♫ "You may find yourself living in a shot gun shack" ♫
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Despite their dissolution in 1991, I've continued to be an avid Talking Heads fan and have always appreciated the fact that David Byrne was so successful with such a unique and individualistic approach to music, something that the 1980s isn't really known for. It isn't too often that a shy geek makes it big in the music world. I haven't followed Mr. Byrne's music much in the last couple decades, but was intrigued when I saw that he'd written a book about urban bicycling. Bicycle Diaries is a series of essays compiled over the past few years that are chained together by Byrne's passion for cycling wherever he goes. He's not a fitness nut and he doesn't tear through town in his spandex at a breakneck speed; he simply finds cycling exhilarating and thrills in the unique perspective he gets when he's on the bike. In each of nine essays, Byrne describes his biking adventures in a different urban setting. In addition to a description of his rides, he includes plenty of random thoughts and commentary, with topics ranging from politics to modern art and music.
♫ "This ain't no party, this ain't no disco" ♫
As a devoted urban cyclist, I consider myself reasonably fearless when it comes to biking in traffic, but I'm still quite impressed when I see the true masters - in the cities much bigger than mine - as they weave, dodge and zip through traffic with no apparent concern or panic. An urban cycling pioneer in his hometown, Byrne has been biking in New York City for decades, using the bike as his primary form of transportation. But he takes it to a new level as he travels the world for various musical and artistic engagements, tackling cities that I'd be afraid to visit, much less bike in. Wherever he goes, he takes a fold up bike, checks it in with his luggage, arrives at his destination, puts the bike back together and he's on the road, exploring not just bike friendly locales like Berlin, London and San Francisco, but also more challenging cities like Manila, Istanbul and Buenos Aires. Not a man to leave any cycling continent out, he also describes his tours of several Australian cities.
♫ "And she could hear the highway breathing" ♫
I love the idea of this book and Byrne is clearly a passionate advocate for the cycling world, recognizing that the concept of a sports car and an SUV in every garage is not sustainable, certainly not on a small planet with almost seven billion people clinging to it.
I appreciate the leadership he has assumed in this area, leading by example. The best part of the book is his description of rides in NYC - a place near and dear to him.
"On a bike, being just slightly above pedestrian and car eye level, one gets a perfect view of the goings-on in one's own town. Unlike many other U.S. cities, here in New York almost everyone has to step onto the sidewalk and encounter other people at least once a day - everyone makes at least one brief public appearance. I once had to swerve to avoid Paris Hilton, holding her little doggie, crossing the street against the light and looking around as if to say, ‘I'm Paris Hilton, don't you recognize me?' From a cyclist's point of view you pretty much see it all."
♫ "Turn like a wheel inside a wheel" ♫
Unfortunately, despite my enthusiasm for the topic and the author, the 300 page book is disappointing. Much of Byrne's writing is rather dull and dry, not as funny or quirky as I'd hoped. His endless visits with various world artists grow tiresome rather quickly, given that I don't know anything about the people he refers to. He tries to provide additional information with a few dozen odd black and white photographs, but these also are rather boring. When he writes about his excursions in San Francisco and London I am able to follow him a bit because I've been to those cities, but when he writes about other places I become lost almost instantly. I'm sure some maps of his adventures would help me appreciate the book more, also making it easier for others to ride the routes he so enjoys. Maybe it's asking too much, but Byrne needs to be more of an adventure writer and less of an experimental artist to really pull this concept off.
♫ "I'm wearin' fur pajamas" ♫
While I sincerely wanted to like Bicycle Diaries more, I can't recommend it with any enthusiasm. Having read the book, I do feel that I've gotten to know David Byrne better and given his unflagging advocacy I respect him more than ever, but unfortunately the book left me feeling flat. I'll give the book a third star for two-wheeled bravery, but I fear that any fans of biking, Byrne or both will also share my disappointment.
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