Conversation: David Byrne Rides and Writes

BY Arts Desk  December 11, 2009 at 2:53 PM EDT

'The Bicycle Diaries'“I’ve been riding a bike, in New York mainly, for almost 30 years, just as a way of getting around, starting off just getting around downtown to clubs, art galleries, dinner with friends,” says musician, artist and culture connisseur David Byrne.

Then he began bringing his bike with him when he went on tour around the globe, and biking became more than just a way of getting around. It became a vehicle (literally) for learning about the world. “After a while, you start to notice patterns in the way that cities work, or the way they don’t work…the way [a city] just kind of evolves by accident or by design — all those kinds of things you start to notice because they are visceral,” Byrne says.
 
 
 
Those journeys — and the “life of the mind” therein — have been chronicled on his online journal for years and more recently in a new book called ‘The Bicycle Diaries’.

We caught up with him this week while he was in Washington, D.C., to participate in a panel discussion sponsored by the Brookings Institution called Cities, Bicycles, and the Future of Getting Around.

[Full transcript after the jump]

JEFFREY BROWN: So this started out as, first, it’s a way of getting around right and then it became a sort of way of seeing the world?

DAVID BYRNE: Exactly. Yeah. I’ve been riding a bike, in New York mainly, for almost 30 years just as a way of getting around, starting off just getting around downtown to clubs, art galleries, dinner with friends, whatever. And then, I started taking it along on music tours usually, and I would explore different cities that we passed through. I’d usually have a few hours in the afternoon and sometimes there would be a day off and I’ve discovered that was just great. It was a great way to see places. A great way to keep my sanity.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what did you discover that you were seeing, that you hadn’t seen before, perhaps?

DAVID BYRNE: After awhile — not, obviously, not at first — but after awhile, you start to notice patterns in the way that cities work, or the way they don’t work; things that feel comfortable about a city or don’t, or the way a city is changing, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. You can kind of get this sense of the way a city is organized, either from the top down or from the bottom up, or from the way it just kind of evolves by accident, or by design — all those kind of things you start to notice because they are visceral. They — you can tell whether it feels alive, or if it feels like all the life has been sucked out of it.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean it’s interesting because you sort of, you refer — you sort of cop to the idea that you are passing through, I mean, you are visitor at these places right? So you are seeing it as a visitor but in a kind of slow motion way, I guess, on a bicycle.

DAVID BYRNE: Yes, so I can’t really tell you every aspect of how it is to live there. I’m giving you the kind of surface impression. But in my defense I have to say that sometimes a visitor has insights — you can kind of get to the broad strokes, the wider view of things that the person who’s been in a place for a long time, kind of, they are too used to all that and they are settled in and they don’t notice that their city is a certain — the way it is.

JEFFREY BROWN: And each one is a chapter about a different place, but it’s not just about the place. I mean, I notice as I’m reading some chapters will emphasize — like we were just talking about Buenos Aires — you emphasize music. In another city you emphasize something else. Is that — how does that work is that stream of consciousness or how does that develop?

DAVID BYRNE: Sometimes it’s just whatever happened to me. Whatever I was interested in — the things that happened to me when I was in that city, but I also — it was a little bit by design as well. I thought: we can’t make every chapter the same. Obviously I’m, I decided to make every chapter a different city and picked ones where enough had happened, I’d visited enough times, that there was enough to talk about. So I thought, mmmmm — they start to, you know — I start to find out — A lot of times when I visit Buenos Aires I’m kind of connecting with some of the musicians I know there, or I’ve gone out or I go out to clubs hear music and I thought, ‘Ok, there is a kind theme for that chapter.’ It’s not saying that’s what that city is about, but in a way maybe that’s what it’s about for me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Early on, you cite the novelist W. G. Sebald, who is a favorite of mine, so I was interested. That sort of walking through a landscape and using it to go in all kinds of different places.

DAVID BYRNE: Yeah, I don’t pretend to be as good a writer as him, but he did use in some ways a similar technique, which was very inspiring. He used kind of a walk through the English landscape, but not just a one day’s walk, but a many, many days walk to kind of ruminate on a lot of other things: history in that landscape and history beyond that landscape. And I thought, ‘That’s really great.’ Partly he can do it because he’s such a great writer, but he can pull together all this disparate stuff and just tie it together by a walk.

JEFFREY BROWN: So is what’s coming through in this book what’s going on for you as you’re riding? Or did you translate that somehow into something you wanted to write?

DAVID BYRNE: Certainly a lot of it begins right after I’ve had a ride in a city. Sometimes that night or the next morning, I’ll jot down some impressions or something that someone said, you know, I’ll just take some notes on the computer. So that really feeds into it, but then you know you start to — somebody said something at dinner that you start to think about and — but what did that mean, what was the implication of that? And what kind of assumptions did they make in saying that? Then it starts to open a whole world of things that you kind of expand on there.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the voice in this book, or the voice that in your blog — is that a different voice from the one that those of us heard you — when we heard you as a musician — I mean is it consciously a different voice that you are putting forth?

DAVID BYRNE: I’m not going to get all poetic on — if I’m kind of just talking about stuff that happened to me today, I’m also — some of it is thinking out loud, just letting — but you do get to go back and edit it before you kind of post it up there. I’m aware that I don’t — that I can’t make it, or at least I feel that I shouldn’t make it too personal, not that I don’t want to —

JEFFREY BROWN: Not too personal?

DAVID BYRNE: Not too personal, because, well, in the sense that I’m not going to tell every detail about what I did that day. What food was on the plate, or what I did every hour of the day. I just thought, that’s just — that’s another kind of book that maybe kind of interesting in its tedium. But I thought, ‘No’ — the ideas and the kind of, whateve,r the life of the mind that happens as you move around. That’s maybe something that other people might be interested in, might find inspiring and it’s a good exercise for me to kind of put thoughts down. So I thought, ‘Ok, that’s the voice that will be there.’ Not the voice that says at 4:00 o’clock I have to do this and blah, blah, blah.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s also here, and it really comes in at the end of the book, this — I don’t know if it’s quite a manifesto, but a real sense of urban planning, and how you would like to see cities changed to be more bike friendly, travel friendly. What would you like to see happen? Or is there a model that you’ve found?

DAVID BYRNE: I haven’t found a model that worked, that’s going to work everywhere. I don’t think you can just import a model from, say, a small Italian town where people ride around on bicycles and just say they moved it and that’s got to work in DC or New York or wherever. That’s not the same kind of place, the weather is not the same. But I think it would be foolish not to learn from some aspects of what people have done elsewhere and see where those might be applied. To just try to think that you can, that you are going to invent it all and not pay any attention to what everybody, anybody else has done is kind of starting from — doing it the hard way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you travel all around the United States as well as the world. Do you see a realistic hope that our cities could be more bike friendly, more open to bicycles and that kind of travel?

DAVID BYRNE: I see evidence of some cities in the United States that can become a lot more bike friendly fairly easily. Others, I think can become more bike friendly, say, in their urban core or kind of various clumps or sometimes a little bit out of the center, but more dense. That seems to be happening. I’m kind of optimistic that there is a momentum that’s kind of rolling along by itself. There’s — I just came in here to Union Station here in D.C., and there’s a system in place where you can leave a bike in a covered shelter, and if you’re commuting from outside, you come in by train, pick up your bike and then go to someplace on the hill. Now I didn’t see — it wasn’t full…

JEFFREY BROWN: Were you riding your bike today?

DAVID BYRNE: No, I didn’t, I don’t have one here. They didn’t have, kind of, easy loaners and it was so close we just walked over, but I think if I was going to spend a whole day here, was going to go to museums or that kind of stuff, go to meetings, museums, whatever, yeah, I’d think I’d come in by train, pick up a bike and be the easiest way from getting place to place around — at least in the center of town.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know we’re sitting as you are about to go speak at this Brookings Institution conference. Are you surprised to find yourself doing such things?

DAVID BYRNE: I am. I’ve rarely kept my distance from kind of — I don’t know if we can call it politics, but kind of, civic engagement and that kind of thing, except I tended to think, ‘Well, do it yourself before you start telling other people what they should be doing.’ So, I think 30 years of riding around, I can convey, ok, this is what’s working for me, what isn’t working for me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Last thing: last paragraph of the book, you refer to yourself as a “reticent and often shy person.” And I thought, ‘Really?’ I mean I saw you on stage, many years ago, a number of times. All the ways you put yourself out there on stage, and now on the page, are you really a shy person?

DAVID BYRNE: I think, not as much as I used to be, but I used to be, yeah, incredibly socially shy. Being on stage it was — the audience was like this anonymous thing, except when you have a few friends in there. And it’s this kind of artificial situation so you can kind of – you’re not really yourself up there, you are a performer. So it has a different feeling than if you’re in this really difficult situation, as it was for me at the time, of just sitting down and talking to a person one-to-one.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the blogs and this style of writing is?

DAVID BYRNE: That’s may be a way around it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alright, the book is “Bicycles Diaries.” David Byrne, very nice to talk to you.

DAVID BYRNE: Thank you.