September 17, 2009
At the core of Bicycle Diaries, David Byrne’s foray into cycling fan-(non)-fiction, is the notion that being on a bike provides a unique viewpoint of the world. Through offerings that are captivating and thought provoking, Byrne dispenses his insights from eyes perched above the cars and pedestrians. Being on a bike probably helps, but the real trick is being David Byrne. How else could you explain diary entries from Buenos Aires bike rides that devolve into meditations on canine hierarchy and lewd dog behaviors?
Byrne, who takes a folding bike on many of his travels, lets his mind wander as he pedals through urban landscapes across the world. Cycling in turn is both his muse and backdrop for his variegated expositions on art, architecture, music, politics, and anthropology. In Berlin, he narrates ebb and flow of East and West before and after the Wall. His primary mechanisms often evoke the primal textures: disco music and the aroma of food wafting into East Berlin; the weight of always being watched from hastily disguised Stasi hidden cameras. In America, he poignantly paints the decay of the American industrial city, using the language of highways as scars, suburbia as glut, and city centers as decaying flesh.
Throughout his diary entries, Byrne is unabashedly intellectual, yet he lets his curiosity wander without being too academic. Much of the potentially numbing pedantry is massaged out by his humor and singular mastery of all that is ironic and esoteric. On biking in the aftermath of the NYC Marathon, he writes, “The streets ran bright yellow with Gatorade — it looked like the marathoners had all peed themselves after taking a lot of vitamins.”
The writing is also surprisingly lucid and Byrne’s command of observation pays dividends in tiny moments of humor and humility. “It would be flattering to think,” he writes from the Australian Outback, “that the dome full of stars out here and the little critters scurrying around on the ground have put me, the human ant, in my place, and I’m having an epiphany about my holy insignificance. But being that I’m mere yards from a crappy concrete-block motel room and a humming minifridge, I doubt it.”
Byrne is at his best in his sojourns to the Philippines, where he researches a conceptual album on the life and personality cult of Imelda Marcos, wife of the former dictator. He explores the notions of power and manipulation during the reign of Marcos and the Western exploitations of the Philippines. In Manila, he marvels at street cover bands that perform perfect reproductions of American hits and the country’s fascination with Karaoke — including an attempt to rope him into Karaoking old Talking Heads songs. Of himself, he writes, “someone programs ‘Burning Down the House,’ maybe in the hopes that I will sing, but I just stare at the screen as a guy that looks like 80s Bon Jovi poses with a guitar while a model house burns.”
These and other oblique references are as close as Byrne ever gets to incorporating his former life as the Talking Heads’ front man. Readers hoping for a glimpse into David Byrne the touring rock star will be sorely disappointed, for it seems Byrne’s passions have shifted. At its heart, Bicycle Diaries speaks of Byrne’s desire to understand community, how people interact — what defines aesthetics and perceptions of art, success, happiness, and modern life. For Byrne, cycling offers a means of connecting disparate nodes, finding the commonality of street markets and concrete edifices in cities around the world. And as much as we may want to scoff and consider Byrne’s musings the typical spewing of a progressive Manhattan bicycle nut (which he is), he offers a simple message, telling us not to neglect the primal connections with the world that modern life deprives us of and cycling provides.
He also wants us to wear a helmet and encourage our local government to install more bike lanes.