By Guy Dixon
On the bike path cutting down the west side of Manhattan, a shock of white hair regularly passes by. This particular bike commuter, riding upright on his hybrid bike, is almost the mayor of this stretch of pathway, given the notoriety [attention?] he's getting these days as he pedals from his apartment in Hell's Kitchen to his downtown SoHo office-studio.
But David Byrne didn't initially relish the idea of becoming an urban bicycling advocate. He fell into the role, he said.
Nor is his new book, Bicycle Diaries, heavily about cycling. The bike is simply a constant in Byrne's life and his travels, ever since he started riding around New York's downtown when he was still fronting the seminal post-punks the Talking Heads. Since then, Byrne has routinely taken a folding bike on tour with him, checking out local cultures and art scenes on a more relaxed, human level.
“I realized, ‘This is easy. It saves time.' I don't have to worry about where to get a taxi or where's the nearest metro stop. I'm independent. So I didn't think about it, it just became a part of my life,” he said recently on the phone from his studio.
Byrne's book tour promoting Bicycle Diaries has turned into a series of advocacy events about city bicycling, mainly because, he said, he feels he'd be terrible at reading before an audience. So, he has allowed the events to “focus on one aspect of the book and they kind of use me as an excuse to move the dialogue along.”
But “I talk more about cities than I do about bicycles, because I want to put it in a larger context. It's really about how do we want to live in our cities, and what do we want to prioritize. Bikes are part of that, but it's not just about bike paths and what model bike you ride.”
In Bicycle Diaries, which was partly taken from writing on his blog and from diary entries written over the last 15 years, Byrne follows many tangents, like the spontaneous thoughts of a ride.
The chapter on Berlin is as much about the remnants of East Germany, conceptual art and Viennese actionist movement artist and commune leader Otto Muehl, as about anything remotely bike related. Similarly, the San Francisco chapter has much to say about the violent art pieces (basically, very creative weapons) designed by the Survival Research Laboratories, as well as art work by mentally disabled artists. The bike is simply a convenience to get around.
When he eventually does turn his attention to bicycling, he mentions on a few occasions his aversion to the Lycra-wearing crowd – although he uses the more derisive “spandex.” It's an important distinction about Byrne disguised as a joke. A lot of cyclists who are dedicated to their racing bikes may feel a tinge of alienation reading Byrne's remarks, and it also marks Byrne as an outsider within some of cycling's various subsets.
“That whole thing is fine, but there should be a city park or special route set aside for velodrome racers and let them do that there,” he said. “The rest of us aren't in so much of a hurry, and we just kind of use the bikes to get from A to B.” He followed this with a boisterous laugh, as if thinking of some incident. But then silence, and then he simply added, “We deserve our little place as well.”
Often over the phone, Byrne seemed to hit on ideas, but then trail off.
At one point, I asked him about whether seeing things as an outsider was his natural disposition, even in New York, since all of his writing displays a certain detachment between him and whatever city he's in.
“Yeah, it sort of is. I just look at things and go ‘um.'” The thought then fades.
And when talking about whether he thinks his life-by-bike perspective fits into a larger movement, I mentioned the British author Will Self, whom Byrne noted in the Berlin chapter and who is well known for similarly using massively long walks as an excuse to examine a sense of place. Byrne said he forgot that he mentioned Self in the book; another thought fades.
Publicists warned that he's a little shy. But actually, it seemed more like ideas continued to strike him. He just needed more time to mull them over. Everything became more animated when discussing his new projects.
Most pressing is a new, two-CD song cycle about Imelda Marcos, set to be released in February, along with a DVD of archival footage of the former Philippine first lady. Byrne said he is meeting with theatre people to see the potential for some kind of stage adaptation. He's also meeting with craftsmen to make two more in a series of bike racks he has designed throughout the city. There's one, for instance, shaped like the outline of a woman's high-heel shoe, designed to sit in front of the high-end clothing store Bergdorf Goodman. All the while, Byrne is a keen promoter of new artists and new music, writing about them in his blog and experiencing it all first-hand.
Does he ever get the desire to rationalize a little and concentrate more on his writing or his artwork or his music?
“It doesn't seem to work very well for me to decide consciously to focus on one particular area. Obviously, when I was doing a music tour that started last September and went for almost a year, that's what I was doing. Other than that, there are various things on the backburner that sometimes take a while to get to the point where they can actually be realized.”
Make no mistake, there's a lot going on underneath that shock of white hair as it rides by.