By Sean O'Hagan
In 1978, David Byrne's post-punk pop group, Talking Heads, released an album called More Songs About Buildings and Food. The title was ironic. Then, as he acknowledges here, David Byrne was "more interested in irony than utopia". Now, though, having cycled all over the world in the past 30 years, he seems equally interested in both.
Bicycle Diaries – the title may be an ironic echo of Che Guevara's The Motorcycle Diaries; who knows? – is a deceptively straightforward book, an impressionistic glimpse of some of the cities that Byrne has explored on his push bike. As anyone familiar with David Byrne's oeuvre might expect, it is not really a book about cycling per se, more a book in which cycling is, if you'll pardon the pun, the cog for Byrne's thoughts about architecture, music, art, travel, politics, religion, kitsch, decay and – a recurring theme – our "quality of life".
This is not the place to come if you want to know how to fix a puncture or what kind of bike to buy, though the appendix does offer some cursory tips on security and maintenance. It may, though, make you want to buy a fold-up bike, which is Byrne's preferred mode of exploration when he is touring the world as a musician.
Byrne's conceptual travelogue begins in London. His first route is from Shepherd's Bush to Whitechapel, where he has a meeting with a gallery director. He measures his progress by using the city's monuments as markers. Later, he cycles along Oxford Street, one of the most hellish cycling streets on Earth. He doesn't tend to dwell on the actual journeys, though, but ruminates instead on the people and places he encounters en route. These thoughts often lead on to deeper thoughts about, among other things, buildings and food. Once you have surrendered to Byrne's discursive style and lateral way of thinking, the book starts to make more sense.
Byrne has cycled in Berlin, Buenos Aires, Istanbul, Manila and Sydney. He has even cycled though Baltimore, where he grew up, though, interestingly, there is nothing here about cycling in Dumbarton, where he was born. Even more impressively, he once cycled from the centre of Detroit to the suburbs, through, as he puts it in his inimitably understated way, "some funky but at least inhabited neighbourhood". He describes the experience of cycling along "Eminem's now famous Eight Mile Road", where the desolation makes him think of postwar Berlin, as "one of the most memorable bike rides I've ever taken". Byrne also acknowledges the growing problem of the aggressive urban cyclist in his chapter about cycling in New York. "I might be unrealistic," he writes, "but I think that if bikers want to be treated better by motorists and pedestrians then they have to obey the traffic laws just as much as they expect cars to."
This is an engaging book: part diary, part manifesto. I would have liked to have read more about the risky side of cycling, but until Iggy Pop writes his book on bike-riding, David Byrne's level-headed book will do nicely.