The Disgruntled Dylanologist

All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie.

‘Lawyers, Lepers & Crooks’: Can Dylan’s Thin Man trim the fat on Wall Street?

You walk into the room

With your pencil in your hand

You see somebody naked

And you say, “Who is that

Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the first in a series of dominoes that led to the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression. And while we’re still reeling from the implosion of AIG, Merrill Lynch, Citigroup and the half dozen other ‘too big to fail’ financial institutions that did receive government bailout funds, the fleecing the American middle class continues.

Something’s happening on Wall Street, and you don’t have to be a financial whiz to know what it is: good, old fashion greed.

Despite the enormous losses suffered by the recipients of the TARP funds, Citigroup and Merrill Lynch—two of the most high-profile beneficiaries of the federal government’s fiscal benevolence—still managed to justify dishing out more than $9 billion in bonuses.

And how’s this for fancy financial footwork? Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and J.P. Morgan Chase actually paid out more in bonuses than they made the entire year. Goldman Sachs, for example, earned $2.3 billion, paid out $4.8 billion in bonuses, and got $10 billion in TARP funds.

It’s no secret the big Wall Street firms conspire and collude to keep their year-end cash outs at the highest levels possible. But it’s one thing when you’re playing with ‘other people’s money’; it’s something else entirely when that ‘other person’ turns out to be the guy next door who just lost his house.

But it gets worse. Not only did 4,800 Wall Street employees pocket bonuses worth more than a $1 million on top of their exorbitant salaries, it turns out it wasn’t enough. According to a recent survey, 46% of those newly-minted millionaires were “dissatisfied” with their bonuses. And are you ready for the kicker? Nine in 10 had been working on Wall Street for five years or less.

And while none of our behemoth banking institutions were untouched by what, in hindsight, amounted to the financial equivalent of a ‘perfect storm,’ last week’s reminder that the government was unwilling to bailout Lehman Brothers was a frightening reminder of how choppy the seas still are.

It should hardly come as a surprise that Congress would capitalize on this rather auspicious anniversary to turn the spotlight not on the problem, but rather on themselves— which is precisely what they did in typical grandstanding fashion.

Positioned as the first piece of a larger, more comprehensive legislation endorsed by President Obama to increase oversight over financial institutions, last week the House voted on a bill that will restrict how Wall Street executives will get paid in the future.

Billed as a ‘bold, decisive action,’ the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Unless, of course, the old expression, “A day late and a dollar short,” is modified by roughly 365 days and somewhere around $700 billion.

Enter Ben Bernanke. Recently nominated to a second term as Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Bernanke is preparing to cash in a little currency with the president by sidestepping the Congressional pomp and circumstance altogether. Bernanke’s plan is refreshing simple: take Wall Street’s bull market by the balls by placing regulators directly inside banks to monitor (and one would assume reject) excess pay packages.

And while the precise job description has yet to be fully fleshed out, this disgruntled Dylanologist knows just the man for the job.

Dark, menacing, boorish and brooding, he is one of the most enigmatic characters from Dylan’s canon of bizarre and none-too-usual suspects.

His identity has long been in dispute. When asked in a 1965 interview, Dylan offered a response that was as cryptic as the character in question: “He’s a pinboy. He also wears suspenders. He’s a real person. You know him, but not by that name…”

The president is on the right track introducing regulatory reform for Wall Street. But identifying the problem won’t necessarily solve it.

What we need is someone who’s well connected, someone who can move effortlessly among lawyers, lepers and crooks. Someone who will keep his eyes in his pocket, his nose to the ground, take copious notes, click his heels and do exactly as he is told. We need a man on the inside looking out; not outside looking in.

And who exactly is this inscrutable urchin? This puzzling patsy set up to take the inevitable fall?

Let’s just say his eerie, shape-shifting presence made John Lennon feel suicidal, evoked Adam Durtiz’s desire to be someone else, reduced David Byrne’s description to a detached third person account.

That’s right, Dylan aficionados, it just may be the man who saves the American financial system is none other than the inscrutable Mister Jones.

After all, everyone knows the best way to catch someone with questionable morals is to recruit one…

And without further notice
He asks you how it feels

And he says, “Here is your throat back

Thanks for the loan”


September 20, 2009 Posted by | Disgruntled, Dylanologist | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Together Through Life’: Will Dylan’s new album live on its own or is it a ‘Dead’ end?

Then she opened up a book of poems

And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century.

Dante, Rimbaud, Eliot, Whitman, Shelley, Keats, cummings, Timrod, Blake…

Bob Dylan may be the ultimate chameleon, but he’s also an avid collector. And over the years, the collection of characters who’ve appeared in Dylan’s lyrics is trumped only by the manner in which Bob has transformed those distinct, disparate voices into his own.

For Shakespeare the play was the thing. For Dylan it’s always been about the words.

I wasn’t sure, therefore, how to react to last week’s confirmation that Bob collaborated with longtime Grateful Dead lyricist, Robert Hunter, on 9 of the 10 tracks on his upcoming album, Together Through Life.

Maybe it’s a sign of the modern times in which we live. In an era where style trumps substance, the notion that our politicians, pop stars and public figures are propped up by an army of minions clamoring to craft an image that feeds our incessant need for idolatry has become all too commonplace.

But as we look out over what seems to be a vast wasteland of perpetual despondency, we’re not looking for iconoclasts to console us. What we’re really searching for is someone to break through the clutter, to give us a sense of direction, to help us find our way home. We’re looking for clarity.

In recent months, a barrage of bloggers (this disgruntled Dylan fan not excluded) have drawn parallels between Barack Obama and Bob Dylan. But then again, the comparisons aren’t totally unfounded. Dylan isn’t the only cultural chameleon out there.

Like the title character in Woody Allen’s brilliantly insightful 1983 mockumentary, Zelig, Obama has perfected the ability to conform to his surroundings. When Obama steps on stage, we see what we want to see. When Obama speaks, we hear what we want to hear. Yet the words he speaks are rarely, if ever, entirely his own.

In a time when our culture is so sanitized, where every action is viewed under such scurrilous scrutiny, the people to whom we look for inspiration can no longer inspire by example— and so they retreat to linguistics. It’s not so much what they say, but rather how they say it, by which they are evaluated.

The consensus among historians is that Abraham Lincoln was the last American president to put pen to paper. The “Gettysburg Address,” perhaps his most famous piece of oratory, clocked in at 278 words and took less than 3 minutes to deliver. But in those 3 minutes, Lincoln embodied a nation’s pain and suffering with words so enduring that they are now etched in aeternum in marble.

There have been endless comparisons between Lincoln and the man who currently resides in that mansion on the hill. But whether you like him or hate him, you cannot dismiss Barack Obama. He may not write every word that comes out of his mouth, but he is hardly an empty oratory vessel. His predecessors may have spoken to the ‘vision thing,’ but Barack Obama embodies it.

With Bob Dylan, however, ‘embodying’ an artistic vision isn’t enough. With Bob, the words matter.

The issue here isn’t that Bob wrote a couple of songs with someone else— even if that ‘someone else’ just may be the second greatest living lyricist in the English language. The issue is about purity of vision, not persuasiveness of delivery. It’s about clarity.

Dylan is coming off what many consider one of rock’s perfect ‘trifectas.’ Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times are not just high creative benchmarks for Bob, they are the gold standard by which all other musicians could, and very well may, be measured.

And so the news that Dylan collaborated with another wordsmith naturally would raise a few questions. Did he need to do it? How much of it did he do? Did he even really do it at all?

Dylan and Robert Hunter have been down this road before. The two worked up a few songs together for Dylan’s 1988 album, Down in the Groove. But these were hardly a threat to the Dylan canon, musically or lyrically. They were almost transitional, as if Dylan was in some sort of Dantesque state of limbo. As we later found out in his biography, Chronicles, he was.

And lest we forget that Dylan and playwright, Jacques Levy, wrote an entire album of songs in 1976 (ironically, in 1965, Levy directed Red Cross, a play by Sam Shepard with whom Dylan would later co-write the epic, 11-minute yarn, ‘Brownsville Girl’). And while the Dylan-Levy collaboration stands as one of Dylan’s most commercially successful endeavors, there’s no debate that the songs on Desire are all distinctively Dylan.

And maybe that’s the point.

Dylan always hated being heralded as a ‘poet,’ a ‘prophet,’ the ‘voice of a generation.’ Perhaps now we know why. Sometimes accolades do more to weight us down than they do to lift us up.

And after nearly a half century of accolades, can any of us really know the full extent of the load we’ve asked Dylan to carry.

And when you look at it from that perspective, can we really fault Dylan for wanting to share his burden—and his vision—with someone else? Even if sharing that vision does run the risk they might see if from a different point of view…

And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you

April 22, 2009 Posted by | Disgruntled, Dylanologist | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Day of the Locusts’: Bob Dylan, Barack Obama and the audacity of dope

And the locusts sang off in the distance,

Yeah, the locusts sang such a sweet melody.
Oh, the locusts sang off in the distance,
Yeah, the locusts sang and they were singing for me.

The story behind the second track on Dylan’s 1970 album, New Morning, goes something like this—

In the summer of 1970, Princeton decided to present Dylan with an honorary doctorate. Not surprisingly, the ever-reticent Dylan wasn’t especially high on the idea.

Until, that is, David Crosby entered the picture. In attempt to convince a distrustful Dylan to go to the ceremony, the drug-addled Crosby convinced Dylan to smoke a joint, which increased Dylan’s paranoia but apparently did the trick. Dylan was indoctorated by day’s end.

As for the ‘locusts,’ the allusion (as often is the case with Dylan) was both figurative and literal—Bob’s convergence on the quaint college town coincided with Princeton’s 17-yr cicada infestation.

This past week, a different kind of locust converged on Barack Obama as the president opened his town hall press conference to questions from the American public. 92,937 people submitted 103,981 questions and cast 3,602,695 votes in this noble experiment of political empowerment.

The top vote getters included questions related to the financial sector, jobs and the national debt. But in this time of mounting economic crisis, what was the most pungent question on the mind of the American public? Here’s a hint: It was green, but it wasn’t renewable energy.

Of course, a candid discussion on the decriminalization of marijuana shouldn’t have taken Obama completely by surprise. After all, the argument to ‘legalize it’ isn’t all smoke and mirrors. The economy would get a boost, drug cartels would be weakened and the government would make a bundle on federal taxes. But in all fairness, Nobel Laureate economists and drug enforcement agents probably weren’t the demographic dialing in.

So just how did the question of legalizing marijuana get to the top of the list?

Much of the credit goes to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), which tapped into the ‘silent majority’ of pot smokers. Admittedly, the high ranking of marijuana-related questions had a distinct tinge of astroturfing. But when the board lit up in favor of putting marijuana reform on the front burner, it was cool that Obama didn’t completely bogart the question.

It didn’t prevent him, however, from nipping the question in the bud: “I don’t know what that says about the online audience,” he said joking before turning solemn. “But the answer is ‘no,’ I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow our economy.”

Yet in all the clamor surrounding the unexpected twist surrounding Obama’s joint press conference with the mainstream press and Main Street America, a very interesting news story got lost in the haze. Just six weeks earlier, George Obama, the president’s half-brother, was been arrested and charged with…wait for it….marijuana possession, or “bhang” as it’s known in Kenya.

“If Timothy Geithner can cheat on his taxes and become Secretary of the Treasury,” brother Obama was rumored to have said, “then this should qualify me to become head of the Drug Enforcement Administration.” It seems the ability to come up with a quick quip runs in the family.

Admittedly, it was interesting to see what’s on the minds of the American people when the media gatekeepers get stonewalled. But don’t expect Obama’s “Online Town Hall” to come back around again.

Simply put, sometimes a little control over the system keeps everyone on track— especially true when that system can be so easily manipulated.

Not that Barack Obama shouldn’t take questions from the American public—just don’t be surprised if he refuses to answer them.

Come to think of it, that probably explains why Dylan fans tend not to yell out requests at his shows. The audience knows he isn’t going to play “Blowin’ in the Wind” them just someone has a burning desire to hear the song played for the millionth time.

And just for the record, next time you’re all in a huff to hear Bob play “The Day of the Locusts” live, save your breath.

Over the last ten years, Bob’s played 969 concerts, 16,062 songs, and 214 different titles—”The Day of the Locusts” wasn’t one of them…

I put down my robe, picked up my diploma,
Took hold of my sweetheart and away we did drive,
Straight for the hills, the black hills of Dakota,
Sure was glad to get out of there alive.

For a list of all the songs Dylan’s done in concert check out:

April 6, 2009 Posted by | Disgruntled, Dylanologist | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“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.

March 31, 2009 Posted by | Disgruntled, Dylanologist | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘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.

March 23, 2009 Posted by | Disgruntled, Dylanologist | , , , , , | Leave a comment