Bicycle Diaries (review: 3/5)

Bicycle Diaries
I like David Byrne, but I feel really ambivalent about this book. On the one hand, there are some great gems and little thought-bits that come out of a curious mind. On the other hand, as the title so clearly points out, it’s diaristic. There’s a good amount of day-to-day humdrum “this is what I did here, this is what I did there” stuff to wade through. With that said, here are some parts I especially liked:

On the meta-ness of ringtones:

Ring tones are “signs” for “real” music. This is music not meant to be actually listened to as music, but to remind you of and refer to other, real music… A modern symphony of music that is not music but asks that you remember music.

Although he praises Europe’s cultivated, park-like landscape, in particular the “manicured” blend of man and nature in Berlin, he finds it

a bit sad, I think, that my visual reference for an unmediated forest derives from images in fiction and movies. Sad too that the forest in this preserved area was once quite common, but now lives on mainly in our collective imaginations.

Early in the book he talks about a number of American cities in brief. On the town of Sweetwater, Texas:

I enjoy not being in New York. I am under no illusion that my world is in any better than this world, but still I wonder at how some of the Puritanical restrictions have lingered—the encouragement to go to bed early and the injunction against enjoying a drink with one’s meal. I suspect that drinking, even a glass of wine or two with dinner, is, like drug use, probably considered a sign of moral weakness. The assumption is that there lurks within us a secret desire for pure, sensuous, all-hell-breaking-loose pleasure, which is something to be nipped in the bud, for pragmatic reasons.

And I liked this back-of-the-envelope theory on mating and signaling in Los Angeles:

I don’t know what the male-female balance is in L.A., but I suspect that because people in that town come into close contact with one another relatively infrequently—they are usually physicall isolated at work, at home, or in their cars—they have to make an immediate and profound impression on the opposite sex and on their rivals whenever a chance presents itself. Subtlety will get you nowhere in this context.

This applies particularly in L.A. but also in much of the United States, where chances and opportunities to be seen and noticed by the oppsite sex sometimes occur not just infrequently but also at some distance—across a parking lot, as one walks from car to building, or in a crowded mall. Therefore the signal that I am sexy, powerful, and desirable has to be broadcast at a slightly “louder” volume than in other towns where people actually come into closer contact and don’t need to “shout”. In L.A. one has to be one’s own billboard.

Consequently in L.A. the women, on the face of it, must feel a greater need to get physically augmented, tanned, and have flowing manes of hair that can be seen from a considerable distance.

Summarizing a conversation he had about the creative impulse:

People tend to think that creative work is an expression of a preexisting desire or passion, a feeling made manifest, and in a way it is. As if an overwhelming anger, love, pain, or longing fills the artist or composer, as it might with any of us—the difference being that the creative artist then has no choice but to express those feelings through his or her given creative medium. I proposed that more often the work is a kind of tool that discovers and brings to light that emotional muck. Singers (and possibly listeners of music too) when they write or perform a song don’t so much bring to the work already formed emotions, ideas, and feelings as much as they use the act of singing as a device that reproduces and dredges them up.

In a later part, in the London section, he talks about a new wave of appreciation for the late artist Alice Neel, and touches on the convoluted ways we evaluate and reflect on creative works new and old:

Maybe the work looks prescient? Maybe it looks prescient every decade or so, whenever a slew of younger artists do work that is vaguely similar to hers? In that way maybe she’s being used to validate the present, and in turn the present is being used to validate the past?

And lastly, on PowerPoint:

A slide talk, the context in which this software is used, is a form of contemporary theater—a kind of ritual theater that has developed in boardrooms and academia rather than on the Broadway stage. No one can deny that a talk is a performance, but again there is a pervasive myth of objectivity and neutrality to deal with. There is an unspoken prejudice at work in those corporate and academic “performance spaces”—that performing is acting and therefore it’s not “real”. Acknowledging a talk as a performance is therefore anathema.