Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Chrissie Hynde: Walker and Rocker

It's cool when your heroes do you proud. Often, the opposite happens (Lance Armstrong was a major disappointment), but over the past few years some of my favourite musicians from punk-rock days have turned out to be cool in ways I hadn't expected. For instance, my favourite bass player of all time, Mike Watt (Minutemen and fIREHOSE), became a born-again cyclist at age 37 after a 22-year hiatus of going by car only ("I  was an asshole!" he's quoted as saying). Then Talking Heads frontman David Byrne did Watt one better by becoming a spokesman for active transport and public space reform in New York City, and then writing a book about the joys of cycling. Recently, it's happened again: Chrissie Hynde, singer and rhythm guitarist for the (great) Pretenders, stunned and amazed me in a recent autobiography when she laid down some biting social commentary about the value of public transport and how her home country shot itself in the foot by killing it off.

Ok, "stunned and amazed" is exaggeration. Hynde has said some of this before. One of the Pretender's biggest hits, My City Was Gone, told of Hynde's dismay at what had become of her hometown, Akron, Ohio, in the wake of Autogeddon: the disappearance of the train station and of downtown, and the paving over of the surrounding countryside with shopping mall parking lots.

Her new book (actually published at the end of 2015) expands on these observations and shows that sustainable transport (not a term she uses -- but this is what she's taking about) is a huge preoccupation. In fact, after reading the book, it's a fair bet that sustainable transport (America's lack of it vs. Europe's wealth) is the main reason Hynde abandoned the States in her 20s, before she'd even made a name for herself, and then settled in London, where she hit the big time and still resides at age 65.

In an early chapter, Hynde describes the Akron of her childhood ('50s, early '60s),  as America's slide into car-centrism was under way. Hynde and a friend from junior high found themselves outcasts because they walked.
"Neither of us was interested in what the 'popular' kids were interested in ... . But what really set us apart, aside from our love of sewing, was that we were walkers. Our favorite pastime was walking to downtown Akron ... We walked, rambling and philosophizing; our journeys up West Market Street were adventures. We studied every house and redbrick road, speculating about their histories while discussing the world and what might be out there beyond Akron ... ."
One day, Hynde got on a bus for a covert excursion.
"Taking a bus almost felt like a subversive act, given that most (white) Americans living in the suburbs were required to have at least one car per family. Only 'poor people' got buses in the new world. Well, you couldn't walk to a bus stop out there -- it was too far. You'd have to get a lift to catch the bus, so why bother taking the bus if you were driving anyway?"
In her 20s, Hynde finally did get out of Ohio, and her peregrinations eventually led to London. She loved the Victorian buildings, cobbled streets and double decker buses. But the big revelation was the ease of getting around:
"Public transport! (What genius thought that one up? If the word got out in America, they'd all want it!) I could now go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted. The days of waiting for someone to pick me up in a car were over. For the first time I felt like my own person; I didn't have to answer to anyone. It felt so right, like something I'd been waiting all my life for."
Of course, most of the book is about Hynde's music career, but I recommend it also for her social commentary on the differences between the US and Britain, including quite a bit about transport. For me, a fellow transport exile who loves the trams, buses and trains of Europe, this book showed a little of the heart behind Hynde's trademark snarl.

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