For 30 years, artist and musician — and, oh yes, former Talking Head — David Byrne has been getting around New York, his hometown, mainly on a bicycle. Nothing fancy, mind you. Just a sturdy, upright hybrid with handlebar-moustache handlebars and a firm saddle, which is actually less tiring than the cushy kind.
When he travels, Byrne packs a folding bike in a case, and from this two-wheel perch he has investigated cities the world over, jotting down in a journal the peculiarly Byrnesian musings and observations as he pedals through bombed-out Detroit, stately and orderly Berlin or, in an especially daring foray, car-choked Istanbul.
But don’t let the faux-naif persona Byrne has so ably cultivated in his work fool you. The rock star who sang about burning buildings, highways and life during wartime turns out to be an acute observer of the urban condition, a veritable rolling philosopher. The evidence is in “Bicycle Diaries” (Viking, $25.95), his seventh book, a breezy, loosely threaded compendium of accounts of the places he sees and the people he meets in his urban bike-wanderings.
Byrne delivers pithy indictments of the damage wrought on cities by the onslaught of the automobile and planners’ blind obedience to it, even as the artist in him can’t resist admiring the strange grandeur of urban ruins like Buffalo and Detroit. And he extols cities like New York that have managed to nurture neighborhoods and find space for people on bicycles.
No proselytizer by nature, Byrne has found himself increasingly taking a public role as bicycle advocate, organizing a forum in New York that surrounded talks by planners with music, video and performance art. He spoke to The Miami Herald from New York on the eve of his departure for a mostly West Coast book tour, some of the stops on which will be public forums on cycling.
“I realized that a lot of towns and a lot of people are at the point where they’re just about willing to accept this idea of the bicycle as a way of getting around,” he says. “It doesn’t seem out of the question, where a few years ago that might just have seemed like a really strange or geeky idea to a lot of people.”
Q: What changed?
A: Our cities have gone through all these cycles. We’ve gone through the urban renewal cycle in the ‘60s and ‘70s that really did a lot of damage to the fabric of urban life — neighborhoods bulldozed and highways pushed through, and all that kind of stuff that really destroyed the kind of social underpinning and the kind of mom and pop stores and all the stuff that makes a community viable. Well, those things are kind of coming back and, as they come back, a lot of people have realized that they can have a good life in an urban situation, wherever it is, in whatever town it is. It’s kind of dawning on them that that might be more fun than commuting for an hour and half every day and living isolated out in the suburbs ... A lot of cities are making a real effort, neighborhood by neighborhood, to make themselves into a place where life can be pretty good.
Q: Does it feel funny suddenly becoming Mr. Bicycle?
A: (Laughs). A little bit. I’ve noticed — I might be imagining it — but people here in New York would just see me around on a bicycle all the time and never think anything of it. But I think now there’s a little bit of publicity coming out about this book and all that kind of stuff, so now it’s like, ‘Oh, there he is, Mr. Bicycle,’ yeah. Which is a little bit embarrassing.
Q: Your book is timely for us in Miami. The mayor is about to release our first-ever bicycle master plan.
A: Wow. I found it really pleasant riding around (Miami). One time, I was in for the Miami Basel art fair thing and so I’d be staying on South Beach, but I would ride over the causeway to Wynwood section or the Design District. It was a great ride. And getting around to the various galleries and spinoff fairs in Wynwood and that district, a bike was perfect ... If you’re in the Design District and all the stuff around there, everything is within, say, a 10-block area. It’s pretty easy. South Beach is easy. Downtown is pretty easy to get around. A friend and I went to visit a friend who lives up in Little Haiti, and that was great, too. It’s all really flat. And it’s all really interesting stuff to look at while you’re getting from A to B.
Q: You have said the book is not, strictly speaking, about bicycling. What’s it about?
A: A lot of it is about cities and urban communities. Some of the chapters kind of delve more into the history of what happened in that town and how that affected the way people view one another and how they live. And in other chapters it’s more about the music, and in other chapters it’s more about art museums and galleries. And then there’s other chapters that are more about urban design and how things got to be the way they were, and how communities either rise or fall, or become a lively community or a dead community. It’s more about the stuff you think about when you’re getting from place to place on a bicycle than it is about actually riding the bicycle.
Q: Do you find it hard to write, or is it as easy as, well, riding a bike?
A: I love writing. I don’t claim to be great at it. Occasionally I get a good sentence off. But I love the activity. Sometimes I agonize over the editing after that, but the initial kind of outpouring stuff, if I’m feeling that I have an angle or something to say or something where in a way I’m having a conversation with myself, that’s immensely pleasurable.
Q. You’ve written you’re not a racer or sports rider, you don’t use Lycra. At the risk of getting way too personal, what comes between you and your saddle then?
A: I’m just wearing regular street clothes. Pretty much all the time. In the summertime, or when it gets warm out, shorts and sandals or something like that. Stuff that I don’t mind getting a little sweaty.