Where are you tonight 2: My senses have been stripped

Publisher’s note:

Due to a set of alien antelopes entering the computer network of Untold Dylan (otherwise known as Tony’s laptop) we (ie Tony) published section 3 of this series before section 2.  Here are the articles in the right order…

Below is Chapter 2:  My senses have been stripped

Profound apologies all round especially to Jochen.  His work deserves a publisher with a greater sense of chronology.

I               We’ll always have Paris

There’s a long-distance train
rolling through the rain
Tears on the letter I write
There’s a woman I long to touch
and I miss her so much
But she’s drifting like a satellite

Disappointingly many Dylanologists make a connection with the following album, with the seismic shock Slow Train Coming, and see in a mirroring of the long-distance train and the slow train a pre-announcement of conversion (Michael Gray, Robert Shelton, Jonathan D. Lauer) or diligently puzzle together “proof” that this song is autobiographical, and therefore must be about Dylan’s divorce from his wife Sara.

Lazy and superficial, one approach as well as the other. Trains are a constant in Dylan’s entire oeuvre and always have been. This is the twenty-eighth album song in which a train comes by, and including the trains and train references in the unreleased songs (“I’ll Keep It With Mine”, “Silent Weekend”, “Ballad For A Friend”), there are about forty songs. In short: the chance that Dylan will not sing about a train on a next record is negligible. “That’s just my hang up, you know, trains,” as Dylan says in the 1991 radio interview with Eliot Mintz.

Even more superficial is the burrowing in the man’s private life. This is 1978, Dylan has been saying je est un autre for over a decade now, but to no avail. Heylin thinks the song deals with “recent traumas”, Sounes hears “Bob” accepting the demise of his marriage, he hears regrets and “his wish to return to a time when he and Sara were happy”. Actually, only Christopher Rollason emphasizes that he does not wish to interpret biographically, “on the grounds that we may reasonably assume that the narrator is not Bob Dylan as such, but a fictional character who may nonetheless bear some traits of his creator.”

Rollason has a pleasantly down-to-earth and academic approach. He avoids the pitfall of the slightly hysterical “code crackers” and self-proclaimed cryptographers, the amateurish juggling of life facts on the one hand and images from the lyrics on the other, that would then “actually” express such a life fact. Of course, the impressions and experiences of the man Dylan trickle down into his poetry – just as one can use the physical image of a train with effect only if one has seen a train, one can express (for example) jealousy poetically only if one has experienced the emotion.

However, Dylan is – fortunately – not a diarist with a pathological need to make laboriously encrypted private worries public; instead, he employs a more or less clinical integration of his own experiences to create a work of art.

Such a personal experience seems to inspire the opening lines of “Where Are You Tonight”. It is not even a very private personal experience: seeing Casablanca. It’s the scene in the movie that reveals how Rick (Humprey Bogart) has become so cynical and resentful.

June 1940, Rick is waiting for Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) on a busy platform in Paris. The Nazis will occupy Paris. The enamoured Rick will flee to Casablanca on the long-distance train, together with his Ilsa. It is raining heavily. Rick restlessly scans the platform. Where is she? There comes his best friend Sam (Dooley Wilson). With a letter. And as the raindrops leave tracks of tears over the letter, Rick reads:


I cannot
go with you or ever
see you again. You
must not ask why.
Just believe that I
love you Go, my darling,
and God bless you.

Departing train, rain, a farewell letter… the sentimentality may be accentuated quite heavily, but the image is etched in our collective memory. In 1977, when Dylan writes his song, Casablanca is the most-shown film on American television. Had Dylan not been a certified cinephile, he’s still likely to have seen Rick and Ilsa, we’ll always have Paris and play it Sam, play As Time Goes By, that letter and the long-distance train pulling through the rain.

The second half of this first sextet seems borrowed from the same scene. The train is about to leave, Sam pushes the crushed Rick into the train. Rick on the running board desperately looks around one more time.

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

Casablanca snippets seem to trickle down into other parts of Dylan’s oeuvre as well, by the way. Especially quotes from Captain Renault (Claude Rains). “I have no conviction, if that’s what you mean. I blow with the wind.” And Renault’s line “This is the end of the chase”, almost literally, in “When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky” (1985): “It’s the end of the chase, and the moon is high.”

Likewise, Casablanca‘s soundtrack impresses Dylan. Seven songs, almost all of which leave traces. “As Time Goes By” and “It Had To Be You” Dylan sings on Triplicate (2017) and Fallen Angels (2016) respectively, “Shine” is on the playlist of his radio show Theme Time Radio Hour (episode 42, February 2007 ), the title of “The Very Thought Of You” Dylan borrows for an unreleased 1985 song and from “Knock On Wood” (the Casablanca song, not the Eddie Floyd hit), the bard steals the line “Too much nothing” for a Basement song in 1967.


II             Skimbleshanks

There’s a neon light ablaze
in this green smoky haze
Laughter down on E
lizabeth Street
And a lonesome bell tone
in that valley of stone
Where she bathed in a stream of pure heat

One of the most revealing, informative interviews from Dylan’s long career is the interview Ron Rosenbaum conducted in November 1977, which is published in Playboy, March 1978. Rosenbaum is an intelligent, alert interviewer; he can write and gets plenty of time. Dylan’s reflections on his own art are particularly worthy of a read and yield some highly quotable analyses.

The best known of course is Dylan’s description of the sound of the mid-60s albums, the sound he hears in his head and that is approached on parts of Blonde On Blonde, in “I Want You”, on Highway 61 Revisited and on Bringing It All Back Home: “the thin wild mercury sound”.

The continuation of the quote, and the entire interview, is particularly relevant to the Street Legal interpreters; After all, Dylan expresses his art conception and ideals here in the same days that he writes and records the songs for that album

“It’s that thin, that wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up. That’s my particular sound. I haven’t been able to succeed in getting it all the time. Mostly, I’ve been driving at a combination of guitar, harmonica and organ, but now I find myself going into territory that has more percussion in it and [pause] rhythms of the soul.”

On Street Legal the harmonica has – for the first time – disappeared and the horns are taking its place. And, indeed, percussion gets a spotlight.

At least as startling are Dylan’s reflections on his lyrics, is the utter importance Dylan attaches to catching the right sound. Not so much to finding a melody or the right words (!):

“I’m not just up there re-creating old blues tunes or trying to invent some surrealistic rhapsody. It’s the sound and the words. Words don’t interfere with it. They…  they…  punctuate it. You know, they give it purpose. [Pause] And all the ideas for my songs, all the influences, all come out of that. All the influences, all the feelings, all the ideas come from that. I’m not doing it to see how good I can sound, or how perfect the melody can be, or how intricate the details can be woven or how perfectly written something can be. I don’t care about those things.”

And thereby Dylan downplays the endless exegesis of his lyrics. First and foremost comes the sound of the words, not so much the content.

The first studio recording of “Where Are You Tonight?” is in December ’77. This interview takes place in November – Rosenbaum’s conversation report is particularly relevant for an analysis of this song.

The opening of the second sextet demonstrates Dylan’s preoccupation with the sound of the words. The meaning of “There’s a neon light ablaze in this green smoky haze” is too vague to be crucial (“the words don’t interfere,” as the poet says), but the sound, however, is thin, wild and mercurial.

Rhythmically, the poet here chooses the four-feet anapest (da da dum, da da dum, da da dum, da da dum). A rather unusual meter in song art. Eminem uses it in “The Way I Am” (2000), but we know it mainly from the literature. Lord Byron, Robert Browning, Plautus, Dr. Seuss, Goethe. That Dylan starts the lines of verse with “There’s a” here, and the influence of T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats on other Street Legal songs (“No Time To Think”, in particular) justifies the suspicion of yet another cat poem as a template for this part of the song.

The first poem in Eliot’s small masterpiece (the second song from the most successful adaptation of the collection, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats) is the brilliant “The Naming Of Cats”, which opens with such a four-foot anapaest, too:

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have three different names.

Dylan’s template is to be found a bit further, though. The thirteenth poem is called “Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat” and provides more than one aha moment:

There’s a whisper down the line at 11.39
When the Night Mail’s ready to depart,
Saying ‘Skimble where is Skimble has he gone to hunt the thimble?
We must find him or the train can’t start.’

Not only the same meter, but now we see why Dylan “hides” his sextets in four-line quatrains. He thereby copies the layout of T.S. Eliot’s Skimbleshanks, which like “Where Are You Tonight” can be restructured into identical Spanish sestets with the same rhyme scheme aabccb:

There’s a whisper down the line
At eleven thirty-nine
When the Night Mail’s ready to depart,
Saying ‘Skimble where is Skimble
Has he gone to hunt the thimble?
We must find him or the train can’t start.’

And there’s the same decor, a train platform, as the opening of Dylan’s song.

The pleasantly driving rhythm of that four-legged anapaest the poet fills with equally attractive sounds. Framed in five sibilants (There’s / ablaze / this / smoky / haze), with a pleasant rhyme (blaze / haze) and the melodious ne-on / green-smo assonance… “it’s the sound”, indeed.

Content seems of minor importance. In any case, the poet creates an antithesis; after the soft grey of the beginning, now the shrill light of neon lamps and the poisonous, acute danger of green fumes. The melancholy of the Casablanca opening sextet changes to coldness, to the latent aggression of a dystopian science fiction film. Blade Runner (1982) has not been released yet, but the street scenes have exactly this neon-lit, steamy couleur. Logan’s Run (1976), where humanity inhabits a covered, neon-lit inner world, comes close. And that is the film in which T.S Eliot turns up again; once in the outside world, the main characters Logan and Jessica meet The Old Man with his dozens of cats.

The Old Man quotes from “The Naming Of Cats” and “Macavity: the Mystery Cat”, introducing his guests to one of his cats: “Gus, short for Asparagus”… from Old Possum’s eleventh poem, “Gus: The Theatre Cat”.

For the third line of this sextet, “Laughter down on Elizabeth Street”, most biographical commentators miss an opportunity. Elizabeth Street is located in the familiar Greenwich Village, a 15-minute walk from positively West 4th Street, via Broadway and Bleecker Street.

To Dylanologist John Bauldie, to his article “A Meeting With A.J. Weberman” (Across The Telegraph, 1978) we thank the knowledge that this is the street where Dylan jumps the pushy A.J. Weberman, the confused trash-digger, slapping him after this stalking “Dylanologist” harassed Dylan’s wife Sara. Hence the laughter of an afterglowing Dylan, perhaps.

“We walked down Elizabeth Street. A.J. suddenly turned. “This is where Dylan jumped me!” A strange light glowed in his eyes. “Laughter down on Elizabeth Street”! Can’t you see these buildings, how they close in? This is the valley of stone. There was certainly a stream of pure heat. “It felt out of place, my foot in his face”! Just here, man, near this trashcan. “The book that nobody can write”. That’s my book!”

The second half again evokes film images. This time an archetypal Western decor: a lonesome bell tone / in that valley of stone. A barren valley and the striking of a lonely church bell – Once Upon A Time In The West, for example. In any case, an emptiness depicting, depressing set description.

This does not intuitively tie in with the closing line, with “where she bathed in a stream of pure heat.” Therein the nearby association is hate, and that is what the verse seems to express – this lady is quite angry with the protagonist, she is burning with rage.

Lyrically, we already reached the fourth Great Emotion; after the Melancholy of the opening, the chilly Fury of the neon, and the Loneliness of the barren valley, now Hate. The protagonist has apparently gone too far, alienated his lover, and both are now going through the infamous Emotional Roller Coaster.

What else is on the site?

We have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 3600 active members.  (Try imagining a place where it is always safe and warm).  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page of this site.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to all the 599 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.

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And please do note our friends at  The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, plus links back to our reviews (which we do appreciate).


  1. Wonderful post, Jochen. Autobiographical explanations for Dylan songs are red-herrings at best. Mostly they trivialise the songs, with the misleading implication that Dylan is always writing about himself. ‘Content seems of minor importance’ – yes, I think many of Dylan’s songs are tone-poems. The lyrics are for emotional shading; if the sound is right, if the music works, the meaning will take care of itself…

  2. Agreed to for the most part, but I’m unable to consider the words as merely ’emotion shading,’ if that is what’s meant (‘seems’? ). Ie,Words construct images.

    True, there’s no Nobel for music, but he got it for literature, nonetheless.

  3. Yes Larry – I overstated the case. What I’m getting at, I think, is the effect of a Dylan song derives from its totality, the way words and music integrate. What Jochen has done is show that meter, rhythm and sound are as important to the creation of the lyrics as meaning, which may remain elusive.

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