Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Bicycle Diaries, or David Byrne Really Likes Bike-riding

To be honest, I know very little about The Talking Heads, much less David Byrne.  They fall into a long list of artists whose work I’m aware of despite having heard a grand total of none of their songs.  That’s not exactly true, I suppose.  I once sang along to the chorus of “Psycho Killer.”

Imagine my surprise when I was recently given a copy of Byrne’s new book Bicycle Diaries.  Compiled from roughly fifteen years of travel notes, its a globetrotting meditation on art, language, music, and architecture – all from the perspective of Byrne on his bicycle seat.  Why the velocipede focus?  According to the book’s press blurb, “Since the early 1980s, David has been riding a bike as his principal means of transportation in New York City.  Two decades ago, he discovered folding bikes and started taking them with him when travelling around the world.”  There’s even a passage where talks about assembling a folding bike in his hotel room.

I’m an inexperienced reader of travel writing, as well as completely uneducated in The Talking Heads.  Did that hurt my enjoyment of Bicycle Diaries?  Not one bit.

Byrne begins with an examination of some of the United States’ second- and third-tier cities: Buffalo, Detroit, Baltimore, Columbus, Pittsburgh.  His ability to connect seemingly distant ideas impresses even in the opening chapter.  Upon riding through a Buffalo suburb, he recalls the documentary The Backyard – an exposé on backyard wrestling – and wonders if the cookie-cutter blandness of these neighborhoods has spawned a generation so starved of feeling that they welcome physical punishment as proof of a central nervous system.  He doesn’t belabor the point, however.  He makes the observation and rides on.  Its as if Byrne’s acknowledging the lengthy leap from WWE emulation to existential crisis while he shrugs his shoulders and adds, “Just saying.”

His examination of the mundane doesn’t stop there.  He bikes through Columbus, Ohio, and remarks on a shopping center delicately manicured to depict a real community.  It has shops (mostly chains) and homes (mostly condos).  “All the proper elements that are needed to constitute a lovely landscape are here, but reduced to signs and symbols,” he observes.  “This is an imitation of a planet, with a well-developed culture, where these things originally involved.”  I can’t help but wonder if he’s talking about Easton, a frequent shopping destination for the students of Kenyon College, my alma mater.  I agree with him on every point.  The street signs are too full of charm.  The grass is too green for having been planted in concrete.  As someone who also lives down the road from a freakishly large mall, I’m no stranger to capitalism’s influence on (sub)urban development.  Byrne’s gripes are razor-sharp and laser-accurate.

When he leaves the United States, Byrne dons a more history-oriented cap.  His experiences as a musician in a divided Berlin provide great context for a city reinventing itself as a European culture capital.  He tours Istanbul, wondering what it’s like to have your country represented by a single, unflattering film (as Turkey is in Midnight Express).  His project on a former First Lady of the Philippines, Here Lies Love, brings him into contact with the Tasaday, a “Stone Age tribe” originally thought to be a hoax perpetrated by the government.  These experiences bubble up out of meditations on language, culture, and community.  As with his thoughts on backyard wrestling, each segment is concise yet meditative and insightful.  I didn’t know I cared about how the different Berlins fared culturally before the Wall fell.  Thanks, Mr. Byrne!

Byrne’s writing is accessible without feeling dumb, clear without feeling simple.  I only recall languishing in his prose once, and it wasn’t necessarily his fault.  In the Philippines, Byrne wines and dines with some Filipino artists and politically-minded folk.  A woman talks at length about the politics of the Marcos regime, interesting fodder for Byrne’s Here Lies Love project.  I got lost.  I couldn’t keep the names straight.  The momentum of his travel narrative faltered.  I longed for him to hop back on his back and ride to the next bizarre meeting.

And bizarre they are.  He has a rather large soft spot for modern art – experimental, performance, etc.  He visits the Survival Research Laboratories, crazy people who have somehow managed to turn blowing shit up into art (jealous, Michael Bay?).  He attends a Filipino karaoke bar and coolly turns down the opportunity to sing his own “Psycho Killer.”  Not so surprisingly, most of his trips involve meet-ups with friends and acquaintances, painting a vibrant “It’s A Small World” picture that’s heartwarming in an “I hope I can do that someday!” way and heartbreaking in an “I’ll never have that kind of money” way. 

He closes with a bit of a love letter to his hometown: New York City.  It’s not the best town for biking, but it’s improving, he claims.  Again, a clean, efficient mode of transportation comes to blows with a city dominated by corporate America’s desire to just put stuff everywhere.  This conflict reflects Byrne’s worldview, in a way.  In the face of uninspired sprawls and demolished historical landmarks, he has hope for our humanity.  Whether in music, art, or how we get from point A to point B, we simply need to find it, cultivate it, and exercise it.  Not bad for That Guy From The Talking Heads.