By Christopher Borrelli
David Byrne always seemed like the watchful sort—good posture, steady stare. But we had no idea how watchful until digging into "Bicycle Diaries" (Viking, $25.95), the musician and artist's thoughtful new account of riding his bike through cities around the world. In short, the next time the former Talking Head and all-around Renaissance man comes to Chicago, keep your eyes open for him on the road. He's been riding for decades, biking wherever he is. "Hong Kong is my least favorite city to ride in," he said. "Barely accessible for pedestrians, impossible for bicycles." His favorite, he said, is any place "you don't expect to be bike-friendly." For instance, Chicago. An edited version of our chat follows.
Q: Your book only makes cursory references to Chicago—have you ridden here?
A: Oh, yeah, many times. The last time we were there on tour. A few of us rode out to Oak Park to see the Frank Lloyd Wright houses. It was October, I think. We rode out from downtown and took our time, and while we were riding it started snowing. But it was a great ride, and we wound through Polish neighborhoods, Lithuanian neighborhoods, black ghettos. Then we crossed some train tracks and were in Oak Park, and it's pretty white again. We took the train back downtown. They let us take our bikes. It was snowing and getting late.
Q: Do you ride every time you're in Chicago?
A: Not every time. I remember that the day before I rode to Oak Park in the snow was brisk and sunny, and I had gone out along the lakefront path! I rode past the Field Museum. I rode to the contemporary art museum downtown. Chicago, I feel, is more bike-friendly than a lot of places. It's a big city, so if you lived in the North Side and wanted to hear music on the South Side, it would be long, and certain areas feel dense. But I heard about that bike commuting thing (McDonald's Cycle Center) in Millennium Park and how the idea is a bike station for commuters, which is pretty smart.
Q: Did you gradually begin riding in cities when you visited them, or did you do it right from the very first tour with Talking Heads?
A: First, when it was just the band, before we had reached any major level, we toured in station wagons or vans, and it wasn't possible to take a bike. But when we got bigger and began to tow a rental storage truck behind us, there was room for a folded bike or two in there. Then I gradually discovered that I could get around these different towns we were stopping in better on bike. Over the years, I did fewer interviews and stopped making store appearances or whatever, and decided, "No, I really want to use this chance to explore a little or see an exhibit or even wander around aimlessly." I thought, "This is how I will keep my mental health on the road—I will ride around, instead of hanging at the hotel bar and getting sloshed every day."
Q: Ever been hit?
A: A lot of near misses.
Q: You've designed bike racks that are used in New York, but how about designing a better bike helmet?
A: They're getting better, but it's still not the coolest headwear. That inhibits a lot of people, but there is development. I've tried a number of approaches myself. I wore an English horse-riding helmet. If it protects you from falling off a horse, it's got to work with a bike, which isn't nearly as high (up). But (those helmets) have no ventilation whatsoever—it's good for a winter in Chicago, but if the weather gets a bit warm, forget it. I've tried (batting) helmets, which don't work at all because it sits on your head and you can't hear, and it's good for 3 minutes in a game but squeezes your head and gives you a terrific headache.
Q: Do you wear street clothes when you ride?
A: Sometimes shorts, but yes, street clothes.
Q: You're not riding for speed, just casual?
A: Just casual.
Q: Do you wear a helmet?
A: Often, when I know there will be heavy traffic. But in a protected lane—on the bike path in Chicago—it doesn't feel necessary to me.
Q: The striking thing about your book is how it feels like a casual ride, how the ride itself is only a way of approaching the culture of the places that you are riding in, and you digress into prehistoric Australian animals, a shrine surrounded by water bottles in Buenos Aires, the gorges in downtown Rochester, N.Y., a tour of Imelda Marcos' palace, and so on.
A: That's how my days go. You do one thing, and you're in the process of going A to B, but it leads to a new line of thought. When you're on a bike, you start wondering about basic things like, "Why is that like that? Why is that part of town the way it is? Why is the advertising you see the way it is?" You notice more, and you can range pretty far once you get on a tangent.