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 V.18 No.44 | October 29 - November 4, 2009 

Book Review

Bikes 4 Life

David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries

Bicycle Diaries

David Byrne
Viking
$25.95

Friends and family express dismay that I've given up the auto. They wonder if I’m “OK.” How can anyone get by in America without a car? But it’s a mean machine. Headlights and bumper scowl while slurping dollars from bank accounts and petrol from pumps. Plus, Burque drivers pass a cycle-girl too close for comfort and leer via engine-revving as only local auto-pilots can.

It's not easy riding a bike in the 505. No matter the trip, it will probably be uphill at least one way, and drivers aren't as aware as they should be of their cycling compatriots. "Get a car!" engine jockeys bark. Little do they know a person on a bicycle is doing them a significant favor by removing one more gridlocker from the rush-hour stalemate.

David Byrne
David Byrne

Jerk-hazards aside, bicycling has brought me closer to my city. After a lifetime of living here, it wasn't until I began mounting a bike daily that I met Albuquerque. David Byrne is way ahead of me.

Byrne's best known for his work with the band Talking Heads, though his solo material, including the 1986 book and film True Stories, often expresses a sense of time and place in America that's peerless. Put that Byrne lens astride a cycle and send it on an intimate ride through the great cities of the world: That's this book.

Since the ’80s, Byrne's been using a bike to get around his New York City. But as an artist and musician in demand internationally, his travel needs extend the world over. So he lugs along folding bicycles. Bicycle Diaries is kind of a travel book, though not in the sense of pointing out great deals or tourist must-sees. Instead, Byrne can tell you what road conditions are like in Berlin, which American cities are navigable and how crazy you'll look riding a bike in Istanbul.

That's just a jumping-off point. With clean and simple prose, Byrne digs into each city's psyche, using its visual memes, architecture, layout, history and planning to profile place. From the "glory and betrayal" of Detroit's manic-depressive landscapes, to the all-red decor of an alcohol-free restaurant in Sweetwater, Texas, to the manicured, cultivated landscapes of the entire European continent, Byrne uses physical cues as metaphors for understanding group consciousness. Plus, there are pictures.

Put that Byrne lens astride a cycle and send it on an intimate ride through the great cities of the world: That's this book.

Byrne illustrates the cultural subconscious he's unveiling using snapshots reproduced in black and white: a U.S. flag made from plastic party cups shoved into a chain-link fence, an obvious spy camera in a birdhouse in the Stasi Museum in Berlin, car tires hung on a dead tree in Australia's interior.

Taken as a metaphor, the tire tree is perhaps too blunt for Byrne's ecological message, but he doesn't use the apocalyptic image that way. Still, the book isn't shy about its broader mission: casting a nefarious pallor on polluting vehicles, freeways that carve up cities and a destructive car-equals-status mindset. Cars, and the car culture that separates work and living, ruined communities nationally, he says.

In the epilogue, he talks about auto-focused cities as catering to the rich while ignoring those who chose other means of transit. Getting citizens out of vehicles and walking around increases safety, too, he points out, because crime avoids witnesses. His insights and possible solutions deserve consideration by anyone with eyes on the future in America.

Byrne's not a bike advocate with purely altruistic environmental motivations. He simply loves biking. It offers a sense of freedom and exhilaration. You don't have to be a spandex-wearing, super-fit twentysomething to ride one, either, he says. In his mid 50s, he braves the streets of New York for miles every day.

Fans of the brainiac and artist that is Byrne will cherish, too, the asides, the brief observations that have nothing to do with bicycles.

On markets: "How many kinds of things can be stacked in little pyramid piles? Pretty much anything you can name. Here is one kind of common denominator in the world of stuff."

On ringtones: "This is music not meant to be actually listened to as music, but to remind you of and refer to other, real, music. These are audio road signs that proclaim 'I am a Mozart person.' "

On the written word: "We accept written language as something so essential to how we live and get along in the world that we feel and recognize its presence as an exclusively positive thing, a sign of enlightenment. We've come to love the chains that bind us, that control us, for we believe that they are us."

Those are some gems, but the book doesn't live in such dense, philosophical territory, only strays there on occasion. Byrne's writing is practical, evaluative, sometimes funny and never a waste of time.

Bicycle Diaries confirmed for me what was already brewing under my brain bucket—that commuter-cycling can be for anyone and is a cheap solution to some of the health and environmental issues plaguing the States. Shiny side up, friends.

 

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