By Ron Nurwisah
David Byrne, the former lead singer of iconic ‘80s new wave group Talking Heads, is a bit of a bike nut. The musician began his riding career during his teenage years as a way of getting in some make-out time with his girlfriend.
He picked it up again shortly after he moved to New York City in the late 1970s. "I brought my three-speed that I had at my parents house and I used it to get around the Lower East Side and Soho, the area where I lived, to get to art openings and music events," Byrne says over the phone from his New York studio.
Even as his career took off, Byrne never gave up on cycling. He'd pack a folding bike while touring the world with the Talking Heads or when he traveled as a solo musician or visual artist. The fruits of these travels can be seen in Byrne's latest book, Bicycle Diaries, a kind of wandering journal of his bike explorations. It's not a tedious cycling manifesto or urban prescriptive; rather, it's an intensely personal look at how cycling has shaped one artist's life.
"I felt more connected to the life on the streets than I would have inside a car or public transit ... The same exhilaration, as the air and street life whizzed by, happened again, in each town. It was, for me, addictive," Byrne writes in the book's introduction.
From Berlin to San Franciso the less likely cycling metropolises of Istanbul, Manila and Buenos Aires, Byrne splashes cultural observations along with some of the sights and sounds he caught while on his bicycle. Praise about Berlin's practical and extensive bike infrastructure veers off into a look at radical art and the psychological scars left behind by the Stasi, East Germany's secret police service. The spectre of the Marcos regime rears its head as Byrne explores the Philippines. In Buenos Aires he tries his best to soak in that city's amazing street life as well as the chaos created by Argentina's 1999–2002 economic meltdown.
There were stories that Byrne had to leave out of the book as well, such as his idyllic times biking around in the centuries-old towns in northern Italy. "There are a number of Italian cities, mainly in the north, Modena, Ferrara. They're small with a medieval or a renaissance centre. They're so pedestrian- and bike-friendly that you can wander anywhere in the city, and it's just this gorgeous experience. The streets are so windy and narrow it's not very practical for the car," he says.
Back in his home city Byrne has become a celebrity spokesperson for cycling. Last year he designed a series of site-specific bike racks for New York - think a dollar sign for Wall Street, or a high-heeled shoe outside upscale department store Bergdorf Goodman.
"For some folks, if I write and say, ‘Will you join this thing I'm doing?' they're less suspicious than if it was somebody unknown," he says. Byrne has also worked with groups like New York City pedestrian and cycling group Transportation Alternatives to hold town forums on cycling.
For the book tour he's taken that model to other cities. "I'm giving cycling groups this forum for things that they do. Often they don't have that forum. The local paper or media has no interest," he says.
"People are really interested. Not just the bike fanatics. These events have been doing really well."
"The interest isn't just about me, but it's people rethinking what their towns can be like," he adds.