Bike riding in Los Angeles with David Byrne


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There aren’t a lot of role models for how to grow up gracefully in rock. Bob Dylan, Patti Smith -- they’ve aged like blues musicians, deepening their connection to the music the further they move from youthful notoriety. Steve Jones -- of all people -- reinvented himself as a DJ and was, until Indie 103 shut down in January, the last real avatar of punk spirit in its purest form.

And then, there’s David Byrne, another new wave icon, who continues to reinvent himself in fascinating ways. His latest project is a book, ‘Bicycle Diaries’ (Viking, 304 pages, $25.95), which records his thoughts, ideas and reflections on the art and politics of bike riding in cities around the world. Byrne has been a dedicated cyclist since the 1980s, riding in New York (where he lives) and bringing along a folding bike when he goes on tour. ‘This point of view,’ he writes, ‘-- faster than a walk, slower than a train, often slightly higher than a person -- became my panoramic window on much of the world over the last thirty years.’


Friday night, Byrne cycled into Los Angeles for a symposium called ‘Cities, Bicycles and the Future of Getting Around’ at the Aratani/Japan America Theatre in Little Tokyo. Sponsored by the Central Library’s Aloud series, the event also featured Bicycle Kitchen founder Jimmy Lizama; Michelle Mowery, senior bicycle coordinator of L.A.’s Department of Transportation; and Donald Shoup, professor of urban planning at UCLA. Everyone spoke for 10 or 15 minutes, and then the conversation was turned over to the audience for questions from the floor.

Byrne seemed nervous to be speaking without the structure of a band or a set of songs. Even so, he was engaged, funny, showing slides of termite cities and futuristic projections of what urban environments might come to look like in a reimagined world. He admitted that he wanted to hate the Grove, but that it ‘kind of works’ as an urban environment, as an approximation of public space. He’s right about that, although it’s public space (actually, more of a public-private hybrid) in a way we don’t commonly consider it: a blurring of the authentic and the artificial, of the city and the mall.

What all the speakers kept coming back to was a certain notion of engaged citizenship, that on bikes, or on foot, we had to interact with the city directly, rather than from the air-conditioned distance of our cars. It’s a compelling notion, and it was borne out by the dynamic of the evening itself. Here, after all, at an event that offered free valet bicycle parking, was the intersection of three disparate communities -- books, music and bicycles -- in a city commonly regarded not to have any real sense of community at all. If it could happen here, it could happen anywhere.

Or as Byrne put it as he closed his remarks: ‘Bikes ... well, yeah.’

-- David L. Ulin

File photo: David Byrne. Credit: Jim Dyson / Getty Images