In a way, “Do you know…” is your basic bittersweet meditation on the importance of home and one’s roots. This isn’t a new theme for poetry or popular music by any means. What makes this song truly modern, or at least an artifact of it’s time – the late sixties – it’s the role that transportation and travel plays as a subtext.
A female protagonist is asking for directions. She is leaving Los Angeles and moving back to her hometown, San Jose, California. “Do you know the way to San Jose? / I’ve been away so long, I may go wrong and lose my way.” It’s a terribly catchy couplet, especially the rhyming of “long” and “wrong”, but it conveys great sadness. How long does one have to be away from some place in order to lose their way back to it? It’s a five hour drive between the two cities, not an epic journey by any means. But apparently there have been no visits back home for quite an amount of time. What made our protagonist leave and completely separate herself from her hometown? What happened in LA that made her reverse course and go back “to find some peace of mind” in this once dreaded San Jose?
“LA is a great big freeway / Put a hundred down and buy a car,” sings Dionne in the bridge. Apparently LA once beckoned her. And it was easy enough to move there. It was easy to get a car loan and there was plenty of places to go on that “freeway”. LA was freedom and owning one’s own car was an integral part of that freedom. It’s been said that the invention of the automobile was a catalyst to the women’s movement. All of a sudden, a woman could get herself places in a room of her own. She could drive to a job, socialize and even have sexual liaisons out from under the watchful eyes of a family or husband. In an America that no longer had the wild west to conquer, cities like LA became the new frontier – a place to escape civilization and carve out one’s own place in the new world.
But there was more than mere freedom on Dionne’s agenda: “In a week, maybe too, they’ll make you star.” Apparently she came to LA seeking power and glamour in addition to freedom. However, as fast and easy as her arrival in LA may have been, it never really got past the initial promise that that new car brought. “And all the stars that never were, are parking cars and pumping gas.” Ironically, our female protagonist is now a cog in the wheel (so to speak) of an industry she once looked to for salvation.
After a trumpet solo that sounds as mobile and smooth as the ride on a California highway, Dionne admits that she has packed her car and left LA. Again the car is the agent of change. Once it took her away from her home. Now it brings her back. “Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa” is the refrain.