By Evelyn McDonnell
If you've lived in New York some time during the last three decades, you might have seen David Byrne on his bike — long legs pedaling, bright eyes watching. The erstwhile Talking Head, sometime filmmaker, Brian Eno collaborator and perspicacious blogger has been using two-wheelers as his main mode of transport since the early '80s — way before green lifestyles were trendy. In part, "Bicycle Diaries" is a tract advocating less dependency on fossil fuels and urging readers to get off their butts. But mostly, these pages offer a travelogue from a keen cultural observer.
As a performer, Byrne has spent much of his adult life touring. The traveling lifestyle suits the Baltimorean's wide-ranging curiosity about foreign lands. Byrne has been a pop pioneer, scouting out and incorporating rhythms from Africa, Cuba, Brazil and elsewhere and helping put such global talents as Caetano Veloso and Silvio Rodriguez before the American public. In "Bicycle Diaries" (a title that tips a hat to both the film "The Motorcycle Diaries" and the classic Jim Carroll memoir "The Basketball Diaries"), Byrne writes about Istanbul, Buenos Aires, Sydney and London, as well as American cities. He visits a museum of the Stasi in Berlin and a monument to Imelda Marcos in the Philippines.
Because he's David Byrne, he gets to hang out with a lot of artists and dignitaries. He's a spy in many houses, and he reports back with a fine eye for detail and irony.
At times, the bicycle theme is a conceit, as Byrne makes many of his sociological and philosophical observations while walking, taking trains or even riding in cars. Except when he's knocking the George W. Bush regime, he prefers to describe and analyze, not rant or offer judgment. He can be poetic: "The world isn't logical, it's a song," he decides in the London chapter. Sometimes, as when he writes off the efforts of an independent promoter to bring Western performers to Turkey, he's almost alarmingly anthropologically detached: "How important it is culturally for our limited slice of the global culture pie to be presented everywhere and be supported in part by the state is debatable."
He nails his own frame of mind in a relatively rare autobiographical aside about living in San Francisco in the early '70s, when he wound up playing the ukulele on the streets: "I realized that at that time I was more interested in irony than utopia."
Needless to say, car-centric Los Angeles appears rarely and not well in "Bicycle Diaries" — he calls Southern California "a residential theme park in what is essentially a desert."
There is, on the other hand, a chapter about hilly San Francisco, which he calls "philosophically and politically bike-friendly, but not geographically." But it's when Byrne writes about his city of choice, New York, that he gets most engaged. "When I'm feeling optimistic I believe that the exhilaration, freedom, and convenience I experience as I ride around will be discovered by more and more people," he writes.
Byrne writes of bike racks for New York City and a public forum he organized about cycling in Manhattan. One of the speakers was Jan Gehl, a Danish urban planner whose revamping of Copenhagen helped wean the populace off its dependence on cars. Byrne is well read on topics of urban design and architecture, and he brings his bike-eye view to issues of public space and urban sprawl. The sweetly designed tome — bound in orange and red cloth and small enough to hold with one hand — is sprinkled with photos of his travels: images of landscapes and storefronts reflecting his interest in the vivid and the offbeat.
Some of these writings and pictures appeared on Byrne's blog at journal.davidbyrne.com. From music to films to art to the Internet to books, the singer of "Psycho Killer" has become a public intellectual. And if "Bicycle Diaries" wanders sometimes in its ruminations on modern cities, well, isn't that the point of going for a ride?
McDonnell is the author of "Mamarama: A Memoir of Sex, Kids and Rock 'n' Roll" and an Annenberg fellow at USC.