David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries (Viking, 320 pages, $25.95), to quote another well-known cyclist, is not about the bike. Or at least, not entirely. Even though the former Talking Headman has used a bike as his main way of getting around his New York home base for 30 years—before urban cycling was cool—his new book is less bike manifesto than rambling travel diary. As Byrne’s concerts, readings and art exhibitions take him around the world, his folding travel bike affords him a broader, deeper view of cities than other modes of transport. Those encounters spark disquisitions, speculations, questions and mini-essays about a range of subjects from art to anthropology to urban planning and, yes, even bikes.
Byrne’s an artist, not an analyst. “The world isn’t logical, it’s a song,” he writes, and his book follows the discursive logic of the bicycle: It’s so easy to go anywhere quickly (and find a place to park) that a short chapter can cover a wealth of loosely related topics. Byrne meanders along in the tradition of Victorian amateur scientists, travelers and philosophers; Bicycle Diaries (like Byrne’s blog) contains more questions than answers and showcases Byrne’s preference for casual, self-deprecating observations over authoritative statements.
Berlin inspires ruminations about the national security state, the nature of justice, differences between European and U.S. history and culture, neuroscience, the future of CDs and even the meaning of life. Istanbul—insights into modern architecture and corruption; Sydney—the persistent strangeness and power of nature. One of his favorite cities, Buenos Aires, brings topics ranging from South America’s burgeoning new music scenes to gentrification to tight jeans to the U.S.’s recent political decline. A trip to Manila to research Byrne’s Here Lies Love project (with Fatboy Slim) about Imelda Marcos yields thoughts about that nation’s troubled imperialism-tainted history, and about the power of language and history in social development. The London chapter explores the role of art—violent images, self censorship, socialist realism, dance music and cultural stereotypes. San Francisco triggers thoughts about technology’s double-edged sword, California eccentricity (from cults to sexual liberation) and a discussion of outsider art, the art establishment, morality in art and even the nature of sanity.
While the view from the bike seat provides close-up detail, world music maven Byrne’s extensive international experience grants him a needed global perspective on America. The book opens with a quick intro on how car culture developed and the slow-motion devastation it’s wrought throughout America. Visits to Niagara Falls, Detroit, Columbus and his hometown of Baltimore occasion observations on urban decay and suburban sterility and tackiness, but without the condescension some sniffed in his movie True Stories. The musician who wrote “Cities” detects signs of hope in once-devastated New Orleans and Pittsburgh.
The closing New York chapter returns us to the subject of Byrne’s two-wheeled vantage point and its ability to take him into unexpected and overlooked crannies and neighborhoods in that still amazingly diverse megalopolis. Byrne’s own bike advocacy there—from designing whimsically clever bike racks to sponsoring a big public forum to pushing gently for urban livability—has put him in touch with knowledgeable sources like legendary Copenhagen planner Jan Gehl and city transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, and their authoritative knowledge bolsters this chapter in a way I missed in some others.
“I don’t ride my bike all over the place because it’s ecological or worthy,” Byrne writes. “I mainly do it for the sense of freedom and exhilaration.” He finds it the most practical way to get around and a boost to his creativity and sanity. But he also makes a persuasive, low-key case that making bicycling easier and more practicable is a major part of building sustainable, livable communities.
“We live in the city of dreams,” Byrne once sang, and little he writes about bikes or cities or anything else will surprise anyone who’s read much on these subjects, or even most Portlanders, who live progressive urban issues every day. But most of it is engaging and thought-provoking, and may enlighten Talking Heads fans or casual bike types who wouldn’t otherwise encounter the wisdom of, say, Jane Jacobs or Mike Davis. Portland and our visionary congressman, Earl Blumenauer, merit praise, but the city doesn’t rate a full chapter or even a section, and we’ve yet to earn even a blog entry. If another volume ever appears, maybe Byrne’s recent trips here—for a magnificent concert last summer, and this week’s public discussion with bikeportland.org’s Jonathan Maus among others—will gain us a place in its pages.
READ: Portland’s Bicycle Culture: A Panel Discussion with David Byrne takes place at the Bagdad Theater, 3702 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 236-9234. $26, includes a copy of Bicycle Diaries. Tickets at Bagdad Theater box office, Crystal Ballroom box office and ticketmaster.com.