By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
By David Byrne
Viking, 303 pages, $25.95
On the Talking Heads' 1979 album, "Fear of Music," the disembodied, hesitant voice of singer David Byrne runs down the virtues and disadvantages of the world's metropolises in the song "Cities." "I'm checking them out," he says of various spots, from London to El Paso. "I got it figured out / There's good points and bad points / But it all works out."
Such might be the epigram for this innovative musician's latest foray into publishing. Bicycle Diaries is a spruced-up bundle of Byrne's personal journals, focusing exclusively on his observations on a variety of subjects inspired by his travels. The chapter titles — "London," "Berlin," "Istanbul," "Baltimore, Detroit, Sweetwater, Columbus, New Orleans, Pittsburgh," etc. — are evidence of a man who gets around. Their content shows a keen, nonjudgmental intellect with occasionally intriguing insight into modern life and the things we construct to live it in.
For about 30 years, Byrne has been riding bicycles as his primary means of transportation. He two-wheels it around New York City (a brave man) and packs folding bicycles when he travels around the world to perform concerts or curate art exhibits or speak at various cultural events. He keeps a renaissance man's schedule, and by cycling from the hotel to the museum or the venue, he experiences cities up-close and sees their architecture in great detail and gains a feeling for the character of the pedestrians that's more savory and, sometimes literally, in-your-face than that experienced behind the windows of a car, bus or train. "In a car," he writes from Detroit, "one would have sought out a freeway, one of the notorious concrete arteries, and would never have seen any of this stuff."
However, other than infrequent mentions of odd bicycle lanes or public policy related to cyclists, Bicycle Diaries is not about cycling at all. It's about the stuff. It's not a series of diaries about bicycling; it's about the places where Byrne happened to be pedaling and the things along the way that turned his head. But it's not even really a travelogue, either, though he does provide a general sense of place for each city he discusses. His observations of the urban environment are usually little more than occasional mentions of how difficult or easy it is to bike there, or superfluous-but-colorful notations like this: "Sydney. Hooley freaking dooley, what a weird and gorgeous city!" He only brings up "the cycling meme" as a means of explaining, usually offhand, why he's seeing the things he's seeing.
Instead, this is a cheerfully rambling stream of sentience about such wide-ranging topics as censorship, self-censorship, the uses of music, art (a lot of art, complete with many intriguing photos), "the morbidity of beauty," post-9/11 angst, gentrification, the fauna of Australia, suburban sprawl, PowerPoint and other miscellany. Like his music, the prose is easygoing, fluid, a quick read. There's no central thesis, but it's a nice ride with interesting scenery.
Byrne, famous as a pop singer, drifts naturally in and out of his subjects and only occasionally discusses music. Again, the concerts he's in town for are his raison d'etre for taking a bike ride and ending up in a seven-page discussion of, for instance, Imelda Marcos. Often his musical observations are not his at all, but he claims them by repeating them, such as this astute point of view from an acquaintance in Buenos Aries: "Nito said that rock and roll is now viewed as the music of the big companies, as it emanates from the large, usually northern, wealthy countries, and therefore is no loner considered to be the voice of the people — not even the people where it comes from." (In a later chapter, he opines a bit on hip-hop, calling it "corporate rebellion," and noting that Chicago hip-hopper R. Kelly's " 'Trapped in the Closet' is one of the wackiest and most creative video pieces I've seen in years.")
In many of these chapters, Byrne seems intrigued and slightly fascinated by the foreigner's clearer — and always wiser — perspective on our own American culture. But in his account of Buenos Aries, that tide turns when he discovers that the natives hardly listen to their native music and are surprised when Byrne's own band begins playing salsa-flavored melodies and samba rhythms in concert.
These are simply the diaries of an insightful fellow with his eyes open, moving a bit more slowly through your town. A more fitting epigram, in this case, might be a line from a song by Chicago band Poi Dog Pondering. In "The Ancient Egyptians," Poi Dog singer Frank Orrall describes the many human civilizations that expanded and thrived despite the lack of automobiles. When friends insist on jumping into a cab or car, he sings, "But I say no, no, no / and didn't you know / you get to know things better when they go by slow."
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.