Thursday, July 16, 2009

David Byrne Likes Cycling in Budapest

So David Byrne thinks Budapest is a pretty good city for bicycling. I know because he told me so.

Last night, I went to see Byrne (yes, David Byrne, the former singer of the Talking Heads) perform a fantastic show at a surprisingly small venue here in Budapest (the Teatrum at the Millinaris in Buda). I'd been looking forward to this show since I saw it advertised two-three months ago. I'm a big fan of Talking Heads, particularly of their fantabulous third album, Fear of Music, and the great thing about this show was that it was a retrospective of Byrne's long history of collaboration with Brian Eno, who had produced, among other Byrne efforts, Fear of Music.

The other reason I was excited about Byrne coming to town was that during the last several years, he has become a big transport cycling activist in New York City, where he's been living for many years. He organised a bike-rack design contest a couple years back, and he's been stumping for cycling in the media, writing about it in his quite good blog, and so on. Ever since I've been aware of this side of his personality, he's become a kind-of a rock'n'roll hero for me, a guy who not only has created some of my favourite music, but who has a sense of civic activism that I admire, particularly considering his main issue is my main issue.

So when I saw that he had a show scheduled in Bp, one of my first thoughts was: I should contact him and invite him for a bike ride in Budapest! Right. I never mustered the courage for this. Instead, I just fantacised about it: how I might get hold of him and talk about cycling and have a great summit/bonding session as two co-equals in cycling activism. In my imagination, the bike connection would make us instant buddies, and, at my invitation, Byrne would play a benefit concert that would raise a big pile of money to create the vital infrastructure that would push Bp over the tipping point to Amsterdam Nirvana.

To make a long story short (i.e. even longer), we went to the show, it was great (including 4-5 songs off Fear of Music), and afterwards, we needed someplace to go for a drink. I suggested the Marxim, directly behind the venue, because, hey, maybe David Byrne will go there.
Now, this was partly just wishful thinking, and I was not holding out very high hopes, especially as my wife, Kristin, had been speculating at how healthy and un-rock'n'roll Byrne and the rest of his ensemble looked. "After a show, they probably get down to a session of yoga followed by a wholesome vegan dinner," she said.

Indeed, even in his youthful heyday, Byrne was an arty intellectual and never a debauched rock and roller. However, I knew from his blog that he drinks -- he'd banged his head once in a bike crash after he'd had some drinks -- so I was thinking maybe it wasn't such a far out proposition that he'd be out for an adult beverage.

A few minutes after we sat down at the bar at Marxim, three roadies from the Byrne show walked in, including a guy from New Jersey who said he'd noticed Kristin dancing in the front row and stopping ocassionally to pull the front of her dress up so as not to overly expose her décolletage. We chatted with this guy for awhile and after a bit, who should appear at the top of the steps, but Byrne himself (looking exactly like he looks in the above photo -- wearing white shirt and straw hat).

Kristin was first up the steps. She said when she introduced herself, he said, "Hi, I'm David," which she thought was cute. I got up there a minute later and started gushing about how much I liked the show and how I read his blog and really like it and, also, "I think it's so cool that you've become a bike activist."

As his roadies had told us, Byrne was (is) quite a personable, down-to-earth guy, and definitely not like the detached intellectual that you might imagine from his artistic persona. In fact, he was having a korsó of beer and also, surprising to me, a roll-your-own cigarette.

Byrne said he'd been riding his bike the day before in Budapest -- apparently he had all of Tuesday off, and he spent it checking out Budapest. He and some others in the crew (24 people total, including musicians, dancers, roadies, etc.) carry folding bikes in their touring buses, and they go for rides whenever there's an opportunity.

We asked him about his impressions of riding in Bp, especially as compared to New York, and he said (more or less), "Pretty good. There's always a side street to go down where there's not much traffic. And also, there are a lot a cyclists here. Like you said, there's a critical mass of cyclists here so drivers and pedestrians look out for bicyclists." (We'd told him about the huge numbers at Budapest Critical Mass -- not sure, considering his use of the term "critical mass," if he was really aware of the Critical Mass movement around the world. I know they have one in New York, but it's not nearly on the scale of the one here.

Byrne contrasted the situation in Bp with that of Hong Kong, where, apparently very few people bike. "If a bike comes along, people think, 'What the hell is that?'"

We talked a bit more about the show. Byrne, as well as his technicians, were really impressed with the Millinaris Teatrum. The sound on stage was so clear, Byrne said, he thought at first that something must be wrong with the equipment. And Kristin, who's an art and architecture history buff, told him a little bit about the history of the Millinaris site.

But I've said the pertinent stuff for a biking blog. David Byrne has given his imprimatur to the cycling scene in Budapest. Which I usually think sucks big time. But apparently it's better than Hong Kong's and New York's. In relative terms, according to a guy who's touring all over the world -- not just any guy, mind you, we're talking DAVID FUCKING BYRNE, a personal acquaintance of moi -- it's pretty OK. And for right now, that's enough to make me kind-of please with Budapest's cycling scene.