Dylan’s “Where are you tonight?” – the meaning of the music and the lyrics

by Tony Attwood

There’s a long-distance train rolling through the rain, tears on the letter I write.

There is a set of Dylan songs where each line is a song – you can take the line and it has an image so powerful that it doesn’t matter what the rest of the song is about.

Yes, you can read the history of “Where are you tonight?”, and think, ah yes, he is singing about Sara and her attempt to take the children away from Dylan – Hawaii was the place she chose at that moment. The court battles, the hatred, the horror of losing one’s children; everything that a woman who wants the kids and doesn’t want the man, can throw into the ring.

Much of the song could be said to be about this – but who knows with Dylan?  

“There’s a babe in the arms of woman enraged…” It all seems to fit, and yet, and yet…

Stand back for a moment and just look at the lines in splendid isolation, and there is even more life to be had here.

What adds to the feeling of line after line each being a song in its own right, is the length of the verse – no matter how many times you hear it, the fact is that the second four lines catch you out – it feels like we have had the bulk of the verse after four long lines, but then another four come tumbling in, all with the same melody and that same, incredibly simple I IV chord sequence. The pressure builds and builds, and only then do we finally hit the dominant chord and find a way out.

Then it’s back to that relentless I IV…

There’s a woman I long to touch and I miss her so much but she’s drifting like a satellite.

There’s a neon light ablaze in this green smoky haze, laughter down on
Elizabeth Street

So it goes on. You don’t need the songs, you only need the lines. Where Jokerman failed so totally in putting together a collection of images this song works – it works because the images are so much more powerful, and most of all it works because the music is so fitting.

And a lonesome bell tone in that valley of stone where she bathed in a stream of pure heat.

How else could you sing this but over a simple rocking chord change? How else could you make this long stream of images work other than in an endlessly repeating verse line.

It is in fact Hard Rain, years later and in the end it is the lines that tell us where we are, what sort of world we are in… 

The truth was obscure, too profound and too pure, to live it you have to explode.

Or if that doesn’t get you, try this

She could feel my despair as I climbed up her hair and discovered her invisible self.

And the last selection of I IV chords ends…

If you don’t believe there’s a price for this sweet paradise, remind me to show you the scars. 

Was Dylan reminded of this years further on when he said, “I’ve still got the scars that the sun doesn’t heal?” Quite possibly – its hard now not to listen to Not Dark Yet and remain immune to the effect of this song.

What makes one ultimately have to put the stylus back one track, or flip back the button on the CD is the end

There’s a new day at dawn and I’ve finally arrived.
If I’m there in the morning, baby, you’ll know I’ve survived.
I can’t believe it, I can’t believe I’m alive,
But without you it just doesn’t seem right.
Oh, where are you tonight?

Has the situation of lost love ever been summarised so perfectly? The man who sang of his love in Isis is back, and he’s just had some more amazing experiences. If only Dylan had sang of his life forever, and never got sidetracked.

But that would be too much to ask.

The Discussion Group

We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page or go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/254617038225146/

The Chronology Files

There are reviews of Dylan’s compositions from all parts of his life, up to the most recent writings, but of late I have been trying to put these into chronological order, and fill in the gaps as I work.

All the songs reviewed on this site are also listed on the home page in alphabetical order – just scroll down a bit once you get there

(c) Tony Attwood 2008

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5 Responses to Dylan’s “Where are you tonight?” – the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. Chaplain Marilyn says:

    I like the verse….”Let my past be the path under my feet” from the song, ‘Carry On’ .
    If we don’t break those chains, we’ll miss the beauty of the present, and a better future.

  2. Aw, this was a very nice post. Taking the time and
    actual effort to generate a very good article… but what can I say… I put things off a lot and never seem to get nearly anything done.

    maglie juventus

  3. Babette says:

    It is a song about drug abuse . Most musicians used it in the 60th and 70th to expand their consciousness and we got a whole lot of psykedelic music. The listeners too were abusers of psykodelic music. To listen to that kind of music in the early hours after a party, took you to a beautifull world without even having taking the drugs. The most famous song was:

    Led Zeppelin: Stairways to heaven:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IS6n2Hx9Ykk

    Here is the story about Stairways to heaven from wikepedia:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stairway_to_Heaven:_Led_Zeppelin_Uncensored

    A lot of musicians have died from drug abuse. Dont have to mention them all.

    Bob Dylans song is a kind of WARNING against drug abuse.

    He writes:
    “There’s a white diamond gloom on the dark side of this room
    And a pathway that leads up to the stars
    If you don’t believe there’s a price for this sweet paradise
    Remind me to show you the scars”

    It was very difficult for him to descibe those years of drug abuse – He writes:
    “And a longtime golden-haired stripper onstage
    And she winds back the clock and she turns back the page
    Of a book that no one can write”

    But he tries to write a letter/song about it.
    I imagine he is on his way home from a drug abuse treatment center. He is clean.
    But he has no home anymore. His wife has left him:

    “There’s a new day at dawn and I’ve finally arrived
    “If I’m there in the morning, baby, you’ll know I’ve survived
    I can’t believe it, I can’t believe I’m alive
    But without you it just doesn’t seem right
    Oh, where are you tonight?”

    He has lost everything because of drug abuse – but he survieved.

    DID YOU GET THE MESSAGE – MR JONES. Please share.

  4. Babette says:

    So mr. Tony Atwood it could not be more precise, when you write that the images are powerfull but you can´t follow the meaning of the story.
    Exactly: Everything disintegrate when you use psykedelic drugs.

  5. Babette says:

    But long before 1967 Procol Harum wrote: “A whiter shade of pale”
    “We skipped the light fandango
    turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor
    I was feeling kinda seasick
    but the crowd called out for more
    The room was humming harder
    as the ceiling flew away
    When we called out for another drink
    the waiter brought a tray

    And so it was that later
    as the miller told his tale
    that her face, at first just ghostly,
    turned a whiter shade of pale”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mb3iPP-tHdA&index=4&list=RD9piiahsxV8U

    and I am thinking of Bob Dylan painting his face white in those years. I dont know if there is a connection.

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