Bob Dylan’s Best Songs: Tweeter and the Monkey Man





Tweeter and the Monkey Man were hard up for cash
They stayed up all night selling cocaine and hash
To an undercover cop who had a sister named Jan
For reasons unexplained she loved the Monkey Man

‘Tweeter & The Monkey Man’ was Tom Petty and Bob sitting in the kitchen, Jeff and I were there too, but they were talking about all this stuff which didn’t make sense to me – Americana kind of stuff. And we got a tape cassette and put it on and transcribed everything they were saying and wrote it down. And then Bob sort of changed it, anyway. That for me was just amazing to watch ’cause I had very little to do with writing that [song] at all – except Jeff and I remembered a little bit that [Bob] did that he’d forgotten – which became that chorus part. It was just fantastic watching him do it because . . . he had one take warming himself up and then he did it for real on take two. The rest of us had more time but Bob had to go on the road and we knew he couldn’t do any more vocals again, so we had to get his vocals immediately. And on take two he sang [it] right through, and then what he did was he changed some of the lyrics maybe in about four places he changed a couple of lines and improved them, and dropped these lines in and that’s it – just as it was done and written. And the way he writes the words down! Very tiny, like a spider’s written it . . . It’s just unbelievable seeing how he does it.
– George Harrison, to Roger Scott, 1989

TOC

  1. Facts
  2. Quotes
  3. Lyrics
  4. Cover versions

@#140 on my list of Bob Dylan’s top 200 songs.

Facts

Released on The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1. is the debut studio album by the British-American supergroup Traveling Wilburys, comprising George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty.

Wikipedia:

The songwriting credit goes officially to all members of the band, but the song is published by Bob Dylan’s Special Rider Music label, indicating that the main writer is Dylan, who is also the lead singer on the record.

“Tweeter and the Monkey Man” is sometimes regarded as a playful homage to the songs of Bruce Springsteen, who was often hailed as “the next Dylan” early in his career. The lyrics include the titles of many Springsteen songs, and the song borrows many of Springsteen’s themes. The setting of the song itself is New Jersey, Springsteen’s home state and the setting for many of Springsteen’s own songs. New Jersey locations such as Rahway Prison and Jersey City are mentioned by name. Springsteen song title references include: “Stolen Car“, “Mansion on the Hill“, “Thunder Road“, “State Trooper“, “Factory“, “The River“, and a song made popular by Springsteen but written by Tom Waits, “Jersey Girl“. Additionally, “Lion’s Den” and “Paradise” are each mentioned and prominently enunciated in the song, each being the title of a Springsteen song released after the Traveling Wilburys album.

Known studio recordings:

Dave Stewart Studios
Los Angeles, California
Circa 7-17 May 1988
Produced by Jeff Lynne & George Harrison
Musicians:
  • Bob Dylan (guitar, keyboards & vocals)
  • Roy Orbison (guitar & vocals)
  • George Harrison (guitar & vocals)
  • Tom Petty (bass, guitar & vocals)
  • Jeff Lynne (guitar, synthesizer, keyboards & vocals)
  • Ray Cooper (percussion)
  • Jim Keltner (drums)

Live:

  • Never been performed live by Bob Dylan

Quotes

The results are both very funny, and very dark – the kind of balancing act which Dylan had rarely indulged in since the Big Pink days. The repeated refrain, a gratuitously communal incursion, reads like a broadside ballad but acts like a Greek chorus: ‘And the walls came down, all the way from hell / Never saw them when they’re standing, they never saw them when they fell.’ Harrison later revealed they were lines from an early draft of the song which Dylan had promptly discarded, until the Beatle suggested they be made a burden to each verse, providing a commentary track to the whole mini-movie. It was a perfect way of making what would otherwise be a big Bob ballad an integral part of the Wilburys project.
– Clinton Heylin – Still on the Road: The Songs of Bob Dylan Vol. 2, . 1974-2008

Dylan’s lyric for ‘Tweeter and the Monkey Man’, on the first Travelin’ Wilburys album, is riddled with good-natured comic references to the words of Springsteen songs. That’s the nearest he’s come to any paying of tributes in reverse.
– Michael Gray – The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia

Another loose, free-association lyric is the basis for “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” one of the more dramatic songs on The Traveling Wilburys. Lyrically, it’s a dramatic, almost cinematic story-song, filled with dark, desperate characters and a criminal element. This is, no doubt, not a coincidence, as it reflects the darkness and excess that permeated the 1980s. Musically, a dark folk melody guides the song, and it is delivered in a relatively elaborate arrangement which showcases Jeff Lynne’s love of multiple guitars and tympani overdubs.
-Matthew Greenwald (allmusic.com)

At first glance, the Traveling Wilburys song “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” (written by Tom Petty and Bob Dylan) seems like a dig at Bruce Springsteen. After all, the song is littered with references to Springsteen songs like “Thunder Road,” “Stolen Car,” “Mansion on the Hill,” “State Trooper” and even “Lion’s Den.” But in a 2013 interview with Rolling Stone, Petty swore it was a loving tribute.
“It was not meant to mock [Springsteen] at all,” said Petty. “It started with Bob Dylan saying, ‘I want to write a song about a guy named Tweeter. And it needs somebody else.’ I said, ‘The Monkey Man.’ And he says, ‘Perfect, ‘Tweeter and the Monkey Man.” And he said, ‘Okay, I want to write the story and I want to set it in New Jersey.’ I was like, ‘OK, New Jersey.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, we could use references to Bruce Springsteen titles.’ He clearly meant it as praise.”
rollingstone.com (Readers’ Poll: The 10 Best Bob Dylan Songs of the 1980s)

One story goes like this: Bob Dylan was recording the first album with the Wilburys in the spring of 1988 in L.A. when he went with Tom Petty to see Springsteen’s Tunnel Of Love Express Tour stop at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. At the time PART MAN, PART MONKEY was a regular part of Bruce’s set – “Part man, part monkey […] that’s me”, as the song goes. Dylan takes this back to his hotel room and pens TWEETER AND THE MONKEY MAN (Tweeter would be Clarence Clemons for obvious reasons and The Monkey Man would be Bruce Springsteen). The song was not intended to make fun of Bruce; it was just part of the playful nature of the Traveling Wilburys songs they were recording.
– Springsteenlyrics.com

Lyrics

Tweeter and the Monkey Man were hard up for cash
They stayed up all night selling cocaine and hash
To an undercover cop who had a sister named Jan
For reasons unexplained she loved the Monkey Man

Tweeter was a boy scout course he went to Vietnam
And found out the hard way nobody gives a damn
They knew that they found freedom just across the Jersey Line
So they hopped into a stolen car, took Highway 99

And the walls came down, all the way to hell
Never saw them when they’re standing, never saw them when they fell

The undercover cop never liked the Monkey Man
Even back in childhood he wanted to see him in the can
Jan got married at fourteen to a racketeer named Bill
She made secret calls to the Monkey Man from a mansion on the hill

It was out on Thunder Road, Tweeter at the wheel
They crashed into paradise, they could hear them tires squeal
The undercover cop pulled up and said “Everyone of you’s a liar
If you don’t surrender now, it’s gonna go down to the wire”

And the walls came down, all the way to hell
Never saw them when they’re standing, never saw them when they fell

An ambulance rolled up, a state trooper close behind
Tweeter took his gun away and messed up his mind
The undercover cop was left tied up to a tree
Near the souvenir stand by the old abandoned factory

Next day the undercover cop was hot in pursuit
He was taking the whole thing personal, he didn’t care about the loot
Jan had told him many times it was you to me who taught
In Jersey anything’s legal as long as you don’t get caught

And the walls came down, all the way to hell
Never saw them when they’re standing, never saw them when they fell

Someplace by Rahway Prison they ran out of gas
The undercover cop had cornered them said “Boy, you didn’t think that this could last”
Jan jumped out of the bed, said “There’s someplace I gotta go”
She took a gun out of the drawer and said “It’s best if you don’t know”

The undercover cop was found face down in a field
The monkey man was on the river bridge using Tweeter as a shield
Jan said to the Monkey Man, “I’m not fooled by Tweeter’s curl
I knew him long before he ever became a Jersey girl”

And the walls came down, all the way to hell
Never saw them when they’re standing, never saw them when they fell

Now the town of Jersey City is quieting down again
I’m sitting in a gambling club called the Lion’s Den
The TV set been blown up, every bit of it is gone
Ever since the nightly news show that the Monkey Man was on

I guess I’ll go to Florida and get myself some sun
There ain’t no more opportunity here, everything’s been done
Sometime I think of Tweeter, sometime I think of Jan
Sometime I don’t think about nothing but the Monkey Man

And the walls came down, all the way to hell
Never saw them when they’re standing, never saw them when they fell

And the walls came down, all the way to hell
Never saw them when they’re standing, never saw them when they fell

Cover Versions

Jason Isbell – 24 May 2016, Ryman Auditorium:

Headstones:

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – (2013) Hollywood Fonda Theatre:

Sources

-Egil

3 thoughts on “Bob Dylan’s Best Songs: Tweeter and the Monkey Man”

  1. The lyric: Tweeter was a boy scout before she went to Vietnam

    The correct lyric is: Tweeter was a boy scout course he went to Vietnam

    From the original liner notes.

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