By Andrew Matson
David Byrne talks about "Bicycle Diaries" and bicycles at Town Hall Monday, 09/28. Last time I saw him, he was brilliant. I have a hunch he'll be brilliant at Town Hall, too, because here's the thing: David Byrne is, I think, the same guy all the time.
The voice in "Bicycle Diaries" is recognizable if one's spent any time at all with Byrne's music. Same removed, abstract sensibility. Same occasional silliness. Same poker face. Reading "Bicycle Diaries" is a little like listening to Talking Heads song "Heaven": first one is taken by the vibe, which is like drinking a calming herbal tea, then one appreciates the parable-style structure of the lyrics, and finally one grasps the existential message that anchors the whole thing, that life and death are essentially meaningless. With Byrne, that realization never feels empty. For me, just listening to "Heaven," or, likewise, reading "Bicycle Diaries" makes cosmic indifference a lot easier to deal with.
"Only once in a rare while have I had numb nuts," reveals David Byrne at the end of his new book, "Bicycle Diaries." The observation happens in the most boring chapter, an appendix about padded shorts and bike safety.
The rest of "Bicycle Diaries" is not boring at all. Reading it is like having a beer with a philosophy professor.
Despite Byrne being primarily known by his famous pop band Talking Heads, "Bicycle Diaries" is not about music, and even though it's a first-person account of touring the world via foldable bike (mainly), it's not really about cycling, either.
Instead, for nearly 300 pages of text and images (there's a lot of images), Byrne travels from continent to continent at least as conscientiously as Rick Steves, thinks deeply, and then writes about what he experienced and thought about. The result is philosophical multi-media travel writing, a kind of personal journalism. Always, his style is casual and language uncomplicated.
OK: The book's not NOT about bikes and music. It gets fairly bike-centric towards the end — closing chapter "New York" is almost totally about cycling in the city — and the chapter "Buenos Aires" is largely about Argentine music. But "Berlin," "Manila," and "San Francisco" are more indicative of "Bicycle Diaries." They all start with concrete details — observations or remembered conversations about art or politics, for example — and end happily mired in broad questions about humanity in general.
In Berlin, Byrne discusses Otto Meuhl, an artist who ran a semi-scary-sounding sex commune, and asks about mental illness. What is it? And when one's life is art, and one's art makes people nervous, is that a problem? Also, he thinks about whether the gallery people he's lunching with think he's uncool because he doesn't listen to very much techno music.
In the Manila chapter, Byrne studies the Marcos family not just for its political effect on the country, but, like one might the Kennedy family in the US, also its rise to legendary status and the ideological effect of that legend on the Philippine people. What is the power of mythmaking in national politics?
Later, in the San Francisco chapter, Byrne picks up threads from "Berlin" and also "Manila," and asks what is meant by the term "outsider art." Also, he wants to know, why is the common definition of "civilization" tied to using written languages and being able to feign an appearance of objectivity?
Throughout the book, the most frequently asked question is: What do humans show each other by what they do and make? In Byrne's view, architecture, paintings, meals, and conversations are all similarly analyzable for clues. He makes serial reference to his position of being just a little over people's heads, and while he's ostensibly talking about being on top of a bike, really, he's moving through cities with his eyes wide open, connecting dots most people don't notice exist.
Byrne's apparent joy in rooting big questions in specific examples and then discussing possible answers is why people study philosophy to begin with, and "Bicycle Diaries" might make a reader want to go to school just for how stimulatingly he presents the process. He is interested, so he is interesting. And "school," of course, is open to re-definition. It may be as simple as taking a walk or riding a bike.
"Bicycle Diaries" rides on momentum gained by Byrne's nonstop, reliably sharp insights, and is characterized by his subtly bemused attitude in making them. Because he doesn't take a long time to arrive at profundity from basic phenomenological awareness, and because he's not pretentious about it, it's fun to be in his head.