Jet Pilot IV: What is the most important thing in your life?

by Jochen Markhorst

IV         What is the most important thing in your life?

She's five feet nine and she carries a monkey wrench
She weighs more by the foot than she does by the inch

The forged entrance gates with which Dylan surprises in 2013 are elegant, playful and funny examples of craftsmanship and artistic pleasure. Within a tight framework of iron, the welding artist Dylan fills the void with alienating compositions of scrap metal, motorbike parts, a meat-mincer, a horseshoe, bicycle chains, cogwheels and: tools. One or more tools are incorporated into each gate. Spanners, socket wrenches, combination pliers, pincers… and an occasional monkey wrench. The publicity photos shot for the first exhibition (Halycon Gallery, London) show staged photographs of Dylan in his workshop: a medium-sized room with wooden shelving along the walls, overflowing with scrap metal and iron objects, by the look of it sorted by shape. A collection of monkey wrenches is not to be seen. If there are any, they are obviously too precious to him to incorporate into his fences.

He does seem to have a thing for it, in the first half of the 1960s. Already in “Bob Dylan’s New Orleans Rag” (1963) the singer describes a long-legged man coming down the hall,

He muttered and he uttered
In broken French
And he looked like he’d been through
A monkey wrench

Two years later, on 5 September ’65, a month before he records “Jet Pilot”, the plumber’s tool is apparently still bouncing around in the back of his mind, as Dylan slaloms through the mostly stupid questions of journalists at the press conference in Beverly Hills. Like “what is the most important thing in your life these days?” The correct answer to that would be: “My towel,” as we all know from Chapter 3 of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. But Dylan is no Ford Prefect nor Arthur Dent, and answers: “Well, I’ve got a monkey wrench collection and I’m very interested in that.”

Susan Edminston and Nora Ephron, who interviewed him a few days later for the New York Post, did also notice, and they check, just to be sure:

BD: I don’t know what the songs I write are. That’s all I do is write songs, right? Write. I collect things too.
E/E: Monkey wrenches?
BD: Where did you read about that? Has that been in print? I told this guy out on the coast that I collected monkey wrenches, all sizes and shapes of monkey wrenches, and he didn’t believe me. I don’t think you believe me either. And I collect the pictures, too. Have you talked to Sonny and Cher?
E/E: No.
BD: They’re a drag. A cat gets kicked out of a restaurant and he went home and wrote a song about it.

The latter is a false sneer at “I Got You Babe”, the world hit about which Cher indeed reveals that Sonny Bono wrote it after they were banned from a restaurant because of their attire. Why Dylan is so condescending about the song is puzzling. It is a song beyond criticism and four weeks earlier it had knocked the Herman’s Hermits’ abominable “I’m Henry VIII, I Am,” off the top of Billboard’s Hot 100. That alone deserves respect and gratitude, but perhaps Dylan is plagued by competitive pressures; these same days, The Beatles (with “Help!”), The Beach Boys (“California Girls”), The Righteous Brothers (“Unchained Melody”) and Dylan’s own “Like A Rolling Stone” are all trying to knock Sonny & Cher from first place (The Beatles win the race; on 4 September, “Help! “, after three weeks of “I Got You Babe”, tops the charts). And the song is in a double sense, both lyrically and musically, the mirror image of “It Ain’t Me, Babe” – perhaps that itches too.

Anyway – monkey wrench collection. According to the respectable and distinguished Guardian journalist Ed Vulliamy, Dylan is still a collector twenty years later. In his 2018 memoir, When Words Fail: A Life with Music, War and Peace (published in America as Louder Than Bombs), Vulliamy recalls the press conference in London to promote the mediocre film Hearts Of Fire, in 1987. The journalists present bombard Dylan with questions as empty, useless and unanswerable as those in 1965 Beverly Hills, and a weary Dylan answers accordingly absurdly;

A pompous journalist from the Sunday Times challenged the bard to come clean about what interested him. “I’ve got a monkey-wrench collection in my garage back home, and I’m mighty interested in that,” came the reply.

Vulliamy’s integrity and professionalism are actually beyond question, but here he seems to be slipping into a constructive memory. Other coverage of the same press conference does mention the annoying questions and conflict seeking remarks by the Sunday Times journalist (it’s Philip Norman), but an answer like the one Vulliamy quotes is nowhere to be found – this monkey wrench answer that also sounds suspiciously literal like Dylan’s answer in Beverly Hills, back in 1965. Vulliamy’s own questions can be found too, and they show that The Guardian’s star reporter chose wisely, not to pursue a career as a master interviewer (first question: “Do you like England?”, second question: “What are your thoughts on this country at the moment?”).

Still, the monkey wrench does reappear, years after those first unserious uses. Over the years, Dylan has developed an irregular habit of introducing his band members to the audience at the end of the concert, just as irregularly provided with nonsensical, humorous biographical details. “Over here on violin is the youngest member of the group, never been away from home before, David Mansfield,” for example. Or “And Tony Garnier’s been with me longer than I been with myself, playing bass guitar.”

The same loyal Tony Garnier is at four concerts in June 1995 introduced with:

“On bass guitar Tony Garnier is playing tonight. I know that he tried to milk a cow with a monkey wrench, I know that.”

Dylan speaks that nonsensical introduction on 2 June in Seattle, and it’s not a slip of the tongue or anything. On 4, 6 and 21 June, he introduces Garnier in much the same words, each time with the nonsensical biographical fact that Tony once tried to milk a cow with a monkey wrench.

Clearly, it is a word combination that keeps on imposing itself on Dylan, that does not lose its attraction even after more than thirty years. The language artist is, presumably, touched by the intrinsic absurdity of the combination monkey + wrench, a combination that indeed has the power of a catachresis, of an incompatible set of words. Comparable to a honky-tonk lagoon (“Stuck Inside Of Mobile”), to seasick sailors (“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”) or to curfew gull (“Gates Of Eden”), to unusual combinations of words, in short, which through the combination take on a dry-comic charge. The actual etymology of “monkey wrench” is unclear, by the way. Presumably the adjustable spanner was so named, because adjustable ship parts also had the modifier monkey (monkey foresail, monkey bridge).

So: an overweight lady with the physique of a man (thanks to data collected from the federal Centers for Disease Control, we know that five feet nine has been the exact average height of an American man for over half a century now, compared to five feet four for a woman), evidently blessed with an irresistible sex appeal to all the downtown boys, walking around with a monkey wrench.

Granted, it is an intriguing image.

To be continued. Next up: Jet Pilot part V: The mixed up, muddled up, shook up world

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Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

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2 Responses to Jet Pilot IV: What is the most important thing in your life?

  1. TonyAttwood says:

    I would not normally dream of contradicting Jochen on anything, nor indeed suggest anything is missing from any of his analyses or reviews, but I cannot let the reference to “I’m Henry VIII” pass.

    The recording mentioned is rightly derided, but the song should not be, as it is a music hall classic from 1911 – there is an original recording at

    https://youtu.be/GeUl6s073RA

    It was written in 1910 and regularly sung by Harry Champion. I can’t speak for other countries, but certainly in England the foundations of popular music which stood aside from the “proper” culture of the middle classes is to be found in the music halls; it made fun of authority, and validated the view point of the working classes, giving those who did not have the “benefit” of an education at a “good school” a celebration of their own culture.

    It is indeed a shame that the essence of the song was destroyed in the awful Herman Hermits recordings, but the origins of it should always be noted.

  2. Larry fyffe says:

    Jochen’s mentions the Hermit’s shortened version as it relates to the charts at that time….the additional information is interesting but certainly not vital in so far as the context of his article is concerned.

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