridges, transit, and waterways; developing clean, efficient energy— these are big ideas. And while big ideas necessarily come with big price tags, these programs are the most expensive public works programs in our nation’s history. How the money is spent certainly is something worth fighting over.

Ironically, the lines drawn by the partisans in Washington are not over the cost. Nor is the debate so much over the programs themselves, either. Not the big ones, anyway. We all know our country’s infrastructure is in shambles, that our education system is a disgrace and that our ability to compete in technology is severely hampered by shoddy networks and a lack of adequate resources.

The fundamental cause of partisanship, it seems, resides in the pork—those hidden programs the politicians put in to placate their political backers back home.

The fact that the American public isn’t even blinking over spending $30 billion for roads and bridges, $9 billion for public transit and $1 billion for inter-city rail must have the politicians salivating. Exactly where that money will be spent undoubtedly has them sharpening their tenterhooks.

Of course, the notion of demanding accountability isn’t such a bad thing. Truth be told, a little accountability will likely go a long way toward renewing a sense of trust and competency in our elected officials. The memory of the $700 billion that recently went to the shylocks on the Street who got their pound of flesh without having to account to a soul (accept perhaps their own— but that’s another grunt altogether) has proven far more enduring than the banks they so shamelessly ran into the ground.

Just as we have every right to hold the feet of our elected officials to fire, they have the right to demand the same accountability from the people to whom they will give the money. But rather than hammer out the details on how this massive economic stimulus package will be spent, the politicos who told us they wanted to bring a ‘new way of doing business’ to Washington are clearly still in the business of lining their pockets instead of finding ways to put money into ours.

And while this incestuous approach to governing—this “we were put in charge now let us do our jobs” mentality—has become analogous with pigs at a trough, the stimulus plan has been liken to a Trojan Horse, I would maintain our friend, Punxsutawney Phil, is better metaphor for what we can really expect from Washington.

Thanks in large part to the 1993 film of the same name, the concept of ‘Groundhog Day’ has come to mean “doing the same thing over and over.”

And while we probably won’t have to relive the next eight years in the tortuous manner Bill Murray was forced to relive the same day over and over again until he recognized the errant ways of his past, there is no question the nation economic winter of discontent is still upon us.

The good news, of course, is that tomorrow is another day...

So happy just to be alive
Underneath the sky of blue
On this new morning, new morning
On this new morning with you.

When it comes the Groundhog Day, Punxsutawney Phil is certainly the most well known. But he isn’t the only one. A few other famous groundhogs and their squirrelly counterparts in the House of Representatives:

Punxsutawney Phil of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania
Glenn Thompson (R) Pennsylvania 5th

Jimmy the Groundhog
of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin
Tammy Baldwin (D) Wisconsin 2nd

Staten Island Chuck
of New York City, New York
Michael E. McMahon (D) New York 13th

General Beauregard Lee, PhD
of Lilburn, Georgia
John Linder (R) Georgia 7th

Dunkirk Dave
of Dunkirk, New York
Brian Higgins (D) New York 27th

Malverne Mel and Malverne Melissa of Malverne, New York
Carolyn McCarthy (D) New York 4th

Sir Walter Wally
of Raleigh, North Carolina
Brad Miller (D) North Carolina 13th

Pardon Me Pete
of Tampa, Florida
Kathy Castor (D) Florida 11th

Octoraro Orphie
of Quarryville, Pennsylvania
Joseph R. Pitts (R) Pennsylvania 16th

Holtsville Hal
of Holtsville, New York
Timothy H. Bishop (D) New York 1st

Buckeye Chuck of Marion, Ohio
Jim Jordan (R) Ohio 4th

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