Travel - Book Review: ‘Bicycle Diaries’ by David Byrne

Via The New York Times - Travel

By Richard B. Woodward

Anyone who grew up listening to David Byrne’s songs may have trouble adjusting to the pitch of his writing voice. While his lyrics reveal an intensely knowing sensibility, easily bruised and a little unhinged, this book and his genial blog present him as an unflappably normal guy, whose preferred mode of transportation keeps him grounded.

“I found that biking around for just a few hours a day — or even just to and from work — helps keep me sane,” claims the former Talking Head in the equable tones of Dr. Phil.

Mr. Byrne’s travelogue uses a bicyclist’s perspective — “faster than a walk, slower than a train, often slightly higher than a person” — to take us from his home in New York City and around the United States, as well as to Berlin, Istanbul, Buenos Aires, Manila, Sydney and London, stops on the tours he has made in support of his musical and art careers.

The point of view is that of his photographs and films. Mr. Byrne has a telephoto eye for dumb or menacing incongruities, so when he visits Berlin he heads to the Stasi Museum, and he can’t leave Manila without snapping pictures of Marcos kitsch. The problem in Sydney of humans and dogs getting high by licking the poisonous skin of the cane toad appeals to him on several levels.

As his attention meanders, from fashion to architecture to local food to urban planning to race relations to the history of PowerPoint to cultural stereotypes, he is careful never to be a know-it-all. “Things here are not as simple as they were in my preconceived picture,” he acknowledges in a section on politics in the Philippines.

Along the way are glimpses of his daily routine and sound bites of autobiography. A trip to San Francisco prompts memories of helping a friend build a dome in Napa during the eco-craze of the ’70s. “I eventually lost focus on the dome project and ended up busking with another friend on the streets of Berkeley — he played accordion, I played violin and ukulele and struck ironic poses. It was successful. I realized that at that time I was more interested in irony than utopia.”

As a plea to open up more city streets to cyclists — an appendix includes drawings of nine goofy bike racks he designed for installation in Manhattan and Brooklyn — this is an uncommonly gentle manifesto. Mr. Byrne’s music has every year grown more receptive to other cultures, and his diaries reflect the same ecumenicism. We’ve known for a long time that he possessed a quizzical mind; more shocking is discovering here how wholesome it is, too.

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