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Sunday, March 29, 2009

“Groom Still Waitin’ at the Altar”: Dylan opens house for weddings, but is the Obama honeymoon over?

I see the burning of the page,

Curtain risin' on a new age,
See the groom still waitin' at the altar.

The last person you’d expect to be jonesing for cash is Mr. Dylan. So when it was reported this week that Bob opened his spacious, 10 bedroom Scottish manor for engagements, you just had to wonder what in the devil could it all possibly mean? And while Dylan’s Highlands mansion may be way up in the border country, far from the towns, apparently it’s the perfect place for your next party or wedding gowns.

That’s right…for a measly $3,000 you, too, can hold your next wedding reception at Dylan’s Dalriadic digs. But before you let your heart go the Highlands, consider this: America's current relationship with a certain suave Senator from the land where the Aberdeen waters flow hasn’t exactly turned out to be the match made in heaven we’d all hoped for.

Not that Barack Obama wasn’t a formidable suitor. For two years, he coddled, cuddled and kowtowed to our every whim as he effortlessly ascended the political pecking order. Sexy, smooth and seductive. And we fell for it— hook, line and sinker. But what do you expect, America? We were falling in love. Then at precisely 12:03 pm on 20 January 2009, our courtship was consummated on the steps of the US Capital when Obama stood before God, family and close to 4 million witnesses and took the plunge.

Like any new marriage, there are milestones. And just a few weeks ago, the Obama Administration passed a major one: the First Fifty Days. Yet despite the boundless energy and barrage of programs put forth by the brash, young president, the new union hasn't been without a few initial squabbles.

Despite numerous overtures to appease an ailing Wall Street, the market has fallen faster under Obama than any other new president in 90 years. Despite claims that he would put partisanship aside and patch up the financial fissures tearing this country apart, the Obama/Pelosi stimulus bill didn’t garner a single Republican vote in the House. And despite touting the ‘transparency’ of his new administration, three of Obama’s top nominees were torpedoed by past indiscretions that the media, not the nominee, brought to the surface.

Fifty days, my how time flies. What started as peaches and cream has turned into some serious piss and vinegar. All of which begs the question: “Is the Obama honeymoon over?”

With a CNN poll putting Obama’s job approval rating just north of 61%, a majority of Americans seem to think the bloom isn’t off the rose just yet. And they just may be right. After all, Obama’s 61% approval rating is higher than any of his predecessors. President Bush was at 58% fifty days in. President Clinton was at 53%. President George H. W. Bush was at 56%. Even Ronald Reagan, the ‘Great Communicator’ himself, was only able to communicate favorable message to 60% of the American public his first 50 days in office.

Of course, appearances can be deceiving. Because like in any relationship, in all the excitement leading up to the Big Day, we tend to overlook the ‘little things'— those annoying little distractions that suggest 'Mr. Right' may not necessarily be 'Mr. Perfect.'

And while Obama may have a 61% overall job approval rating, but according to a poll released by Rasmussen Reports, the pesky little 'distractions’ are starting to add up:

The Economy. 83% of Americans say they're worried the steps Obama is taking to fix the economy may result in the economy getting worse, not better. And when asked how much we should be spending to get the economy back on track, 7 out of 10 voters say we should be spending less, not more.

The Stimulus Package. And when it comes to spending, close to 60% of voters say the massive, $787 billion stimulus package will make only a marginal difference in the next two to four years. And by 2-to-1, voters reject the Democrats’ call for a second stimulus package.

The Housing Market. Perhaps CNBC’s Rick Santelli got it right a few weeks ago when he went whoop ass on the Administration over the Homeowner Stability plan. Two-thirds of Americans may want to see homeowners refinance their mortgages, but less than half (48%) say the plan unfairly benefits those who have been irresponsible.

The Partisanship. Speaking of taking sides, the numbers on the recent stimulus package tell the tale. Not one Republican voted for the bill. And Americans think it’s only going to get worse. Nearly half say politics in Washington will be more partisan over the next year.

The Street. More than half of Americans have hit a wall when it comes to Wall Street. 56% oppose giving Wall Street another dime. And over two-thirds say bankers will benefit more than the average taxpayer will from the new bank bailout plan.

Like any marriage, America’s relationship with Obama is going to be filled with peaks and valleys. Obama may have lifted our spirits enough to carry us across the threshold last November, but clearly those pesky distractions we didn't want to be bothered with during our affable, two-year courtship with Barack Obama are started to nag the American public.

But until we can get beyond our glassy-eyed infatuation with Barack Obama and stop treating him as some enchanted Prince Charming, there’s a good chance that the ‘Seven Year Itch,’ that moment when every newly-wedded couple eye one another with kindled suspicion, is going to get scratched a few years early.

That's a problem. Because for better or for worse, we all need this marriage to work out...

I see the burning of the page,
Curtain risin' on a new age,
See the groom still waitin' at the altar.
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Sunday, March 22, 2009

‘Idiot Wind’: From Dylan’s Dume Point compound to the Capitol

Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your mouth,

Blowing down the backroads headin' south.
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth,
You're an idiot, babe.

Dylan’s plethora of pun-friendly lyrics were a gold mine for bloggers last week when it was reported Bob’s Malibu neighbors were getting more than a whiff of fresh ocean breezes from his cliff-top seaside retreat.

According to city officials, it seems a certain porta potty used by guards at Dylan’s Dume Point compound needed a changin.’ And when the media got wind of that little stink, it didn’t take much time for the crappy puns to start rolling in like thunder.

There were the obvious: “The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind…’ The odorous: “We just saw it from a different point of view / Tangled up in poo…” And the outright hysterical, like this lyrical embellishment of Dylan’s 1967 song, “All Along the Watchtower”:

“Businessmen piss out your wine, bodyguards dump their turds,
All of us along the property line know it reeks beyond words."

And as fun as it was for the press to take pot shots at Dylan’s unfortunate twist of fate, it never got beyond the week’s number two story.

As it turns out the real shitstorm was brewing up on Capitol Hill when the revealed that the idiots at AIG responsible for the global financial meltdown were getting $165 million in bonuses for the privilege of nearly running the nation’s economy off the cliff.

We all know the argument. AIG was “too big to fail.” If it hadn’t been propped up by over $170 billion in taxpayers’ money, the American banking system would have fallen like a house of cards. Wall Street refers to it as ‘systemic risk.’ ‘Systemic racketeering’ is more like it.

So last Friday, $165 million was doled out under the guise of ‘retention bonuses,’ a form of passive payment put in place to guarantee the employees at AIG wouldn’t heave ho should a better ship come in. The problem is that when these deals were made back in 2007, the AIG ship was already sinking. Of course, when AIG was pissing away their money it was one thing. But now that it’s our money, a lot of people are getting pissed off. And rightfully so.

Nicholas J. Ashooh, head of communications for AIG, says the bonuses were part of a plan put in place to retain key employees after Joseph Cassano, the former head of the financial products division, left the company in February 2008. Hmmm….an insurance company hedging their bets? Why would we expect anything less?

To hear Ashooh spin it, you’d think AIG is actually doing us a favor. Sure, the people who received the payouts are the very people who came up with the bright idea of leveraging their entire company (and in doing so leveraged the world economy) against a batch of toxic credit derivatives—the very thing that got us into the jam we’re in now.

But that’s the point, says Ashooh. The economy could spiral out of control if the only people who understand the company's convoluted dealings aren't around to "unwind" the damage they’ve caused.

I’m sorry, but am I the only one who can’t seem to strike the image of Don Carleone calmly stoking a Siamese cat as he makes me an offer I can’t refuse.

What AIG has done to this country is criminal. And the gall of them standing on principle, as if they are going to come in like Errol Flynn in one of his swashbuckling roles from the 1930s films, and save the world in one fell swoop is patently offensive.

And what about the notion that if you pay those AIG officials who can get us out of this mess, they’ll go down with the ship? Well, it didn’t seem to go down quite that way.

Of the $165 million in bonuses, $1 million or more went to 73 employees. And of those 73 who were supposed to “unwind” what amounts to the biggest financial clusterf*%k in history, 11 took their bailout and, well…bailed. So much for the ‘retention’ argument when your key talent is allowed to take their booty and still gets to jump ship.

Frankly, I’m ready to see these AIG pirates walk the plank. If we are contractually obligated to pay them off before their take the plunge, then so be it. Truth be told, it’s just a drop in the sea of debt this country is now awash in. But since the debt we are now burdened with is in large part due to the scurrilous activities of AIG, here’s a thought…

Since these guys are the only ones who understand the complex derivatives that have derailed the global economy, why don’t we pay them their bonuses with the same products that were sold by their Financial Products division? Maybe toss in a little AIG stock just for good measure? On second thought throw in as much stock as you want—the shit’s worthless, anyway.

But whatever the ultimate resolution is, let’s hope Washington cuts these guys off at the knees now before they come back for more, which is precisely what they plan to do. According to a letter from Federal Reserve Bank of New York President William Dudley that surfaced last Friday, incredible as it seems, AIG is scheduled to pay another $230 million in bonuses to employees in March 2010. That is if there even is an AIG in 2010…

From the outhouse to the poorhouse. Forget Dylan’s defecation row— this story stinks to high heaven.

Now everything's a little upside down,
as a matter of fact the wheels have stopped,
What's good is bad, what's bad is good,
you'll find out when you reach the top
You're on the bottom.

Listen to the NPR Bob Dylan porta potty story here.
Or read some of the pithy, porta potty headlines here.
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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Are The Times A-Changin’ Again?: Dylan will let us know in April

Come writers and critics

Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again

It seems the writers and critics will get another chance to witness history in transition. The man who famously prophesized about a battle that was ragin’, an order that was fadin’, a road rapidly that was agin’ has got that old feeling again— a change is coming on.

The news broke with the report that Bob Dylan had contributed a song to My Own Love Song, the upcoming road picture by French filmmaker Olivier Dahan starring Rene Zellweger and Forest Whitaker. But when the confirmation of the possible existence of an entire album of new material appeared on Dylan encyclopaedist Michael Gray's blog on January 22, Dylan aficionados heeded the call: the creative juices were flowing, the spigot was back on and soon we’d be drenched to the bone.

Of course, it was the title that excited the Dylan community most—“I Feel a Change Coming On.” And even though Bob has since settled on “Together Though Life” as the moniker for what's anticipated to be another Dylan masterpiece, the mere mention of ‘change’ on a Dylan album, especially when that mention is made by Bob himself, is all that’s needed to get the Bobcats buzzing…What kind of change are we talking about here? A personal change? A political change? As with all things Dylan, the speculation is half the fun.

But rather than play into what would undoubtedly become an endless loop of pondering, reflection and rumination on exactly what ‘message of change’ Bob will impart this April, I thought I’d turn my attention to the messenger. Or should I say messengers…

Last November, Ben Parr of offered an insightful take on the modern times in which we live. Titled, “5 Ways Social Media Will Change Recorded History,” the gist is this— history is no longer a thing of the past; history is now.

And in light of the recent flurry of cyber speculation revolving around Dylan’s new album, it got me thinking how different both Dylan and his body of work would have been had he come to prominence in an era when we truly had no secrets to conceal.

Here are the five tenets put forth in Parr’s article:

1) Everyone will have the ability to know what you did and who you were with on a daily basis. We all like to keep our business to ourselves, but Dylan takes anonymity to another level. Sure Bob has a snazzy new website loaded with all the ‘community’ bells and whistles. Yes, he has his own MySpace page. And while it’s uncertain if he has opened a Twitter account, as much as we’d all enjoy that ‘never ending tweet,’ there’s no comparison that “Come mothers and fathers / Throughout the land / And don't criticize / What you can't understand,” trumps “@oldgeneration why r’t u getting this” any day. Besides, Bob's earned the right to express himself in more than 140 characters.

2) Historical trend analysis will leap to a new level of precision. No more relying on gatekeepers and guardians whose sole source of power comes from self-preservation. Actually, Dylan would probably have liked this. As Bob himself said, “Come gather 'round people / Wherever you roam.” But whether he likes it or not, Dylan himself is a gatekeeper, a purveyor of popular culture. And as the most prolific and prescient songwriter of the 20th century wouldn’t it be a shame to have the enduring contributions of Bob Dylan overlooked in favor of lesser contrarians who have simply caught the most prevailing wave of public opinion?

3) We will not use history to learn from our mistakes, but to prevent them before they happen. In a culture where prevention prevails, there’s no question Dylan’s vast discography would have been dramatically different if Dylan hadn't occasionally let his guard down. Some of Dylan’s best work has been an attempt to put his past indiscretions in perspective. Four words: Blood on the Tracks.

4) There is little room for hiding details about our lives. In 1995, Clinton Heylin painstakingly chronicled Dylan’s life down to the minutest detail in Bob Dylan: A Life in Stolen Moments, Day by Day: 1941-1995. It’s no coincidence Heylin hasn’t come out with a second edition. In this age of limitless access to information, we no longer need a noted Dylanologist to collect the stolen moments of Bob's life. Thanks to Google, we can do it ourselves.

5) An ethical war over the use of this information will arise. We live in an era of ‘remix’—a time when the notion of a pure, unadulterated ‘artistic vision’ is a thing of the past. Thanks to photography websites like Flickr, and community online editing sites like Stroome, the ‘remix’ culture is no longer upon us— it’s already arrived. And if you think Dylan hasn’t got caught up in the mix, you only need to think back a few weeks to Pepsi’s recent Superbowl ad that mashed up Bob and Black-Eyed Peas front man, Talk about a mangled message.

Considering the all encompassing prevalence of social media, it should hardly be a surprise that the way we came to hear about the new Dylan album is the same way we get all our information these days. Because whether it’s looking back on the monumental moments of the past, or peering head on into the mundane nature of our daily lives, in the end history is essentially a story in transition— history is change.

But in this era of excessive transparency, it’s somehow comforting to know that we can still rely on Dylan to see the forest for the trees…

It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.

Interested in reading Ben Parr’s complete Mashable article? Click here.
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Sunday, March 8, 2009

Post Election America: Positively post-racial or a dead end street?

I wish that for just one time

You could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment
I could be you

Barack Obama’s victory last November was more than just a 'defining moment' in American politics. It redefined America. And while race was never an ‘issue’ per se, it was always there. A powerful undercurrent that, had it not been handled so deftly by the Obama campaign, could have run not just the election but the entire country aground.

Of course, Barack Obama had something more powerful than confidence, competence and a good dose of canniness going for him. He had at his disposal the power to transform a nation’s perspective. By electing Barack Obama, we would finally have the opportunity to stand in someone else’s shoes.

The election of the first black president was supposed to have ushered in a new, post-racial era in American politics. Ironically, the exact opposite has happened. Instead of quelling America’s need to incessantly talk about race, all the talked about for the two months is race.

A cartoon likening the author of the stimulus bill to a rabid chimpanzee? America called out as a ‘nation of cowards’ by the first African-American attorney general? The distribution of a bawdy burlesque of a popular children’s song by the leading contender for the Republican pary that cast Barack Obama as ‘Puff the Magic Negro’?

If this is what it’s like to be standing in the shoes of black America, America may need a new cobbler—

Forget the fact that the image of a monkey has long been associated with blacks in a way that is derogatory and degrading. This monkey doesn’t have anything to do with a certain black man who also happens to have put his name on the recent stimulus package. No, the crazed primate referenced here is a raging, out of control tax-and-spend Congress.

And don’t get too caught up on the words Eric Holder used to categorize America’s attitude on race. Sure, he called us a ‘nation of cowards,’ but what he was really trying to say was that we need to muster the courage within us all if we’re ever to find strength to truly get along.

And it was never Chip Saltzman’s intention to characterized Obama as an archetypal cinematic "Magic Negro" — a black man who assuages white guilt, ala the character played by Sidney Poitier in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. It was a joke, people.

Of course, the problem with all of these defenses (aside from the fact that they’re patently pathetic) is that they couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Our elected officials just shot the future of God knows how many future generations full of holes, and the New York Post wants to pin this triple murder on a monkey that gave its owner a fistful of claws when she went to pet it?

And what about that little etymological end run Eric Holder tried to execute? Holder is a lawyer—America’s top lawyer no less—and as the attorney general should be using his words to codify a new approach to race relations in this country, not using them to coddle us into singing “We Shall Overcome.”

And Saltsman's stumble—made less than a month after the complete routing of the Republican party—came at a time when the Republican Party is struggling to define the role of loyal opposition to the nation's first African-American president. But if the Republicans think a ‘joke’ means taking jabs with antiquated, offensive racial stereotypes, the only thing going up in a puff of smoke is the number of Republicans in Congress in 2010.

When Bob Dylan delivered “Positively 4th Street” from his precarious perch atop the pop charts in 1965, everyone just assumed he’d set out to ridicule the ‘folkies’ who had criticized him for leaving the movement to ‘go electric.’ Of course, he hadn’t left anyone. Instead, Dylan had just come into his own. And whatever ‘post-folk’ period he was accused of skewering was, in hindsight, an unavoidable phenomenon anyway.

Forty-five years later, America is at a similar place of self-discovery. The cartoon by political satirist, Signe Wilkinson, which appeared last week in newspapers across the country in reaction this so-called 'post-racial' America, summed up the dialogue that’s been sweeping across this country perfectly.

The image depicts a group of would-be travelers patiently taking their turn walking through a metal detector at an airport. A large, hand-drawn sign reads: “Welcome to our conversation on race.” But the real punchline is found on the disclaimer: “No cartoons, no jokes, no controversial books, films, sermons, etc.”

The reason the cartoon resonates is that it rings true. We have indeed entered a new era of race relations in America.

We bought the ticket when we elected Obama. Now, we get to take the ride. But before we do, we’re all going to have to take off our shoes, empty our pockets and check that baggage we’ve been carrying around for generations.

Of course in this process of new found self-examination, there’s always the chance that we actually do end up in someone else’s shoes.

But before we spout off at the mouth the first thing that comes to mind, perhaps we should click our heels together and heed the advice of an equally fitting cliché: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Our wounds are deep, America. It's going to take time for them to heal. There's no need to rip off the bandages all at once…

You see me on the street
You always act surprised
You say, "How are you?" "Good luck"
But you don't mean it
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