Sunday, October 18, 2009
He's a great humanitarian, he's a great philanthropist,
He knows just where to touch you, honey, and how you like to be kissed.
He'll put both his arms around you,
You can feel the tender touch of the beast.
You know that sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace.
In recent months, Barack Obama has been called many things— a saint, a sinner, a savior, a scourge. But just as Obama is not the literal Second Coming, he probably isn’t Satan either.
According the five-man Nobel Peace Prize committee, however, Barack Obama is a man of peace.
The irony that the world's most prestigious peace award has been bestowed on the newly-minted president— a man who has yet to stop any wars, right any innate injustices, or dismantle any of the world’s arsenals hasn't been lost on anyone.
But considering military escalation in Afghanistan is all but inevitable, the Iranian mullahs are allowing the beheading their political rivals and North Korea is nearing nuclear proliferation with each passing day, no one doubts we need someone to stand up for peace. It's just that the selection of Barack Obama has more than a few people scratching their heads.
But he beat them all. One hundred and seventy-two individuals, 33 organizations— a total of 205 nominations. The most ever.
In the past, the coveted peace prize has gone to monks, martyrs, social activists, scientists, former Communists, and environmental conservationists. However, it seems this year it went to a man whose biggest accomplishment to date was restoring some semblance of dignity to the presidency simply by not being George Bush.
In light of the global backlash over the decision, however, apparently dignity does not a dignitary make.
Even Obama was ill at ease when he heard the news. Not since Bill Clinton was asked about a certain blue dress worn by a certain intern by the name of Monica Lewinsky, or Richard Nixon was questioned about a certain group of ‘plumbers’ sent to fix a ‘leak’ in a certain Watergate hotel has a sitting president seemed so uncomfortable.
Unlike his predecessors, however, Obama did not bring the decidedly awkward moment upon himself. That distinction belongs to the five-man Norwegian Nobel Committee that nominated him just 12 days into his prescient presidency.
Of course, in all the hubbub over Barack Obama’s merits as a man of peace, one true man of merit was overlooked…
This year marks the seventh time Bob Dylan has been nominated—and passed over—for a Nobel Prize. The reason for the repeated slight is, like just about everything related to Dylan, a bit of a mystery. Most music critics agree that Dylan is perhaps the most profound wordsmith in modern music. Yet Dylan’s repeated nomination has yet to cement consensus among literary authorities, who are plagued by the nagging question as to whether song lyrics qualify for literature's most prestigious award.
The irony, of course, is that the lyrical nature of Barack Obama's words, rather than quantifiable results of his actions, was probably the largest contributing factor leading to Obama receiving this year’s prize.
To his credit, Obama publicly acknowledged that he didn’t deserve to be in the company of the past Peace Prize winners. And though it seems unfathomable that he would have rebuked the esteemed Nobel committee, Obama did have an alternative: Turn it down.
As Ross Douthat in The New York Times noted in his assessment of the brouhaha following the Nobel announcement, saying ‘no thanks’ to the premature honor would have offended no one but the Norwegians who selected him. It would also have sent a clear signal to Congress and world community that Obama is finally willing to relinquish the thorny messianic crown that, as Douthat accurately observed, has both accompanied—and impeded—his presidency.
There’s no question a large part of Barack Obama’s success—and a major factor contributing to the ‘pushback’ he has experienced in recent months—revolves around this daunting duality. On the one hand, there is Barack Obama ‘the myth’; on the other, Barack Obama ‘the man.’ The problem is that these qualities are not at opposite ends of the spectrum. Rather, there are inextricably intertwined.
Without question there's a mystique that imbues Barack Obama. And judging from their unanimous decision, the Nobel Peace Committee has fully bought into that mystique. But by confusing the notion of aspiration and accountability, the Committee has done a disservice to the Nobel Peace Prize as well as their latest laureate.
By awarding Barack Obama this year’s prize, the Committee effectively debased the criteria upon which the prize was founded. It is not enough simply to set the table for peace; you must serve up the meal. The only thing Obama brought to the table was the Kool-aide. And the Committee drank it up in spades.
And while the fault lies mostly at the feet of the Nobel Committee for this evident blunder, the culpability is not theirs alone. By accepting the prize, the nascent US President allowed himself to be placed high atop a tenuous pedestal like some conquering Roman hero. And now that Obama has ascended to that precarious perch, he's handed his opponents the perfect segue to make the case that the Emperor has no clothes.
Come to think about it, maybe Dylan ought to be thankful the Nobel Prize Committee keeps passing him over…
He got a sweet gift of gab, he got a harmonious tongue,
He knows every song of love that ever has been sung.
Good intentions can be evil,
Both hands can be full of grease.
You know that sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Well, my heart's in the Highlands at the break of day,
Over the hills and far away,
There's a way to get there, and I'll figure it out somehow,
But I'm already there in my mind,
And that's good enough for now
Christmas is a good two months away, but already Jack Frost is nipping at our nose…or ears, as the case will be this Tuesday when Bob Dylan, producing under one of his favorite pseudonyms, releases his first Christmas album.
Love it or loath it, Dylan's decision rip another page from the American songbook isn’t quite as out of place as one might expect. For just about as long as there have been Christmas albums, pop stars have perpetuated the longstanding yuletide tradition of recording holiday-themed discs. Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, and Phil Spector all have recorded Christmas albums. In fact, Diamond’s second helping of Christmas cheer, A Cherry, Cherry Christmas, will be released the same day as Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart.
So why have so many musicians, including those who don’t even celebrate Christmas, start roasting chestnuts over an open fire right around this time every year? The reason is simple: Christmas albums are cheap, easy to make and, if done right, they can result in a stocking stuffed with wads of cash. Dylan, however, isn't in it for the money. All royalties from Christmas in the Heart are being earmarked for food banks in the U.S. and abroad.
Of course, just because everyone from Burl Ives to the the Beach Boys have recorded an album chock full of Christmas classics certainly doesn't mean Dylan had to. Like many of us during the holiday season, he could have surreptitiously made a donation to his favorite charity and forgone the scrutiny this latest seasonal offering will inevitably stir.
But Dylan isn’t like the rest of us, and this isn’t the first—nor will it likely be the last—career move that will leave audiences and critics wondering what’s really going on behind those shades.
Over the last four and a half decades, Dylan has constantly reinvented himself, surprising his audience and critics alike. But of all his countless self-reinventions, his brief conversion to Christianity in 1979 has always been one of his most vexing.
And while some of Dylan’s finest songs were written during that period—“Change My Way of Thinking,” “Every Grain of Sand,” “Pressing On” to name a few—the decision to replace the Star of David with a crucifix has long been a thorn in his side. If the early reviews are any indication, Christmas in the Heart will likely have a similar effect.
Not that the notoriously indifferent Dylan is losing any shlofn over it. His decision to record 15 of the most well known Christmas classics clearly is more influenced by altruistic reasons than artistic ones. And judging from the enthusiastic and playful tone that permeates the disc from beginning to end, Dylan seems to have thoroughly enjoyed making Christmas in the Heart. Having said that, however, those who have heard the album can attest— not since Bing Crosby and David Bowie traded verses on “The Little Drummer Boy” on Crosby's 1977 network special has the Christmas spirit been rendered more surreal.
Bing Crosby and David Bowie duet on “Little Drummer Boy” circa 1977
And while many of his detractors have asked why Dylan would even make a Christmas album in the first place, if we just step back and take a look at the man in question, the answer seems self evident. This is Bob Dylan we are talking about, after all — the same person who cited flamboyant wrestler, Gorgeous George, and über oddity, Tiny Tim, as two of his biggest inspirations.
The real question, therefore, isn’t really so much whether listeners will embrace the new Dylan album as a holiday tradition or not. Truth be told, they probably won’t.
But you just never know. Like so much with Dylan, the answer remains a mystery. And frankly, Dylan probably won’t want it any other way…
It must be a holiday, there's nobody around,
She studies me closely as I sit down,
She got a pretty face and long white shiny legs,
She says, "What'll it be?"
I say, "I don't know, you got any soft boiled eggs?"
Sunday, October 4, 2009
She never stumbles,
She's got no place to fall.
She's nobody's child,
The Law can't touch her at all.
It’s taken 32 years, but the long arm of the law has finally caught up with Roman Polanski. Last week authorities in Switzerland arrested the infamous filmmaker as he arrived at the Zurich airport en route to a lifetime achievement award. The arrest clears the way for Polanski’s possible extradition to the United States in connection with three-decade-old sex case involving a 13-year-old girl, a bag of Quaaludes, a couple bottles of booze and a hot tub in the basement of one of the silver screen's more notoriously lecherous leading men.
The drug addled evening resulted in Polanski being indicted on rape, child molesting and sodomy felony charges. But as salacious as the facts surrounding the case are, the act that has perhaps set off the most enduring indignation is what Polanski did next.
Fearing the judge was planning to renege on a plea bargain deal that would result in Polanski going to prison, the director fled the country, effectively embarking on a 32-year rebuke of the American judicial system.
As a result, Polanski has lived his life on the lamb for the last three decades, managing to remain just beyond the reach of the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, who has never given up on bringing the dodgy director back to justice.
To hear Sandi Gibbons, a spokesperson for the DA’s office, describe it the pursuit of Polanski is not that far off from a plot line culled from the popular TV series, The Fugitive: “Any time word is received that Mr. Polanski is planning to be in a country that has an extradition treaty with the U.S., we go through diplomatic channels with the arrest warrant.” Unfortunately for Mr. Polanski, it would appear Switzerland has such a treaty.
Polanski's unexpected detainment at the Zurich airport last week has re-ignited a firestorm around the controversial director. But in an ironic twist, the discussion has not centered on Mr. Polasnki's guilt, forgiveness by the victim, or even morals, for that matter. Instead, the issue at the center of this maelstrom revolves around something far more complicated: celebrity.
Long before committing the egregious act of forcibly sodomizing a 13-year-old girl, Hollywood was a staunch Polanski supporter. Even after Polanski admitted to drugging and then raping Samantha Geimer, the 13-year-old ingénue in question, Hollywood remained firmly in Polanski's corner. In Hollywood, it seemed the paradigm of justice apparently was seen through a different prism: Ignore the act, put aside the judicial wrongdoings, and look at the real tribulation here— Mr. Polanski’s own tragedy-laden life.
Throughout his 1977 trial, Hollywood came out in droves to support the disgraced director. To them—and presumably to us—Mr. Polanski’s decision to flee only made sense. After all, how could a man whose family fell victim to the annihilating horrors of the Holocaust, a man cast as the primary suspect in the murder of his own wife— how could a man so wronged and maligned ever trust the legal system to give him a fair shake?
Thirty-two years later, Hollywood has come out again. The list of supporters lending Polanski their support reads like the A-list from one of the town’s top talent agencies. And while dozens have come to Polanski’s defense, the comments of Miramax Chairman, Harvey Weinstein, and comedian, Whoopi Goldberg, were especially effusive.
Upon hearing the latest chapter in Polanski’s ongoing personal morality play, Weinstein claimed: "Hollywood has the best moral compass, because it has compassion."
Ms. Goldberg did Weinstein one better when she rationalized Polanski’s actions this way: "I don't believe it was 'rape-rape'." Right, and when Whoopi was sexually molested at the age of 14 and decided to perform an abortion on herself with a coat hanger, she did that because she was only ‘a little bit pregnant.’
There is no question artists are held to a different standard. Considering the fact they possesses an incredible, almost intangible ability to shine a light on the parts of our lives that bring us vast joy and immense pain, in all fairness, they have to a large part earned that distinction. But pointing to Polanski’s brilliance as a film director does not dismiss the fact he is a pedophile, a pariah and a fugitive from the law.
Yes, Polanski’s lived the high life for the last 32 years by being permitted to travel throughout Europe unfettered and undisturbed; yes, he was all but canonized by his cohorts in Hollywood in 2002 when they bestowed on him the Oscar for Best Picture for ‘The Piano’; and, yes, he is a genius— tortured, tormented and tirelessly beset by demons.
And while Roman Polanski’s tormented past may explain his actions the night he lured a 13-year-old girl to Jack Nicholson's Hollywood hideaway home, drugged her, and then preceeded to commit one of the heinous crimes conceivable— it in no way justifies it. Even if he is an artist…
She's got everything she needs,
She's an artist, she don't look back.
She can take the dark out of the nighttime
And paint the daytime black.