Bob Dylan’s “Tweeter and The Monkey Man”; the origins, the music and the meaning.

Updated 6 October 2017

By Tony Attwood

Tweeter and the Monkey Man comes from the Travelling Wilbury’s first album, and even if the song wasn’t officially published by Dylan’s Special Rider Music and even if he didn’t so obviously sing it, we’d all still know it was a Dylan composition.  It just is pure Dylan, where a large amount of the album is not.

The multiplicity of words, the story that sometimes makes sense and sometimes leaves you guessing, the repeated chord sequence; it’s all Dylan.

George Harrison is often quoted as saying that the writing was in part undertaken by Tom Petty, and that certainly is possible, but other sources suggest what Harrison meant was that the idea was discussed by the two men.  My money is firmly on that latter option – they discussed the idea but the essence of the song is Dylan not Petty.

And besides what the famous Harrison quote really says is that Tom and Bob were sitting in the kitchen talking about Americana, and the others recorded and then transcribed what was said.

But Harrison then went on to say that Bob subsequently changed the song – and indeed what we really have is a version of songwriting that Dylan often used, in which he would take lines from books, poems or movies and then start working on them to weave a text which sometimes almost makes sense – but also sometimes doesn’t.

Thus there are elements of a film noir in here, along with quite a bit of Bruce Springsteen and quite possibly even a bit of Hank Williams (Mansion on the Hill – a song by both composers.)

Staying with this last point, “Tweeter and The Monkey Man” is sometimes regarded as a playful homage to the songs of Bruce Springsteen, and certainly the song includes the titles of many Springsteen songs such as “Stolen Car”, “Mansion On The Hill”, “Thunder Road”, “State Trooper”, “Factory”, “The River”, “Lion’s Den”, “Lion’s Den” and “Paradise”.  Plus “Jersey Girl” (written by Tom Waits).

But there is a story within this accumulation of sources, the story of the two drug dealers – Tweeter and the Monkeyman who are being tracked by the unnamed Undercover Cop, with the complication that the cop’s sister is apparently transgender, and was romantically involved with Monkeyman.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performed a cover of the song several times in 2013.  There are several recordings by Tom Petty from different concerts – this one strikes me as the best by a long way.

 

In an interview with Rolling Stone in 2013, Tom Petty said in relation to Bruce Springsteen, “It was not meant to mock him at all.   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.”

The chord sequence is pure Dylan, it goes round and round… and round

Am   G   F   Am

While the chorus is built around the contrasting

Am   Em7   D   Am

It is quite remarkable to get this much of a song out of such a modest chordal base.  But what makes it work, I think, is the fact anything involving drugs and dealing has to be an endless rotation of darkness, and that is what the chord sequences paint – rather like the really Gothic elements of Gotham occasionally seen in parts of the Batman movies.  Indeed the opening verse paints true Gotham darkness, and it stays dark, somehow without ever being grim…

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.

It is also remarkable how quickly and economically the characterisation and story line are traced out, with the two being intertwined

There are also some wonderful drops into unexpected detail out of the blue, which despite their dissonance from what has gone before, pull us back to the film noir elements

The undercover cop was left tied up to a tree
near the souvenir stand by the old abandoned factory.

So what we get here are generalisations,

Next day the undercover cop was hot in pursuit.

And specifics,

He was taking the whole thing personal, he didn’t care about the loot.

as well as the social commentary

In Jersey anything’s legal as long as you don’t get caught.”

as well as references to real places…

Someplace by Rahway Prison they ran out of gas.

and the surreal…

The TV set was blown up, every bit of it was gone
ever since the nightly news show that the Monkey Man was on.

A rare treat, and still great fun.

What is on the site

1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   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, is starting to link back to our reviews.

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2 Responses to Bob Dylan’s “Tweeter and The Monkey Man”; the origins, the music and the meaning.

  1. I’ve always thought the obvious antecedent was “Tulane”

  2. Kaylie Jenkins says:

    Great article, Just thought I should suggest, in regards to

    “the complication that the cop’s sister is apparently transgender, and was romantically involved with Monkeyman”.

    that, Tweeter is transgender. Not Jan. Thanks for breakin it all down for us though. Always wondered where the story came from. Very interesteing.

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