Byrne After Reading

July 13, 2010

The 2003 British film Young Adam is not terribly well-known. It’s a fairly bleak and grim little film set in Glasgow in the 1950s and starring the talents of Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton and Peter Mullan. It was a screen adaptation of the novel by Alexander Trocchi, a Scottish novelist and trailblazing heroin fiend, and it made little money worldwide, perhaps due to its  sexual content being thoroughly subsumed in pure Scottish miserablism and hopelessness. At any rate, I would have to watch it again in order to offer lengthy commentary here, having not seen it since it was in British theatres. Instead, I intend to raise awareness of the sublime and wonderful song that played over the final shot and end credits of the film, The Great Western Road by David Byrne.

David Byrne

The song takes its name from The Great Western Road, a road which runs from the centre of Glasgow all the way to Inverness in the Scottish Highlands. The initial urban section of the road runs through Glasgow’s West End where, at one time, I shared a flat with two close friends. Byrne’s song alludes to Glasgow directly but also contains imagery suggesting that travel along The Great Western Road is an expansive journey encompassing the human condition, mortality and the creative process itself. The title evokes echoes of The Western Lands explored by William S. Burroughs in his novel of the same name (the last of The Red Night Trilogy). The Western Lands were a name given to the Egyptian Land of the Dead, believed to lie on the west bank of the Nile and Byrne strikes me as an artist likely to be very familiar with Burroughs. An early line in the song also talks of “the old human highway from Eden to Nod” featured in the Book of Genesis. Nod was the vague, undetermined land of Cain’s exile said to be located “East of Eden”. It could be The Great Western Road is seen as a return to paradise, a road travelled from Nod back to Eden. Of course, that could also be a fanciful stretch of reading on my part.

The brilliance of the song largely rests on the strength of the vocal performance. Byrne sings in a declamatory, melodramatic voice that seems to just barely avoid sounding ridiculous, like a skilled high-wire walker feigning a wobble in order to thrill onlookers. I lack the technical knowledge to aptly describe music so the best I can do toward discussing this tune is to talk of the sweeping melancholy of the strings and the haunting, brooding gravity of the piano combining to form an epic effect from seemingly little. There is a grand narrative emanating from this song which is simultaneously grounded in the real world locale of a town I know and love. I have been thoroughly moved by The Great Western Road since the first time I heard it and have found myself especially transfixed by it of late. I invite you to share in my enjoyment below –

The Great Western Road

A man sticks his fingers inside of his mouth
The words are stuck in there
He fishes them out
Whispers and mumbles, statements and verse, curses and love songs
For nobody else

Man takes a pencil and puts down his thoughts
The old human highway from Eden to Nod
Brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, strangers and cripples
In love with their lives

How they dance
In a trance
Where the river bends
Here we go
Don’t you know
That it never ends
Some who ride
Some who slide
Everyone you know
Travels on
That great western road

How they laugh
Raise a glass
Take a bottle down
Any face any place
In this northern town
Dragging on Sauchiehall*
Past Kelvingrove*
Travel on
That great western road

Man goes to show world
And dreams of the stars
He leans to the left
He leans to the north
He learns to be humble
He learns from the trees
And all of God’s creatures
To him they would speak
Saying wake up my little lambs
Wake up it’s time to begin
Wake up it’s all that you are
Wake up and it’s not very far

Baker man, soldier man, beggar man and thief
Some are young
Some are old
And some on their knees
Broken legs, broken nose
Swaying to and fro
As they walk
The great western road

Every snake
Every bird
Every creeping thing
Like a knife
In the night
I see her again
Blessed heart
Blessed word
Blessed skin and bones
All along
That great western road

(*Areas of Glasgow)

Here is the only decent video featuring the song that I could find on Youtube. I will hopefully embed the MP3 alone in future once I have gone through the necessary *ahem* legitimate process that is demanded by this blog’s security features. The video isn’t much to watch (images not related to the film, song or artist) –



  1. Man takes a pencil and puts down his thoughts
    The old human highway from Eden to Nod

    An alternative reading of these lyrics would suggest that the journey takes us away from Eden. The fact that Man was banished for eating from the tree of knowledge (according to the myth) seems to connect with Byrne’s description of ‘putting down his thoughts’ – self awareness, perhaps.

    I guess what makes poetry good is that it is open to multiple interpretations. I liked the article and the song. Thanks David.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it.

    What a tune.

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