Book Byrning: Books by and about David Byrne

November 26th, 2010 | Category: Reviews, Videos

Though I am unlikely to be alone in this, I have a confession to make. There is a group of artists whom I tend to romanticize because I missed a certain time their careers. I will always wonder what it must’ve been like to see Peter Gabriel, Laurie Anderson, David Gilmour, David Bowie, David Byrne, or Brian Eno in the early-to-mid-80s. I’m old enough to remember buying Talking Heads records in junior-high and high school and to have seen their odd videos, but not old enough to have grasped the historical and cultural context from which those records sprang. Regardless, Byrne has remained an ever-present, ever-relevant influence since.

Song and Circumstance: The Work of David Byrne (Continuum, 2010) by Sytze Steenstra goes a long way to resolving my historical ignorance. His academic approach to the subject of David Byrne and his work reveals heretofore unconnected links in the man’s music, thinking, and artistic path.

For instance, Byrne had been reading a lot of systems theory and cybernetics literature before meeting and collaborating with Brian Eno. Eno’s production style was informed by much of the same work: command and control systems, feedback loops, etc. This coincidence explains at least part of why the two work together so seemlessly on Talking Heads’ and their own records and have gotten on so well ever since.

I wouldn’t be surprised if poetry — poetry in the broadest sense, in the sense of a world filled with metaphor, rhyme, and recurring patterns, shapes, and designs — is how the world works. The world isn’t logical, it’s a song.
— David Byrne

To wit, below is a spread from Jennifer New’s Drawing From Life: The Journal as Art (Princeton Architectural Press, 2005) showing two pages of David Byrne’s many journals: The left is a flowchart of a song and the right is his sketch of the legendary Big Suit from Stop Making Sense (1985).

Byrne truly attempted to apply cybernetic and systems thinking to his art and music, constructing such flowcharts, diagrams, and algorithms for everything from goal setting to formulating innovation and success. Steenstra’s book covers the science of Byrne’s art, as well as the usual musical biography fodder (e.g., humble art-school beginnings, the onset of success, the infighting, the band’s break up, etc.), but it’s the former that sets this book apart.

If you know me, you know that one of the only things I love as much as music is bicycles. Well, David Byrne’s own Bicycle Diaries (Viking, 2010) explores and explains why they’re so seductive in ways I never could.

This book was written almost by accident. That is, Byrne’s fascination with bicycles and writing about seeing the world from behind handlebars was unintentional. He first started riding them in New York in the early 80s, finding it easier to get around by bike than by cab or subway. Then came the feeling of freedom that riding bicycles affords. Later in his career, Byrne discovered über-portable folding bikes and started taking them with him on tour. He writes,

That same sense of liberation I experienced in New York recurred as I pedaled around many of the world’s  principle cities. I felt more connected to the life on the streets than I would have inside a car or in some form of public transport: I could stop whenever I wanted to; it was often (very often) faster than a car or taxi fro getting from point A to point B; and I didn’t have to follow any set route. The same exhilaration, as the air and street life whizzed by, happened again in each town. It was, for me, addictive (p. 2).

Though his bicycle is the enabling mechanism for this book and the urban environment is the backdrop, Byrne’s observations and insights are only half about bicycles or cities. In these entries, he discusses everything from economics and diversity to the semiotics of cell phone ring tones. It’s a ride as inspiring as it is fascinating.


One of the many bike-related things Byrne writes about in Bicycle Diaries is his bike rack designs. Below is a Wall Street Journal video showing the making of them [runtime: 3:00], as well as David Byrne and one of his bikes.

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