“Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” - Dionne Warwick
Music by Burt Bacharach, Lyrics by Hal David
From Dionne Warwick in Valley of the Dolls (Scepter, 1968)
“I was born and raised in San Jose.”
Dionne Warwick, via Hal David
As a kid, I knew that Dionne Warwick wasn’t telling the truth when she sang the lyric excerpted above, though I loved how she sang it. First of all, when I first heard the song, I had been in San Jose my whole young life, and I’d never seen her around. Not at Frontier Village, not at Eastridge Mall, not anywhere. Additionally, to my young mind, there was no way anyone could invest any sincerity in the lyrics to this song (especially anyone who was actually born and raised in San Jose). As a matter of fact, the idyllic ‘small-town San Jose’ the lyric described sounded so little like the San Jose I encountered every day as a kid, I had to ask my mother if the song was indeed about “our” San Jose. “Yes,” she answered. “Because to people from a city like LA, San Jose might seem like a small town.”
I could kind of understand that, but lines like:
“The only stars
That ever were…
Are parking cars,
And pumping gas…”
sounded so small-time. I mean, those are fine professions, but I hadn’t witnessed anyone in San Jose become starstruck at the sight of their local Arco employee. And valet parking in San Jose in the 70s simply didn’t exist. I understood the sentiment, but I thought the implied gosh-darn image was a little embarassing. By the time Frankie Goes to Hollywood covered “Do You Know the Way..” in the 80s, I didn’t want to hear the song at all.
In the early ‘90s, I began picking up vinyl copies of songs and albums which I remembered from my early childhood. I snatched up a Dionne Warwick collection during that time. With a lot more musical (and life) experience under my belt, I gained a fresh new appreciation for the Bacharach/David songs which launched Warwick’s career. Bacharach has long been celebrated for his advanced melodic and harmonic gifts, but what I found especially engaging about those early Warwick recordings is the rhythm arrangements and drumming. Bacharach studied percussion (among other instruments) as a youth, and it shows in his orchestrations. Many of the songs that Bacharach co-wrote and arranged for the always-fine Dionne Warwick have a unique, non-linear drum approach which combines pop, jazz, and classical sensibilities. As an older listener, I found that the distinctive kick-drum figures which appear throughout “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” are just as important as the perfectly placed organ parts and the distinctly Bacharach-ian string and brass charts.
The passing of time also gave me a fresh perspective on Hal David’s lyric. I moved to San Francisco over 20 years ago, and though I love it here, there are things about San Jose, especially the South and East sides, which I still miss. Also, themes I couldn’t possibly have fathomed as a little boy—the burden of failed dreams, the longing for a simpler life, the nostalgic yearning for “hometown”—were abundantly clear and resonant when I listened to “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” as an adult. A lot of Bacharach’s music has an underlying melancholic vibe beneath the brisk pop tempos, and David’s lyric here achieves an expressive balance between nostalgia and forward-looking hopefulness. The questioning title is itself a complex mix of emotions, evoking both desperation and an upbeat readiness for change.
With much respect to Hal David, I think it’s clear that his question is now officially moot. I’m proud to say that these days, everyone knows the way to San Jose.
As for me, I always have. I was born and raised there.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.