Big Wheel Keeps on Turning

Illustration by Riccardo Vecchio

If David Byrne were a young man today, there is no telling what weirdness he might get into. When he and his band Talking Heads were loosed upon the world in 1974, even the mythic CBGB’s punk scene had its limits. Sure, you could scream and turn the guitars up as loud as they’d go, but if you had any art-school predispositions, as Byrne did, you buried them in the feedback. Which couldn’t be further from New York’s music scene today. “There’s no fear now about doing what, in my day, would have been considered incredibly pretentious arty stuff,” says Byrne, easing back into a metal office chair in the Soho loft that serves as his office and art studio. “The Dirty Projectors did a record a few years ago that was called The Getty Address, which had something to do with Lincoln and Don Henley, and some metaphor—this incredibly complex, convoluted construct. People from my era would have said, ‘Get the fuck out of here! Go back to art school with that shit.’ ”

The Dirty Projectors are a Brooklyn band that’s more likely to turn their guitars off as up, and make no mistake, Byrne adores them. They’re among the many youngsters that he assiduously follows and lavishes with praise. On his website, he regularly updates a list of what he’s listening to, and only a faithful reader of Pitchfork would have any idea who most of these bands are. Byrne, 57, is one of the world’s oldest teenagers. Unburdened by the massive worldwide fame that he once had, he has turned his middle age into a second adolescence, better than the first because this one’s blessedly free from worry about who you’re going to be when you grow up.

Since Talking Heads splintered in the late eighties, Byrne has amassed an impressive body of work, while still managing to frustrate older fans. There are, after all, many of us who refuse to give up on the idea of him as the frantic, oddball megastar, unfair as that might be to him. And that’s partially because it’s so hard to get a fix on Byrne. He’s made a movie, he’s made art, he’s done soundtracks for film and TV, he’s become one of the finest gringo practitioners of Latin music. Recently, he’s been finishing up what he refers to as a “dance-music song cycle” about Imelda Marcos (a collaboration with Norman Cook, a.k.a. the rave-era D.J. called Fatboy Slim), and he has a published a book called Bicycle Diaries, a travelogue of the world seen atop two wheels.

Bicycling is like a religion to Byrne, a symbol of his wide-eyed eternal youth, and also a kind of therapy. Back in his Talking Heads days, he had an old three-speed that he rode through the potholed streets of downtown Manhattan, to the Mudd Club and gallery openings in Soho. Back then, biking was so unpopular that you didn’t have to worry about getting your bike stolen—nobody wanted it. To this day, he bikes pretty much everywhere, and since the early nineties, he has taken a folding bike on almost every out-of-town trip. On his latest world tour, which he just concluded in early August, he took along seven bikes, so that his band and crew could ride as well. “It wasn’t mandatory,” Byrne says, “but I really encouraged it. I’ve discovered, if you’re on tour for a year and you spend all that time just in a hotel room or backstage, you’ll be crazy by the end. You’ll be crazy. You’ll be angry. You’ll be drunk or pissed off or whatever, but it’s not a good way to spend a year. Get out. Exercise.”

When I met him at his place in Soho, he’d only been back a few days. I remarked that he looked strangely well-rested for a man in his fifties who’d spent most of the last year on a tour bus, and he exclaimed, “It’s the bike!”

Byrne has lent his name and talents to the pro-bicycling movement, speaking at forums and designing a series of whimsical bike racks (one was shaped like a high-heeled shoe, another like a dog) that are installed around town. He can’t help but sound evangelical on the subject of biking. “I believe that the exhilaration, freedom, and convenience I experience as I ride around will be discovered by more and more people,” he writes in Bicycle Diaries. “The secret will be out, and the streets of New York will be even more the place for social interaction and interplay than they are already famous for. As others have mentioned, the economic collapse of 2008 might be a godsend. A window has opened, and people might be willing to rethink the balance of quality of life.”

If the conventional idea of the artist is as a kind of highly specialized genius, Byrne prefers to be an omnivore. On his blog, he writes long, detailed entries—a review of the Kindle (mostly positive, but he doesn’t care for the proprietary software), a rumination on the brown water that came from the faucet in a haute-design Rome hotel (is it true, he wonders, that the Roman Empire was felled by lead poisoning from the famous aqueduct?). His writing is earnest, well-intentioned, and placid. Byrne never embarrasses himself with what he says or does, but you kind of wish he would risk it.

His private life seems equally tranquil. Divorced from the costume designer Adelle Lutz, he lives in a Hell’s Kitchen loft and is involved with the artist Cindy Sherman. His only child with Lutz, a daughter named Malu, just left for art school in California, and lately he’s been thinking about moving to Brooklyn. “Prices have come down to the point where I could afford something nice,” he says, “maybe with a little backyard.”

I ask him if there’s anything he misses about being a superstar. “The only part I miss about when I was making more money and playing to bigger audiences and selling more records was that you could do almost anything,” he says. “I could say, ‘I think I’d like to do a show where we start with an empty stage’, and go from there. Which makes no sense. But instead of someone saying, ‘Dream on, Dave,’ people would actually take you seriously and go, ‘Okay, let’s find out how to do that.’ Now I have to tell myself no. I know what’s realistic, in that sense, I know, okay, this is what’s possible with the resources that you have available. Don’t get crazy.”

Big Wheel Keeps on Turning