Monday, January 14, 2013

David Byrne, Mr. Ubiquitous

One never knows where the multi-talented David Bryne might next turn up--on stage singing or in a movie or at a book signing or art gallery or bicycle advocacy meeting.  The man is truly ubiquitous.

Just as pet owners often take on the characterisitcs of their pets, Bryne seems to have assumed the nature of his favorite word. The word ubiquitous turns up with such uncommon frequency in his two books, "Bicycle Diaries" and "How Music Works,"  it is clearly a word he holds in high esteem.  It is a fine, catchy word.  Most authors restrict their use of it, but Bryne is virtually unrestrained in describing things as ubiquitous.  He can't seem to use it often enough, perhaps making up for his inability to use it in his music.

It is understandable that it infiltrated his bicycle book, as it is largely a book about riding his fold-up bike in cities around the world when on tour.  It is virtually impossible to write a travel book without the author commenting on some object or site that is often seen, then delving into their bag of adjectives to label it ubiquitous.

Usually authors limit their use of distinctive adjectives such as grotesque and bizarre and hideous and ludicrous and obsequious and ubiquitous to no more than two or three times per book, knowing that over-use can diminish its impact. Byrne is not inhibited by such thinking, almost turning ubiquitous into a cliche, while going easy on all other such adjectives.  He sprinkles it twelve times, along with an additional use of its abbreviated version, "ubiquity," in "Bicycle Diaries."   In contrast bizarre turns up just once in each book, and grotesqute and hideous only once in "Diaries" and not at all in "Music."

What an author finds ubiquitous is always illuminating.  In Turkey Bryne found mustaches and crumbling third-world concrete housing ubiquitous.  In Manila it was jeepneys (a cheap form of transport) and bland architecture.  In Buenos Airies it was pictures of Carlos Gardel and contemporary rock-and-roll.  While in London he philosophisizes on war and observes that the "ubiquitous image of soldiers rushing into battle with guns blazing simply didn't happen,"  as most soliders never use ther guns.  In the same commentary he complains about the ubiquity of adolescent boys playing war video games.   Even on home turf various things stand out as being ubiquitous.  In Columbus, Ohio it was anonymous modern buildings.  In his home base of Manhattan it was jay-walkers.  Oddly enough while bicycling in Australia, he found nothing ubiquitous.

It appeared as if he was trying to out-ubiquitous himself in "How Music Works," defying whatever admonishment he might have received from the adjective watch-dog society that oversees the word ubiquitous.  He uncorked the word eight times in the first 142 pages, including a virtual avalanche of four in a ten-page stretch.  But he must have exhausted himself, as he used it only twice in the final 200 pages, falling three short of its use in his earlier book.

"How Music Works" is part-memoir and part-social commentary, but at all times a tribute to the power of music and his love for it.  He credits music for saving his life.  It was the salvation for an innately shy and socially awkward guy.  It is also a history of music, making it easy for him to integrate ubiquitous into the book.

Whereas in his bicycle book calling an object ubiquitous meant it was often seen, in this book it is more of a pejorative of something that became all too common, almost like his use of the word.  At various points in time, certain music grew to be ubiquitous--recorded music, looping beats, 20th century classical music, recordings and radio broadcasts, use of samples, multi-track recording.  Despite his regard of music as a  healing and unifying force, he complains that hearing music is so ubiquitous that silence is a rarity and something to savor.

Not all of his uses of ubiquitous are reserved for music.  He slaps the label on blockbuster museum shows, launched by King Tut.  He also uses it with a negative connotation when he refers to the ubiquitous attitude that "utilitarian objects and activities, made and performed with integrity, consciously and mindfully, could be art."

As enjoyable and thought-provoking as this book was, I as a cyclist was disappointed that he makes only minimal mention of the bicycle.  He is considered a committed and ardent advocate of the bike.  If that were truly the case, he would have made that an underlining theme to the book.  Instead, bicycling receives less than half as many mentions as his favorite adjective.

One has to reconsider how much of a bicycling consciousness Bryne genuinely has, especially after he makes the admission that when he has writer's block his solution is to go jogging.   He does go out of his way to make a very positive assertion for the bike when he comments that Thomas Hoving, who ran the Metropolitan Museum in New York during the '60s and '70s, rode a bike, adding, "so he can't have been all about fancy art."  The book even includes a photo of Hoving on a racing bike with a handlebar bag wearing a coat and tie.

In "Bicycle Diaries" he asserts the great positive force the bicycle has been in his life, saying it has kept him sane, just as he claims music has in this book.  He ought to have reiterated that and regularly drawn comparisons to his twin saviors.  If he were a true voice for the bicycle, this book could have been another platform for his advocacy.  Instead, it is a sad missed opportunity to demonstrate his devotion to the cause and to save a few souls.

1 comment:

Andrew F said...

I started reading his bicycle diaries book but only made it about half way through the first chapter before putting it down. I found it ubiquitously boring and pretentious.