Book Review: Bicycle Diaries

Bicycle Diaries
by David Byrne 
Viking, $25.95

In the early ’80s, David Byrne rediscovered the bicycle. It quickly became the Talking Heads frontman’s primary means of transportation around New York City. Soon after, he began taking a fold-up bicycle with him on tour for downtime explorations. A practice born of convenience, cycling through unknown terrain fostered a profound connection between the artist and his bicycle. From this fixed point—the panoramic window of a bicycle seat—Byrne has connected with the modern world, particularly its cities. His musings are collected in the newly published Bicycle Diaries.

While enjoying the manicured bike lanes of Berlin, Byrne ruminates on the different ways Americans and Europeans negotiate their surroundings: “Europeans’ attitude toward their landscape is to cultivate the continent as if it were a vast garden, while Americans prefer to subdue the landscape by force.”
Across the continent, he discerns the connection between capitalist democracy and socialism in the changing architecture of Istanbul. “These buildings represent the triumph of both the cult of capitalism and the cult of Marxist materialism,” he writes. “Opposing systems have paradoxically achieved more or less the same aesthetic result.”

Back on the homefront, while attempting to cross a freeway in Detroit, Byrne laments the destruction of the urban neighborhood through the “slicing up” of the city with “elevated expressways and concrete canyons.”

Fortunately, Bicycle Diaries is not all lamentation and critique. Byrne also celebrates the souls of the people and the cities he experiences, whether it’s the peasant tradition in Buenos Aires’ music scene or little-known murals in a Millvale, PA chapel. —Grace Antonini