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.


  1. 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.

  2. Petty primarily wrote the song. He was much more aware of all the Springsteen titles and lyric references, and it was his type of punning all the way through.

  3. Always regarded it as a Dylan composition, although I recognise that Petty had a lot of input. No mistaking Dylan as lead singer in the verses, although all Wilburys (and their guitars) come in for choruses. Thanks for clearing up about Tweeter being trans gender. Another point about Travelling Wilburys that I have often thought about but not been able to confirm; Perhaps, someone can help. After Roy Orbison died, I believe that Del Shannon was asked to join the group. Of course he also died shortly thereafter. But George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty assisting in making Shannon’s last album. One or two of the Heartbreakers were also involved and in a re-issue of one of Travelling Wilburys’ albums containing extra tracks, Jeff Lynne sings Shannon composition, ‘Runaway’. Tom Petty also pays tribute on an album with a song, ‘Running down a dream’. One line is, “Me and Del were singing, little runaway. Jeff Lynne produced that album. So is it true? Is Del Shannon an honorary Wilbury?

  4. He most certainly is, Chris. Two tracks that ended up on his last album Rock On! are rightfully regarded as Traveling Wilbury’s outtakes: “Walk Away” and “Let’s Dance”.
    Especially “Walk Away” is a great song, with an unmistakable Wilbury’s colour. Not surprising, given the line-up:

    Acoustic Guitar, Backing Vocals – Tom Petty
    Acoustic Guitar, Electric Guitar, Bass, Keyboards – Jeff Lynne
    Drums, Percussion – Phil Jones
    Electric Guitar – Mike Campbell
    Performer [Slapping Thighs] – Del Shannon, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty
    Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Electric Guitar – Del Shannon

  5. “For reasons unexplained, she loved the Monkey Man.”

    I’ve always thought this line was a master stroke. First, it borrows the language of a police procedural: “reasons unexplained”. Second, it says love can’t be explained. Third, it establishes this is in fact a love song, and thus not the grim tale it would otherwise be.

  6. There’s probably a few things to mention but the big one for me (unless I’m flipping something in my head and it’s another song, but I associate it with this one at this point), is the film Dog Day Afternoon was a touchstone for this track as well, which is based on a true story and the plot involves robbing a bank so Al Pacino’s boyfriend can pay for his sex change operation. Of course it goes wrong.

  7. “Lion’s Den” wasn’t actually released by Springsteen until 1998’s “Tracks,” so the use of those words is a coincidence

  8. Tweeter is transgender, not the cop’s sister. The complication is that the cop’s sister is in love with the guy he’s pursuing.

  9. Your clarifying comment [ of December 26th at 3:16 P. M., A. D. 2020], Richard Sanderson, helps clear away the inadvertantly obfuscation. Thank you! { ~ 9 : 11 P. M. [ P. D. (S. ) t. ] – ( ~ 11 – iv – 2021 [ A. D. ] ) } s. j. s.

  10. Dan Cooper, thats what I have been wondering for years, maybe it’s Bill, Jan’s Husband. Maybe unbeknownst to Jan, Bill knew more than she thought?

  11. What about the chorus? ‘And the walls came down all the way to hell. Never saw them when they were standing. Never saw them when they fell’.

    Related to the story or just and obscure tangent?

  12. The Traveling Wilburys project came about from an unbelievable situation that has taken place within the music industry.
    A paparazzi recording crew began recording the real dancer of Saturday Night Fever story. The Bee Gees were provided the lyrics of Staying Alive by the dancer when asked by Barry Gibb to sing about himself. In 1975 Nights On Broadway and 1976 Shadow Dancer were bootlegged recorded from the dancer / guitarist / singer. Because the movie and sound track were so successful the paparazzi recording crew went every day to bootleg record the guitarist song creator. He began designing bands such as Radio Head, B52’s, Talking Heads and many more followed. The recording conspiracy ended I’m 1993. Songs like Before You Go, Hurt, Bad Guy, O’l Town Road, Wreaking Ball, Teen Spirit so many more songs to consider were all bootlegged from one guitarist.
    The guitarist also created Congratulations another bootleg. The Wallflowers do One Headlight another bootlegged song. Tom Petty did a lot from the conspiracy bootlegged recordings. Eddie Rocker, Last Dance With Mary Jane and obviously created about the recording conspiracy the Petty hit Don’t Come Around Here No More. Lady Gaga is a created persona artist as well Kid Rock directly from the recording conspiracy. Sheryl Crow album Com’on Com’on every song is bootlegged and Sheryl Crow has admitted to a serious flawed credits background with all her claimed songs. They are all illegal copyrighted songs. The fact is Dylan was selected by the guitarist along with Petty, Harrison and Lynn to allow Roy Orbison to shine as the star of the Wilburys faimly band.

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