David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries [Book Review]

What a surprise, to learn David Byrne, precisely when he was enthralling me with his lyrics, was enthralling himself with the cities he toured, not by walking or driving, but the way I like to as well, on a bike. I was once asked if David Byrne could do anything I wouldn’t like. I was such a fan, I remember having to have the question put to me a few different ways. Would I buy a recording of him goose farting Christmas tunes from his armpit? Well, of course not, but then, he would not make such an album. (David, please don’t say that you have been goose farting tunes without my knowing. I admit, I started missing record releases around the time of the Knee Plays—oh I so love “In The Future“)

I must declare a prejudicial relationship here. That’s lecturer speak for: “I can’t mark this guy’s essay. I know him too well”. You see, when I was 16, David Byrne molded my thinking, put me onto Warhol, Hitchcock’s Psycho, Woody Allen, Laurie Anderson, and turned me toward a life in the arts when I had been planning on flying fighter planes for the RAAF. It was the mid 1980s. I was meant to choose 4 unit maths and physics as my senior electives. I chose art and music. All thanks to you David Byrne.

Me singing Psycho Killer in Rome, and David Byrne singing Psycho Killer in LA; the crowd went more nuts for me 🙂

So I’m reading passages by someone who, let’s face it, is scratching for truths covered previously by the likes of Baudrillard and Jacobs, but all the while I keep thinking, nope, this is still better! Better because Bicycle Diaries filters a world gone mad thanks to cars, through a cycle-born mind prepared to leap around making ever surprising connections.

I get the impression Byrne took to assaulting his senses with the real world of pavements and traffic, as an antidote to his otherwise disorienting life of recoding studios, late night gigs and hotel rooms. It was his release from all of the “work travel”—such an unassuming way of saying he lived the life of a rock star. But far from cocooning that celebrity brain, he took it out along the shoulders of roads, just wrapped in a helmet. God knows how close he’s come to getting cleaned up, on roads many of us would know well enough to know we wouldn’t ride them for fun.

If you agree that our astuteness to fundamentals is sharpened by culture shock, you’ll love hearing Australia described as a forbidding vast wilderness “with a smear of Eurojam along the edges.” And maybe he’s right, maybe venomous creatures are a real problem here; I wouldn’t know, having not received whatever deadly bite I must be lucky to have thus far avoided. He’s right that our/my/Europeans’ relationship to indigenous Australians is… what can I possibly say as one of the occupiers! And he’s pinpointed exactly why I will never live in Sydney. No matter how much it’s hyped, Sydney is not bicycle friendly and fundamentally can never be. Australia’s regional cities are where you’ll find the long cycle paths Byrne admires, winding along rivers and under trees, with snakes and spiders and all manner of bities doing their own thing off to the side. David, next time you’re in Australia, let me take you up the bush on a mountain bike. We can bunny-hop taipans.

The tables were turned between reader and writer when I got to the climactic chapter, New York, Byrne being the local, and me the one who was just there for 4 months, gaping and jotting down generalizations. Unfortunately, I missed the recent bike transit boom by 2 years, and in any case wasted my time there running rather than riding. But I did pick up on the fact that this is a city with a distinct myth about New Yorkers’ ways, ways you don’t have to be born there to take on. Trust me, the second you get your 212 phone number, and have made toast in your 4 month sublet you found via Craigslist, you are Woody Allen. What to do next? Get on your bike and join New York’s—indeed America’s!—relentless contest for space. Every inch, in every mind, gets reclassified moment by moment: white space, black space, queer space, car space, bike space… . Public space in that country, is like the only toy in a room full of snotty nosed siblings, each claiming first dibs on moral grounds. Non-American readers would do well to see some of what Byrne has to say, as symptomatic of his country’s puritanical approach to the issue of sharing. I would put a lot of the architectural theory to have come out of America in the past 15 years in that same boat, and sink it.

In the end I’m most thrilled by Byrne’s understated irony. Amidst a belabored explanation of events leading to an area’s urban decay, he’ll mention some detail, like a straggling marathon runner who looks like he’s smoking, or the Texan at the next table enjoying a nip of insulin with his rather large meal. I’m left feeling satisfied that I got what I (actually, Primrose) paid for, a book close to that New York Pop Art scene sensibility I’ve loved since I was a kid, to be read against my intimate knowledge of ALL of Byrne’s Lyrics (at least until the Knee Plays). Now excuse me while I go play The Big Country, Cities, Nothing but Flowers, and go rent True Stories, and pull out me ol’ guitar and bug my neighbours yet again with my especially loud rendition of Psycho Killer.

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