Philosophical Musings on a Bicycle – A Review of Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

“Cities, it occurred, to me, are physical manifestations of our deepest beliefs and our often unconscious thoughts, not so much as individuals, but as the social animals we are…riding a bike through all this is like navigating the collective neural pathways of some vast global mind.”

So writes David Byrne in the introduction to his latest book, Bicycle Diaries. Not quite a guide to bikes or linked to any Ché styled escapes, it is an off-the-cuff observation on the bikability of places such as Manila, Berlin, and Buenos Aires. Or rather, it’s a series of philosophical musings on urban planning, globalization, art, and music linked by Byrne’s favored mode of transportation.

With his Talking Heads days long behind him, Byrne has taken his art-school-odd ways to the road. Often out of town on business, Byrne totes along a collapsible bike with him. While Byrne supports biking as a form of sustainable transportation, he avoids proselytizing. Most varieties of preachy activism run the course from grating to dull fairly quickly, while Byrne’s narrative is consistently quirky.

His rides are a vehicle to describe psychedelic cane toads in Brisbane (a lick of the skin will send dogs and humans alike), or making an Imelda Marcos themed CD of club music with Fatboy Slim (remember Fatboy Slim?). Marcos was part of a political dynasty in the Philippines analogous to the Kennedys, and though she reigned during a period of political conservatism and repression, somehow she was not out of place at the more exclusive discotheques. The premise of Byrne’s concept remix is setting the high of unlimited political power to heady beats and disco treats. “

Though the image of middle aged men doing slightly quirky things often calls for the pat explanation of “midlife crisis,” based on the length of Byrne’s bicycle fascination (since high school), a long standing tradition of associative thinking (see Arboretum for a collection of strange sketches, such as the relation of sharp tasting food to masochism), we would be wrong to ascribe the book’s creation to midlife crisis. And even if it is, he’s dating Cindy Sherman. Whatever.

Though looking at bike riding through the lens of midlife may not be entirely off mark. There’s a youthful aspect in escaping from place to place, and in traveling by bike. The difference between driving a car and riding a bike is a difference in perspective. In a car you’re boxed off from the outside, often on your way to work; not so on a bike. The weather, the sun, the outside, is right there. Extending the analogy, as Byrne loves to, cycling is not as objective and removed as adult functioning often requires us to be.

Bikes are a way of overcoming the disconnect that is present, for example, in the type of city planning that forces people to drive an hour to work. A disconnect that is heightened during constant travel, the where am I today?, upon waking. There are only so many variations on hotel soap to tell you where you are. Riding a bike isn’t a cure, it’s just a superficial way of looking at things. Storefronts, facades, are Byrne’s target for observation. Superficial here isn’t an insult, its key. Its all that Byrne has time for, and most likely, all that you have time for as well.

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