In an interview for Spin in December 1985, Bob Dylan said the following about the act of songwriting:
“The best songs are the songs you write that you don’t know anything about. They’re an escape. I don’t do too much of that because maybe it’s more important to deal with what’s happening rather than to put yourself in a place where all you can do is imagine something. If you can imagine something and you haven’t experienced it, it’s usually true that someone else has actually gone through it and will identify with it.”
This quotation by Dylan has interesting parallels with the thinking of 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume. Hume wrote that “men are mightily govern’d by the imagination” which is expressed through his Conceivability Principle that states: “Whatever the mind clearly conceives includes the idea of possible existence, or in other words, that nothing we imagine is absolutely impossible.” Or, as expressed by J.F. Martel on the Weird Studies podcast: “The imagination sets the rules of the possible.”
Dylan is saying in his quote that songs can be considered as an escape from everyday life to another world, one that is governed by creativity. He says that the act of escaping, captured by a song, can be recognized by others. Therefore, there is a universality to living in the world of imagination and this then informs the regular life from which one escapes. This line of thinking by Dylan aligns well with Martel’s interpretation of Hume that the imagination impacts our everyday existence, setting the rule of the possible. These considerations on imagination are a good place to start when analyzing “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)” off of 1978’s Street-Legal:
The parenthetical part of the title — “Journey Through Dark Heat” — is an accurate description of the ideas that Dylan conveys within the song. It’s a depiction of a journey for the song’s narrator within the realm of the imagination. In fact, the narrative of the song aligns well with the archetype of the hero’s journey, formulated by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
The song starts with the narrator plagued by passion and doubts for a woman that he can’t be with:
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.
The longing for this woman instigates the journey for the narrator as Dylan sings:
I left town at dawn, with Marcel and St. John
Strong men belittled by doubt.
There has been speculation by a number of Dylan commentators that these lines reference St. John the Divine and Christian existentialist Gabriel Marcel, both of whom represent various approaches for considering a life of Christ through a filter of questioning. In the previous verse, Dylan actually agrees upon terms of the journey with these two figures:
The truth was obscure, too profound and too pure
To live it you have to explode
In that last hour of need, we entirely agreed
Sacrifice was the code of the road.
“Sacrifice” will be adhered to during their journey. This has parallels with Dylan’s 1965 song “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” in which Dylan sings:
An’ though the rules of the road have been lodged
It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge
And it’s alright, Ma, I can make it.
Thirteen years after the composition of “It’s Alright, Ma,” Dylan is providing an update to an idea presented in the song, naming that sacrifice and a giving up of self is the key to moving forward when contending with the trials and challenges during the hero’s journey.
Once upon the road, the narrator continues on his quest and enters into the world of imagination. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell calls this area the “the zone of magnified power.” Furthermore, he writes:
“The adventure is always and everywhere a passage beyond the veil of the known into the unknown; the powers that watch at the boundary are dangerous; to deal with them is risky, yet for anyone with competence and courage the danger fades.”
These words reflect the Dylan quotation above as well as Hume’s Conceivability Principle as to live within one’s creativity is to enter a “zone of magnified power,” filled with uncertainty, embarrassment, and a fear of failure. This resonates well with the words of “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)” as it portrays the transition from “the known into the unknown,” the crossing into the realm of the imagination.
Campbell goes on to say that “the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials.” Within the narrative of the song, Dylan names obstacles the narrator is facing on his own journey:
There’s a lion in the road, there’s a demon escaped
There’s a million dreams gone, there’s a landscape being raped.
The journey aspect of “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)” has many fascinating parallels with the idea of “dérive,” a creative and political device developed by the French artistic movement Letterist International, led primarily by philosopher Guy Debord. Many of the ideas associated with dérive were later expanded upon by Debord and the Situationist International organization. Debord defined dérive as “A mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.” It is a spontaneous journey into an urban space or zone through which an individual or a group will allow themselves to be drawn into different situations. This will result in a transformed understanding of the space and allow for new artistic creation and thought. As Debord wrote:
“The sudden change of ambiance in a street within the space of a few meters; the evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the path of least resistance which is automatically followed in aimless strolls (and which has no relation to the physical contour of the ground); the appealing or repelling character of certain places — these phenomena all seem to be neglected…In fact, the variety of possible combinations of ambiances, analogous to the blending of pure chemicals in an infinite number of mixtures, gives rise to feelings as differentiated and complex as any other form of spectacle can evoke.”
An example of an early situation that help shaped the concept of the dérive was captured by Raoul Vaneigem, an old partner of Debord, in his book The Revolution of Everyday Life:
“One night, as evening fell…my friends and I wandered into the Palais de Justice in Brussels. The building is a monstrosity, crushing the poor quarters beneath it and standing guard over the fashionable Avenue Louise—out of which, someday we will make a breathtakingly beautiful wasteland. As we drifted through the labyrinth of corridors, staircases, and suite after suite of rooms, we discussed what could be done to make the place habitable; for a time we occupied the enemy’s territory; through the power of our imagination we transformed the thieves’ den into a fantastic funfair; into a sunny pleasure dome, where the most amazing adventures would, for the first time, be really lived.”
Dérive is akin to a thought exercise or writing prompt to generate artistic creation, but it’s a physical act, forcing the individual to understand and recontextualize their surroundings and setting into something new. The act of the dérive is a kind of literal enactment of the hero’s journey. The hero undertakes this passage and encounters, in Debord’s words, “the appealing or repelling character of certain places” that is remarkably similar to Campbell’s notion of the hero meeting “curiously fluid, ambiguous forms.”
The journey portrayed by Dylan in “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)” is a kind of dérive. Though he cites the “code of the road” in the song, the setting of the song has an urban feel as Dylan sings:
There’s a neon light ablaze in this green smoky haze
Laughter down on Elizabeth Street.
The murky spectral imagery in these words are draped in neon, an ever-present facet of city life. Also referenced is Elizabeth Street, situated in the Bowery neighborhood of lower Manhattan, which would have been known to Dylan from his earliest times in New York City. In that same verse, Dylan uses the phrase “valley of stone” which could be those canyons of buildings along an avenue that one can look down for many blocks when crossing a street in Manhattan.
In the quotation above, Vaneigem cites “the power of our imagination” is what generated the transformation of the monstrous office building into “a sunny pleasure dome” the possible setting for countless experiences. Vaneigem’s allusion to Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” — “A stately pleasure-dome” — is not accidental as Coleridge’s work is the ultimate example of the capacity of the imagination, the vision of limitless possibilities that are “measureless to man.” Following Hume, dérive enables the individual to set the rules of the possible through a physical act of the imagination. This is also analogous to Dylan’s quotation above about the instinct to write songs through the act of escape.
There’s another fascinating connection between dérive and “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat).” The novelist Alexander Trocchi was a member of the Letterist International and then the Situationist International. Looking back on his time within those movements in 1964’s Sigma Portfolio, Trocchi wrote that the main approach for his participation was “to attack the ‘enemy’ at his base, within ourselves.” This notion corresponds with Dylan’s words in the song:
I fought with my twin, that enemy within
’Til both of us fell by the way
Horseplay and disease is killing me by degrees
While the law looks the other way.
Similarly, Dylan told Barbara Kerr for the Toronto Sun in early 1978 in the lead up to the release of Street-Legal: “Each man struggles within himself. That is where the fight is … If you can deal with the enemy within then no enemy without can stand a chance.” Dylan is using some of the same words from the song in his interview. The inner conflict of the artist is weighing heavily on his mind during this time. This theme would be explored further in Dylan’s song “I and I” off of 1983’s Infidels. As analyzed previously on Recliner Notes, the song portrays the duel within a divided self, a conflict so great that, as the song states, “One says to the other, no man sees my face and lives.” The seeds of “I and I” were sowed in 1978, both in the interview and within the lyrics of “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat).” As seen in these songs, Dylan’s own words and Trocchi’s belief, the ultimate trial that an artist must face while on the hero’s journey and traversing the world of the imagination is him or herself.
The thinking behind dérive plays out in another way in “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat).” Ivan Chtcheglov was a French theorist, poet, and activist, whose 1953 work “Formulary for a New Urbanism” inspired many of the ideas behind the Lettrist International and then later the Situationist International. The first line in Chtcheglov’s text states: “We are bored in the city, there is no longer any Temple of the Sun.” He goes on to map out the actions of a dérive by saying: “The districts of this city could correspond to the whole spectrum of diverse feelings that one encounters by chance in everyday life.” He creates a utopian ideal of how cities can be constructed to maximize the opportunities for dérive:
“Buildings [must be] charged with evocative power, symbolic edifices representing desires, forces and events, past, present and to come. A rational extension of the old religious systems, of old tales, and above all of psychoanalysis, into architectural expression becomes more and more urgent as all the reasons for becoming impassioned disappear. Everyone will, so to speak, live in their own personal ‘cathedrals.’ There will be rooms more conducive to dreams than any drug, and houses where one cannot help but love.”
Chtcheglov connects the idea of the imagination — “rooms more conducive to dreams” — with the idea of love. Dylan’s song, starting with the title itself, connects the two as well. It is a “journey through dark heat.” The dark heat in this sense is passion and lust. The hero’s journey of the song, through a “white diamond gloom” in Dylan’s words and Campbell’s “curiously fluid, ambiguous forms,” reflect a kind of dream logic that is the only way to portray the lustful affair at the center of the song.
The passion is evident through the song. As mentioned previously, Dylan establishes the mood of the narrator immediately in the first verse by saying: “There’s a woman I long to touch and I miss her so much.” The woman who is the object of the narrator’s desire is described as bathing “in a stream of pure heat.” Later, Dylan sings:
I bit into the root of forbidden fruit
With the juice running down my leg.
The sexual innuendo in these lines is palpable, not only in the metaphor of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, but also the not-to-subtle reference to Robert Johnson’s “Traveling Riverside Blues”:
Now you can squeeze my lemon ’til the juice run down my
‘Til the juice run down my leg, baby, (you know what I’m talking about)
You can squeeze my lemon ’til the juice run down my leg
(That’s what I’m talking ’bout, now)
But I’m going back to Friars Point, if I be rocking to my head.
Dylan should have said a quick “you know what I’m talking about” under his breath while singing “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)” to complete the homage to Johnson. The lust on the part of the song’s narrator is apparent, but there’s a cost for this indulgence as Dylan sings:
If you don’t believe there’s a price for this sweet paradise
Remind me to show you the scars.
The question at the heart of the song is sung by Dylan twice: “where are you tonight?” This yearning plea by the song’s narrator which is sung so passionately by Dylan is a kind of existential booty call. He is pleading and may not expect an answer as he moves through the world of the imagination. Curiously, Dylan asks the same question — where are you tonight? — in an earlier song, “Absolutely Sweet Marie” off of 1966’s Blonde on Blonde:
As in “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat),” “Absolutely Sweet Marie” is a song laden with lust. Immediately, in the first verse Dylan makes the sexual insinuations over:
Well, your railroad gate, you know I just can’t jump it
Sometimes it gets so hard, you see
I’m just sitting here beating on my trumpet
With all these promises you left for me
But where are you tonight, sweet Marie?
The “railroad gate” that the song’s narrator has to jump over sure sounds like barriers for a sexual encounter, despite the “promises” left for him by “sweet Marie.” The abandoned narrator has no recourse except “beating on my trumpet,” which doesn’t need further explanation. Later in the song, the narrator says that he’s “got the fever down in my pockets” because sweet Marie “forgot to leave me with the key.” So many missed connections for this lustful narrator!
The last verse of “Absolutely Sweet Marie” has an additional connection to “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)” as Dylan sings:
Now, I been in jail when all my mail showed
That a man can’t give his address out to bad company
And now I stand here lookin’ at your yellow railroad
In the ruins of your balcony
Wond’ring where you are tonight, sweet Marie.
In a 1991 interview for SongTalk, Paul Zollo asked Dylan specifically about the specific line, “I stand here lookin’ at your yellow railroad / In the ruins of your balcony.” Dylan responded:
“Now, you know, look, that’s as complete as you can be. Every single letter in that line. It’s all true. On a literal and on an escapist level….See, you can pull it apart and it’s like, ‘Yellow railroad?’ Well, yeah. Yeah, yeah. All of it…Being a performer you travel the world. You’re not just looking off the same window every day. You’re not just walking down the same old street. So you must make yourself observe whatever. But most of the time it hits you. You don’t have to observe. It hits you. Like ‘yellow railroad’ could have been a blinding day when the sun was bright on a railroad someplace and it stayed on my mind. These aren’t contrived images. These are images which are just in there and have got to come out.”
Dylan is connecting a lot of the threads of this post in this quotation. He talks about the influence of traveling the world on his songwriting, the physical act of movement — similar to the act of dérive — directly inspiring certain imagery in his writing. The world of the imagination for Dylan is one of his own making, a zone that he can enter into beyond contrivances, once he has overcome his own self-doubt.
The concluding verse of “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)” also sees the completion of the hero’s journey:
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?
The sense of arrival in these lines — “new day at dawn” — shows that the narrator’s return from the world of imagination and passion while overcoming the trials of the road has left him a changed person. Dylan’s charged vocal delivery of “I can’t believe it, I can’t believe I’m alive” emphasizes the transformation. The narrator has found what he was looking for on his quest, through the world of imagination and love, and come out the other side inspired.
In a comment on a previous Recliner Notes post, Jochen Markhorst shared an intriguing observation that as the instruments play and the background singers are singing, “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)” fades out in volume. It is the last song on the album, whereas the first song on Street-Legal — “Changing of the Guards” — fades in as the song begins. This may be an indication that Dylan wanted Street-Legal to be an endless circle. Perhaps, the album is itself a kind of hero’s journey, with “Changing of the Guards” as the starting point and “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)” serving as the conclusion with the artist undergoing a continuing cycle of renewal and rebirth.
“Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)” is a fantastic, turbulent, and emotional song. Dylan performed the song 33 times during the tour supporting Street-Legal, but has never played it again. It’s been left behind by Dylan, but the studio recording remains, continuing to serve an escape and portal into the world of imagination through a journey, dérive, or any other means the listener chooses to embark upon.
Thanks to Greil Marcus and his enduring book Lipstick Traces, which was my first introduction to dérive and Guy Debord. Many of the quotes used in this post were first encountered in that work.
Image: Paul Klee, 1930, Sunset, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
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