The Devil’s been busy. Dylan’s input into a Wilbury’s meander

by Tony Attwood

This is one of the songs on volume 3 (which is to say the second album) by the Travelling Wilbury’s (as far as I can work out, probably the first to be recorded) that clearly has a fair amount of Dylan in it, but how much is always a matter for debate.

Quite clearly the section Bob sings is his

You see your second cousin
Wasted in a fight
You say he had it coming
You couldn’t do it right
You’re in a western movie, playing the part
The devil’s been busy in your back yard

and it sounds like a flashback to Brownsville Girl, but it is very disconnected from the rest of the song.  It is almost as if he just listened to the tune and wrote his bit, without any reference to the rest.

That is not to knock the opening, which is pure Tom Petty, and I just wonder if Bob would ever be knowingly associated with a song that uses a golf course as its setting.  Does he play golf?  If he does I must have missed it, but whoever wrote this (I guess it is Tom) knows the slang of golf in the way Dylan knows the blues.

Verse two is more Bob, than verse one, with the outer space reference and the theme of being anti-space travel that Dylan delved into at this time.

Steaming down the highway
With your trucks of toxic waste
Where you gonna hide it
In the outer space?

The middle 8 seems a bit of a nothing land to me, it is just there because the guys said, “hey we need a middle 8” – which is something Bob has never done as far as I can recall.  When he puts in a middle 8 he puts it in for a purpose, not just for the sake of it.

But then at last we are onto the real Bob bit.

You see your second cousin
Wasted in a fight
You say he had it coming
You couldn’t do it right
You’re in a western movie, playing the part
The devil’s been busy in your back yard

What makes me think Bob didn’t write the rest of the song is the fact that this obviously Dylan verse is so divorced from the rest of the show.  Forget the golf courses, this is about… well something else, although I am not sure what.

The next break tells us nothing we didn’t know

Sometimes they say you’re wicked
But you know that can’t be bad
Sometimes you’re better off not knowing
It’ll only make you sad

And then it must be George or Jeff Lynne.  No one else in the band is going to write about Piccadilly and know its particular significance are they?  Nor are they going to lay on the silly mock upper-crust accent for “dash” and “cash”, which as a Londoner born and bred I find rather offensive.   The Kinks did it with “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” and did it well, but Sir Ray Davies lived just a few miles from me, so he’s entitled to.

But quite what the reference to sticky willy means I don’t really know.   Sticky willy is a plant that geese eat (commonly known as goose grass).  And….?  I don’t know.  If you know, please tell.
They’re coming down Picadilly
Dripping at the dash
Wasting sticky Willy
Covering him with their cash
They just might not have noticed, they’ve been beating him so hard
And the devil’s been busy in your back yard

It’s all a bit of a mixture.  Pleasant enough but it’s not going to set the world alight, nor even your house on fire.  But nice to know that Bob can take something this vague and send it off in a totally different direction.  Who cares what the strap line means, this will do.

What else is on this site

1: Over 360 reviews of Dylan songs. 

2: The Dylan Chronologies.  

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  .

4:   The Discussion Group    Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.

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


  1. I have always assumed Sticky Willy was Bill Clinton as the album’s release (as far as I can remember) coincided with the Lewinski debacle.

  2. Covering him with their cash.?? No no
    ‘Clubbing him with their cosh’. So now you don’t have to worry about accents…. Innit

  3. Keep up the good work.
    Its quite well documented that Dylan is a keen golfer (when time allows) with Alice Cooper (who apparently is exceptional) being a regular partner. maybe Bob doesn’t like losing

  4. I remember reading several years ago that Bob was something of a keen golfer. I recall Alice Cooper once saying that Dylan plays golf the same way that he does everything else i.e.; weirdly.
    I’ve always assumed that sticky Willy was a piece of English schoolboy smut, since “willy” is an English term for the penis. Another slang term for it is “hampton”, and, if you remember, the sleeve notes to “Vol 1” were written by one Hugh Jampton (geddit??). My bet is that these lines/verses were written by Lynne and Harrison.

  5. Before anything else: Sticky Willy is not Bill Clinton. Traveling Wilburys Vol.3 came out in October 1990. The Lewinsky affair came to light in 1998. Clinton’s earliest known sexual misconduct allegation was made in 1994. The world hadn’t quite heard of Bill when the song was recorded!

    I’m afraid a lot of your otherwise thoughtful analysis is predicated by a bad transcription of the lyrics, and consequently — through no fault of your own — misdirected. There seems to be a poor version published online that has been replicated on numerous sites, time and time again. It’s everywhere, but it’s wrong.

    This site offers a more accurate transcript:

    The entire song, encapsulated in the title, is that while we worry about the small, short-term stuff all too often, the bigger, wider world picture is becoming ruined and we never stop to notice, or wonder why. With that in mind, the opening verse is, if anything, more pertinent now, with the current golf-loving US President moron, swinging his 9-iron while Rome burns, so to speak. It’s not advocating the golfing lifestyle, but using it as an analogy for the pursuit of leisure taking precedent over caring for the environment — and I suspect Dylan would have no problem with it in that context as it’s a suitably sardonic set of lines. Petty delivers them so: nicely, gently witheringly.

    The second verse continues that sentiment, but there’s lyrical misreading afoot: “Maybe out in space?” is a more convincing reading of the line and delivered by Harrison as part of a verse concerned with environmentalism and our inability to dispose of chemical waste efficiently — themes closer to Hari’s heart. There’s no sort of anti-space travel agenda here.

    I agree the third verse is a little more specific to Dylan, and takes the theme away from the global concern, but there is a case for saying that the payoff line about thinking you’re in a Western movie continues the idea of people spending too much time in distraction instead of dealing with the real concerns in front of them. But it’s certainly a tone shift in the song.

    The final verse, sung by Lynne, with a reference to Piccadilly, is not as simple as all that, mainly because there are two noteworthy Piccadillys in the UK: the one in the heart of London and another one, a district in the northern city of Manchester. Lynne, as a son of the Midlands, could be hedging his bets; he’d be familiar with both, equally, and I daresay anyone from further North of England would be more likely to consider the Mancunian Piccadilly foremost, as it’s the main train terminus for the city. But I suspect it’s London, as the next line is ‘dripping at the dosh’ — not dash, which makes no sense at all — with ‘dosh’ a particularly Cockney term for money (although most UK residents would get it). Jeff’s not affecting an offensive accent here, he’s just delivering the line! It also rhymes with ‘clubbing him with their cosh’ which is the correct lyric. Brutal stuff!

    “Sticky Willy” does indeed have a smutty British connotation, but again that’s secondary to the notion that it’s a popular nickname for a pickpocket. It’s all actually rather Dickensian, this final verse, if anything.

    PS: I live and work in North London, so forgive my heavy-handed use of “British” “Cockney” and so on; I’m speaking for everyone who’s reading. 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *