All creatives, especially songwriters, believe they have sussed the world out. Either that or they have resigned themselves to never understanding it. That binary shock, the on or off of being right or wrong about the world around them, makes for some startling reads and some interesting observations. David Byrne manages that with Bicycle Diaries, a collection of his thoughts as he tours the world from the seat of a bicycle. Byrne, like photographer Bill Cunnigham, takes to the streets and observes not just literal change, but the sweeping impact they make on an ever-developing culture that he has often infused with his work.
Byrne talks about the concrete arteries of American highways and the chilling impact the East and West divide of Germany has left on Berlin. Beautiful, but without focus. His commentary lingers as just that. Comments on the land around him with little feeding of a fire that clearly has some disposition to its structure, its meaning and reason. His thoughts on repatriation of land and the guilt beyond it is a fascinating read, with good observations and open questions for the reader to think on. Much of Bicycle Diaries is made for the pot-luck philosopher. The person wanting to pick up a book, read a few pages, and have something to think about. Byrne is remarkably steady in that angle of prose when in reality all that lies on the page are his uncomfortable feelings about the shift of architectural destruction.
Thankfully the Talking Heads frontman is keen to talk about more than buildings and food. His chapter on Istanbul and the cultural hurdles that he, Jarvis Cocker and Sneaker Pimps had to overcome to perform at a festival dominated by local corruption and mafia groups is intense and interesting. Not because of the event itself, but because of what Byrne draws from it. What he understands of the culture around it and the reasons the festival was important. He draws comparisons with that of CIA-funded jazz tours, and the likeness of the two events, while broadly different, feels at home as Byrne rattles off details that ebb well into his, and our, subconsciousness.
The observations may hit a little closer to those that have experienced True Stories, but none of them rattle off as more than light observations about the shifting sands of culture. Byrne is a good orator, that much is expressed throughout Bicycle Diaries and the readability of it. But for the grander points, Byrne grasps, the detailed structure of his work is surprisingly lacking. For all his references to Philip K. Dick and George Orwell, the off-hand remarks on The Lives of Others and Borat make for good cultural reference points for those out of the loop, but do little to support Byrne’s arguments. However right they may be, about the structure of cities as cysts to roadworks, they need to be backed up more if readers are to take this as a manifesto, rather than the diaries of a man with a bicycle.