Saturday, August 8, 2009

Steampunk Cyclegeography - The Wayward Journey Of David Byrne

Recognising David Byrne was the easy bit. He was the guy in the checked shirt and matching shorts, looking as if he was on day release from Sesame Street. The outfit, he said, was an impulse buy. “Then it became one of those things where I wondered if I could ever wear it.” But he had. And, teamed with white sneakers, a white digital watch, and a professorial shock of white hair, it seemed to make sense. It was strange, but neat.
Finding a quiet place to talk in the Roundhouse wasn’t so simple. First Byrne led me to the bar, which was empty, apart from the man drilling holes in the counter. Then he suggested we sit outside at a table, except that the rain was falling through the umbrellas. Byrne examined the cloudburst, then ambled back into the belly of the building, where two men were fiddling with a keyboard in the middle of the floor. He led me to a dressing room door, which he tried to open with a swipe card three times before it yielded. The room was tiny, windowless, and smelled strongly of perfume. There were folding chairs, so we sat down, facing the wall. “Mmm,” Byrne said. “This is cosy.”
Byrne’s familiarity with the Roundhouse should not have been a surprise. He appeared there in 1976 with his band Talking Heads, on a bill with the Ramones and the Stranglers. It was Talking Heads’ first show in London. His abiding memory is of “gobbing.” The show took place at the height of punk, when spitting was in vogue. “I’m glad it’s gone out of fashion,” he says drily.
Byrne’s fortunes have fluctuated over the last 30 years, but his reputation now is higher than at any time since Talking Heads split. Earlier this week, the live show celebrating his on-off musical collaborations with Brian Eno made its second visit to London, this time at the Barbican, where the after-show meet-and-greet attracted Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who was delighted to meet Byrne’s girlfriend, photographer Cindy Sherman. (“I guess from his art school days, she was (is) an icon of sorts,” Byrne wrote in his online journal.) I asked Byrne whether his relationship with Sherman had affected his art. “Wow!” he replied. “I don’t know. Our tastes overlap quite a bit. Which is good! Not 100%, but that’s’ helpful.
“But our ways of working are miles apart. That just amazes me too. She doesn’t work for a long period; maybe collects bits and pieces of things, then thinks about it – and then has a burst of activity, really focused, and boom! It’s done.
“I’ll go from a music project to a book to an installation. Everything moves along at its own pace incrementally.”
And has she influenced him? “Yeah,” he says, laughing. “I don’t know how. It’s not like she says, ‘Let’s play dress-up.’”
Byrne is at the Roundhouse to install Playing The Building, which turns the fabric of the former locomotive turning shed into an (un)musical instrument. He has done it before, in Stockholm and New York, but the Roundhouse brings its own challenges.
The fabric of the building is wired to an old organ, and as the keys are played, the building groans in response. “You can’t change it radically. It changes a little bit, depending on what girders there are, or how much ping you get out of the pillars. But buildings from this era all have very similar elements – cast iron pillars, cast metal girder supports, some old plumbing.”
Since the Roundhouse’s expensive refit, gobbing is no longer encouraged, but perhaps the management should be wary. In a sense, this is punk art.
“I like that it kicks away some of the preciousness of art. I thought people might be more timid. Once one person starts, and they see that nobody’s better at it than anybody else, then they jump right in.”
Byrne’s other business in the capital is the launch of Bicycle Diaries, an intellectual travelogue recording the in-between moments of his travels, which he crams with visits to galleries and discussions with interesting people. The London chapter includes a cycle ride to Whitechapel to meet curator Iwona Blazwick, and he also finds time to admire the eccentricities of the hairy potter, Grayson Perry.
Byrne seems well-informed about BritArt, and is diplomatic about the talents of that other punk artist, Damien Hirst, calling him clever. “Maybe not great art, but it’s great something-or-other else.
“I once went to the Pharmacy restaurant, which was incredible. It was really perfect and clever and witty. I don’t know if it was art. It was the sort of thing that a great designer could do as well.”
This visit to the capital has been no less productive. He and Sherman cycled to the V&A to see the design exhibition Telling Tales (a qualified thumbs up), and yesterday (Thursday) they biked to Southwark to see Roger Hiorns’ Seizure, in which a council house has been coated in copper sulphate. “It’s like the JG Ballard story where everything turns to crystal. The whole ceiling, doors walls – everything’s covered with pretty sizable crystals – pretty amazing! Pretty amazing! And finding it was not easy at all.”
And this, really, is the essence of David Byrne. He could, we may assume, afford to take a taxi, but, armed with his free maps from the London Cycle Campaign, he chooses to bike it, even when his journey involves an encounter with the Elephant and Castle roundabout.
“Oh my God! Yes. I’ve heard that roundabouts are good for traffic, better than stoplights. Some guy [Tom Vanderbilt] has a book out called Traffic; there was a study, and there are fewer accidents on roundabouts than traffic lights because on roundabouts, it’s so precarious, you have to really be aware, and stop texting on your cellphone. Whereas with stoplights, people feel like the light does the job for them. So they’ll pull out when it turns green, and not think that someone else may have missed the light.”
Byrne eschews Lycra, and has been known to tie a raccoon tail to his helmet, but he is a serious cyclist. He has been an effective campaigner in New York: the city adopted his half-serious proposal for bespoke bicycle racks (dollar-bill shaped for Wall Street, bottle-shaped for The Bowery).
Much of his thinking about cycling has been influenced by the visionary approach of Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, in Colombia. Peñalosa brought his city centre back to life by maximising public transport and returning the streets to pedestrians and cyclists. He also stated that unless a cycle lane is safe for an eight year-old, it isn’t a cycle lane. So what does Byrne think about London?
“Cycling in London is kinda weird. There’s a group I contacted a year or so ago, the Warrington Cycle Campaign. They have pictures of poor urban planning where the bike lane goes straight into a wall, or steers you into traffic. I thought, maybe that’s the suburbs. But, I have to say, London has its share of that too - look how many of these bike lanes only last 10 metres. You’ll think, ‘Oh good, it’s going my way,’ and the next thing you know, it’s gone.”
It was Sherman who pointed out to him that, unlike New York, London comprises a collection of villages. “You really sense that when you’re cycling around. Cars and taxis will tend to take the big, busy streets. When you’re cycling you take little back roads, and you really get a sense of this being one village and then it’s a transition and you’re in another village – where people really identify with working or living in that place.”
This emphasis on community is one of the underlying themes in Byrne’s journal. He’s never happier than when cycling through a mixed community full of mom-and-pop stores, with no sign of corporate chains. (His Baltimore childhood memories predate the arrival of malls). But while the book gives a good account of his thinking, there are only a few fragments of significant autobiography.
One is that in the early 1970s, Byrne headed to California to follow the hippie dream. “That’s hard to imagine,” he agrees, “but it was The Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand version of hippiedom, that was more into computers and that sort of thing, as opposed to the ‘let’s get fucked up’ side. This was more about ‘let’s build a little utopia with some new technology that we can use.’ That was really attractive, but not as attractive as New York.”
I suggest to him that now, in his mid-fifties, on his bicycle, or rigging up his steampunk organ, he’s back on that road, pursuing a modest utopia.
“There’s definitely a link to that,” he says. “Maybe now I’ve found a part of all that that seems like it might actually happen, or where people are ready for some sort of change, whereas nobody was really ready to move out of their flats into bubble-shaped homes.”
He lead me back out into the heart of the Roundhouse, where the rain drums on the glass roof, and the kling-klang of the girders grows increasingly anguished. It doesn’t sound like music at all. It sounds like the end of industry.


  1. Cheers Al - I sent Andrew a copy of the book in a lovely orange hardback edition. If I am any judge of a cover, the book is a work of art ...

  2. Thanks Al - I sent Andrew a copy of the book in a lovely orange hardback edition. If I am any judge of a cover, the book is a work of art ...