Early in this blog's life, when I was still anonymous and it was still funny, I went to an event under the auspices of The New Yorker Festival called "David Byrne Presents: How New Yorkers Ride Bikes:"
I never thought about David Byrne very much before starting this blog. Having assumed my cultural identity in the 1980s I was of course well aware of his music because by then it was everywhere: the radio, MTV, movies like "Down and Out In Beverly Hills" (still one of my favorites), and so on. At the same time, I was too young to have been aware of those vital early days when Talking Heads and Blondie and Television and Patti Smith and whoever else were all underground and playing at CBGB. By the time I was old enough to seek out music by myself (you had to travel to an actual record store back then) those days were long gone. I do remember going to the Tower Records on Broadway in the Village when I was still trying to get a handle on my musical tastes and buying both "True Stories" and "Jealous Again" by Black Flag. While the Black Flag album was already old at that point it spoke to the kid I was very plainly and in a way that "True Stories" simply did not. (I still have the Black Flag record, though I have no idea where "True Stories" went. I'm sure I jettisoned it at some point because it wasn't a "hardcore" record.) Certainly as I got older I became more sophisticated and gained more of an appreciation for David Byrne's place in underground rock music, but I was never, like, deeply into his stuff or anything, mostly because by that point in my life I was way too busy with bikes and work to spend lots and lots of time geeking out over music.
And that might have been that, but then I started a bike blog, and suddenly David Byrne was omnipresent. It was 2007. Bike lanes were appearing everywhere. People were gentrifying the fuck out of Brooklyn. It seemed like anyplace the advocates and bike boosters were gathering they were trotting out David Byrne as their celebrity spokesperson. His bike racks began to appear. I'd be riding home from my (then) job in Manhattan to my (then) home in Brooklyn only to encounter mobs of people in Prospect Park taking advantage of the bike valet parking for the David Byrne show at the Bandshell.
In my little private world, within the space of about a year, David Byrne had gone from the guy on an LP I discarded in middle school to the very bellwether of New York City cycling and gentrification.
And now he wants to leave!?! Nooo!!!
At first I worried that it was something I said, and I felt terrible. I realize I've been kind of hard on the guy, but it was all in good fun. Anyway, I can't help it. I've been "bridge and tunnel" (at least until Brooklyn became cool and the phrase lost all meaning) my entire life, so even though I agree with most of his modern urbanist livable streets sentiments I also can't help find his Manhattan-centric lofty loft liberalism amusing from time to time.
I mean, I know he doesn't own a car, but has he ever had to schlep the whole family from some transit-starved corner of Queens to visit grandma on Staten Island?
Look, I know cars are hopelessly suburban and the suburbs are depressingly American, but what do you expect from me, Dave? I'm a lowbrow. While you were experimenting with "Afro-Cuban, Afro-Hispanic, and Brazilian song styles" I was scrounging rides out to Bay Shore to see Sepultura at Frank Cariola's Sundance.
Fortunately though, I don't think I had anything to do with David Byrne's decision, and the immediate cause for his possible departure seems to be that tourists aren't waving to him:
Venice is now a case study in the complete transformation of a city (there's public transportation, but no cars). Is it a living city? Is it a fossil? The mayor of Venice recently wrote a letter to the New York Review of Books, arguing that his city is, indeed, a place to live, not simply a theme park for tourists (he would like very much if the big cruise ships steered clear). I guess it's a living place if you count tourism as an industry, which I suppose it is. New York has its share of tourists, too. I wave to the doubledecker buses from my bike, but the passengers never wave back. Why? Am I not an attraction?
Oh, Dave, of course you're an attraction! It's just that these pathetic Midwestern rubes don't recognize you now and thus have no idea they're having an encounter with a real live celebrity. If only you'd ride around in that giant suit they'd probably fall out of the bus trying to get your autograph:
("Hey, it's big suit guy from the '80s!")
As it happens, I attended a lot of Bar Mitzvahs back in those days dressed pretty much exactly like that.
Anyway, yeah, you can't expect these hicks to know that you've aged and have become all grey and distinguished. At best, now they just think you're Ted Danson:
("Fuck 'Cheers.'"--David Byrne)
So yeah, naturally they're not going to wave to Sam Malone, since he has very little currency outside of Boston.
But it's not just the waving. David Byrne also wants to move because New York's for rich people now and you can't be artsy or middle class here anymore, and so he proceeds to examine why this is and what it means and why people want to live in New York in the first place:
Work aside, we come to New York for the possibility of interaction and inspiration. Sometimes, that possibility of serendipitous encounters – and I don't mean in the meat market – is the principal lure. If one were to vote based on criteria like comfort or economic security, then one wonders why anyone would ever vote for New York at all over Copenhagen, Stockholm or some other less antagonistic city that offers practical amenities like affordable healthcare, free universities, free museums, common spaces and, yes, bike lanes. But why can't one have both – the invigorating energy and the civic, intelligent humanism?
I had a little bit of trouble following this, since Copenhagen and Denmark each have less than a tenth of the population of New York City. In fact, the New York City metropolitan area has something like eight million more people than Denmark and Sweden combined. This is why it would make more sense for him to compare New York to places like London, Paris, and Tokyo, which are also huge global culture and business centers that attract scads of gajillionaires.
By the way, it's also probably why New York City smells like sex:
Maybe those Scandinavian cities do, in fact, have both, but New York has something else to offer, thanks to successive waves of immigrants that have shaped the city. Arriving from overseas, one is immediately struck by the multi-ethnic makeup of New York. Other cities might be cleaner, more efficient or comfortable, but New York is funky, in the original sense of the word – New York smells like sex.
I don't know what kind of sex David Byrne is having, but it must smell like honey roasted peanuts and urine.
Where Dave does start making sense (Get it? I'm the first person ever to make that joke!) though is when he talks about what brought him here in the 1970s:
I moved to New York in the mid 1970s because it was a center of cultural ferment – especially in the visual arts (my dream trajectory, until I made a detour), though there was a musical draw, too, even before the downtown scene exploded. New York was legendary. It was where things happened, on the east coast, anyway. One knew in advance that life in New York would not be easy, but there were cheap rents in cold-water lofts without heat, and the excitement of being here made up for those hardships. I didn't move to New York to make a fortune. Survival, at that time, and at my age then, was enough. Hardship was the price one paid for being in the thick of it.
This I find very interesting. So David Byrne came here when a lot was happening culturally, and he was young, and so he and his peers were willing to deal with some temporary and (to a certain extent) voluntary squalor, which provided them the freedom and inspiration to create art that to this day exerts a tremendous influence on the popular culture and ultimately made them lots of money. This is great, seriously. High fives all around.
But what about the people who were a little older than David Byrne, like my parents? This was not a viable lifestyle for them by this point, so the post-Robert Moses landscape that inadvertently fostered David Byrne also drove us to the outskirts. And what about the people who are younger than David Byrne, like me? 20 years after Byrne's vital period of "cultural ferment" I was ready to establish my own foothold in New York City and, as someone working in a sort-of "creative" field, most of Manhattan was already out of the question for me financially. Sure, part of the reason was the drop in crime, but it was also because of the cultural influence of David Byrne and his fellow fermentors who had made all of downtown terminally cool and hopelessly expensive. So instead I lived in Brooklyn, where a young person could actually survive on an entry-level salary while still being able to take part in Manhattan culture via subway or bike, but then came the bike lanes and David Byrne and his bike racks at BAM and his concerts in Prospect Park and all the rest of it and now Martin Amis is moving there because of the spondee.
Like David Byrne, I too was bitter, but also like David Byrne it was mostly because I was old and out of touch:
This real estate situation – a topic New Yorkers love to complain about over dinner – doesn't help the future health of the city. If young, emerging talent of all types can't find a foothold in this city, then it will be a city closer to Hong Kong or Abu Dhabi than to the rich fertile place it has historically been. Those places might have museums, but they don't have culture. Ugh. If New York goes there – more than it already has – I'm leaving.
No! Don't leave, Dave! You did this to us in the first place! This is all your fault! Can't you at least see it through by staying here and comforting us with your music and your whimsical bike racks as we drown in glass condo buildings and chain stores? Anyway, there are actually still places where "emerging talent of all types" can "find a foothold in this city"--it's just that they're not cool and you've never, ever been to them.
But where will I go? Join the expat hipsters upstate in Hudson?
Hey, you can live anywhere you want, consider yourself lucky. Plus, if you really wanted to save the city you would have left for Beverly Hills decades ago when you first made it big. Instead, you and your friends stayed in your big lofts and hung around making the scene and other people wanted to hang out and make the scene with you and now look.
Can New York change its trajectory a little bit, become more inclusive and financially egalitarian? Is that possible? I think it is. It's still the most stimulating and exciting place in the world to live and work, but it's in danger of walking away from its greatest strengths. The physical improvements are happening – though much of the crumbling infrastructure still needs fixing. If the social and economic situation can be addressed, we're halfway there. It really could be a model of how to make a large, economically sustainable and creatively energetic city. I want to live in that city.
Yeah, the writing's on the wall, Dave. You're moving to Brooklyn. Bike lanes, independent businesses, affordable (for you) real estate, and at your age you'll still think it's still got cultural vitality. Plus, at least instead of living next to billionaires who are never home you'll live next to other millionaires who are not only home all the time "creating" but also leaving annoying notes about how your cat's too mean.
Face it Dave, you're stuck here. I feel like I know you, and you'd be miserable anyplace else. Your only other option (without leaving America) is Portland, and I don't think even you could deal with that.
Come by anytime.
--Wildcat Rock machine