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JACKI LYDEN, host:

In his new book, "Bicycle Diaries," David Byrne writes that bicycle riding is faster than a walk, slower than a train, and slightly higher than a person. It's a perspective from which he's viewed the places he visits around the world, from Manila and Berlin to his hometown of Baltimore and now, New York.

"Bicycle Diaries" is part rumination and part blog. And he biked up to our New York studio from downtown New York for a conversation. I spoke with David Byrne last week in New York. He says bicycling allows you to catch a glimpse of the mind of your fellow man as expressed in the cities we live in.

Mr. DAVID BYRNE (Author, "Bicycle Diaries"): You can sense what's important to people by how they build their towns, decisions they've made. You ride through downtown Houston, Texas, and there's two people on the street during the day and you realize, well, they're not interested in street interchange. Their values -lies elsewhere. The social interchange might take place in private homes or somewhere else, but it doesn't - there's no random interchange or exchange or encounters on the street in a place like that. So you realize, this is what they value. You don't know exactly what they value, but you know what they don't value.

LYDEN: You tour - when you perform - with a folding bike. I guess you've done that for decades. And I thought, this must be a wonderful way to be solitary and be an observer before you go out and play gigs in front of thousands of people in which you are observed.

Mr. BYRNE: That's probably true. It's probably nice for me to be somewhat solitary. Although on the last tour, we had seven bikes with us. So, if some of the band or dancers or anybody wanted to go, we would all sometimes go on trips together. One of the first trips we took was in Newport News.

LYDEN: Virginia.

Mr. BYRNE: Yeah, Virginia. And we were staying and playing in one part of town; we said, but look, it looks like there might be a beach over there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BYRNE: Let's - on the map, it looks like it could be a beach. Let's go see if we can find it.

LYDEN: What's that big body of water over there?

Mr. BYRNE: Yeah. And we rode. It was little further than we thought. And we did find a beach. It was a very small beach, kind of in the shadow of a bridge. And they were shooting a commercial nearby. We kind of dipped our toes in the water and said OK, time to get back.

LYDEN: What made you a bicycle rider? When did you decide that you were going to get around that way primarily?

Mr. BYRNE: I started riding around the Lower East Side in SoHo, in that area, in New York - hell, at least 25 years ago when I lived there in that part of town. And I didn't venture too much beyond that. I had a little bike that I had from high school at my parents' house. So I said, oh, I'll bring that. I'll get that, and I can ride to the clubs if I want to hear some music, or a bar, or an art gallery opening in SoHo - art galleries were in SoHo at that point.

It was just total convenience. There was not the crowds and traffic in some of those areas that there are now. So it was really easy. I got a little bit of criticism because it was considered very geeky. That was about it.

LYDEN: I'm really glad you came here with your helmet, looking only a bit steamy, because I thought, you really are fearless. You just rode here through New York traffic - to become just so bold riding across Istanbul, Manila.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BYRNE: Well, Istanbul has a lot of hills, so you have to avoid the hills, but the traffic is so bad that you can get around much faster on a bike. And I would say probably the same thing is true in a lot of Manila.

LYDEN: Well, take us with you. You start this book, "Bicycle Diaries," in American cities, and you're originally from Baltimore. You're interested in the suburbs. And I was interested in this ride from Rochester to Niagara Falls, because it was not an attractive ride.

Mr. BYRNE: It was a mistake, actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BYRNE: I mean, Mauro, the percussionist, he's from Brazil. He'd never seen Niagara Falls in his life. I'd seen it as a child. And we looked at the map and said, hey, looks like it might just be 12 miles away. We could do that. We made it to Niagara Falls, but there's no route that's easy for - you're riding on the kind of shoulder of a kind of small highway and then sometimes a larger highway, and this and that.

LYDEN: Anything but the honeymoon experience.

Mr. BYRNE: Yeah. Although, we passed at one point, as you get close to the falls, you get - there's all these honeymoon - or what used to be honeymoon motels. They're all evocative of something. One was called a Bit-O-Paris and it had an Eiffel tower logo. They are all now kind of rundown and not the kind of place you'd want to - would want to think of ideally spending your honeymoon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BYRNE: Then the falls - it's just spectacular, kind of natural thing. But it was a little bit longer than 12 miles.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: One of the things that I really enjoyed in terms of this is, I felt like I was on the back of your bicycle, because you do - you're meditating, you're thinking about places that are just odd that you have time to visit, like the Stasi Museum in Berlin, of all things.

Mr. BYRNE: The Stasi is the secret police in the former East Germany. The Stasi was famous for getting people to kind of turn in their neighbors. You can imagine how creepy and paranoid it must have felt. So, they have all these shows, these exhibits of their spy equipment, like the camera in a birdhouse or a camera in a fake rock.

The Stasi is famous for some other stuff, which is pretty nutty. They had smell jars. If they suspected someone, and they suspected that maybe this person might disappear or run away or defect or whatever, they had, you know, the dogs that could track them down by smell. So, they needed a sample of this person's smell. If they could, they would break into their apartments and try and steal some used underwear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BYRNE: And they would keep that in a jar labeled with the person's name. But if they couldn't break in, they would tail the person and if the person sat on a stool in a diner, in an office somewhere and then left, they would go up to the chair and wipe the chair with a cloth, and then put that in the jar and hope that some of person's smell was on that. And so this is, you know, these rooms full of jars all labeled with people's names.

LYDEN: So, David Byrne, as you're touring around the world on your bicycle, what makes a great bike ride? Do you have a lot of human connection or is it impression?

Mr. BYRNE: Some rides are just getting from A to B. Not too much happens.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BYRNE: And to be honest, yeah, the book is not really about bikes or biking. I guess, pedaling around, your conscious mind starts to - is occupied by, to some extent, by the act of having to pay attention and pedal. And so, your mind - your sort of unconscious mind can kind of wander or surface and - sort of ideas and thoughts come to you. And I think that's what it's about. It's about - you start - you're seeing things and then they start to fit together or not. Part of that, I think, is because you're engaged in this other activity that allows those connections to be made that might not seem logical or sensible at first. And then, and you go, oh yeah, look, there is a connection.

LYDEN: And any tips for bicyclists you want to leave us with?

Mr. BYRNE: Well, the pedestrians are rubbing up against the bicycles and the bicycles against the cars, and everybody's kind of figuring out, how do we do this? Everybody has to kind of take the first step and stop at a red light and ride the right way. That's going to take a little time.

LYDEN: Well, David Byrne, musician, artist, founder of the group Talking Heads, and now author of "Bicycle Diaries." It's been fun riding along with you.

Mr. BYRNE: Thank you. Thanks. Thanks for having me up here.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: You can read an excerpt of "Bicycle Diaries" on our Web site npr.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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