Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne

by Mark Reynolds

24 November 2009

cover art

Bicycle Diaries

David Byrne

US: Sep 2009

Picture this: you’re in London, Manila, Columbus or some other exotic locale, and there’s a guy riding a bike. Depending on the locale, anyone riding a bike through the city streets might not be unusual all by itself, but this isn’t just any guy. He’s a tall, middle-aged guy with a shock of white hair. And he doesn’t at all look like one of the locals. Why isn’t he in a car, or at least using public transportation? What’s he looking at, anyway?

Now take a closer look: why, if you didn’t suspect any better, you’d swear that was David Byrne.

Oh wait: that is David Byrne.

It turns out that Byrne has used a bicycle as his primary mode of transportation ever since his days with the Talking Heads in the early ‘80s. At first he rode around New York City, taking care of errands and evening socializing. Over time, he discovered folding bikes, and started packing one whenever he left town. No matter where he rode, Byrne discovered that he saw more of his surroundings than other travelers; not only could he bike in places that couldn’t be reached by car, he could also discover more about those places, their subtle details and hidden stories.

The title of this engaging collection of free associations, of course, is a play on the title of Che Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries. And just as that book really wasn’t about a particular vehicle, so too does Byrne assemble his thoughts and reflections from, as it were, the open road. Over the years, his travels have taken him from Sweetwater, Texas to Sydney, Australia, and it seems he’s found something interesting to see and reflect upon at every stop along the way.

But while he makes note of some of the more striking sights and vistas he’s encountered (not many have written about visiting Niagara Falls by bicycle), Bicycle Diaries is a travelogue less through place than through Byrne’s life and work as an artist and musician. His episodic chapters discuss his collaborations and connections with an interesting range of artists and performers, as well as his riffs and musings on various cultural phenomena.

Of his time in Buenos Aires, for example, we learn about a local rock band, shrines for the departed, and Argentina’s love of soccer. In Manila, it’s the looming presence of Imelda Marcos, both as secular icon and artistic muse. Byrne bikes through Baltimore, where he ponders his boyhood surroundings, and through Berlin, where he ponders the city’s post-Wall modernity.

In most of the chapters, he makes brief allusions to the venue’s bike friendliness (or not, as in Istanbul). The tone changes dramatically in New York, the final stop on the itinerary. Here, Byrne gives greater voice to his cycling advocate side, discussing his work with various agencies and institutions to promote cycling awareness and support.

By the end of Bicycle Diaries, Byrne approaches full-on evangelical mode, all but promoting cycling as a practical way to avoid further fossil-fueled ecological ravages:

I expect some of the cities I’ve ridden around to more or less disappear within my lifetime – they’re resource hogs and the rest of the continent and world won’t put up with it for long. I don’t ride my bike all over the place because it’s ecological or worthy. I mainly do it for the sense of freedom and exhilaration. I realize that soon I might have a lot more company than I have had in the past, and that some cities are preparing for these inevitable changes and are benefiting as a result.

But it’s that very sense of freedom and exhilaration that runs through the majority of his book. Bicycle Diaries reads very much like a leisurely ride, full of brief, thoughtful observations that open a window onto the thinking process of a restless artistic spirit. It emerges as an entertaining testament to the environmental and aesthetic virtues of getting a little fresh air.

Bicycle Diaries


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