by Jochen Markhorst
“Once the record was released, I heard all the Dylan comparisons, so I steered away from it. But the lyrics and spirit of Greetings came from an unself-conscious place.”
(Springsteen on his first LP Greetings From Ashbury Park in his autobiography Born To Run, 2016)
It is August 1972 and Springsteen just told us that Columbia Records boss Clive Davis has not yet been able to discover radio-friendly hits in the material for the debut album.
“I drove to the beach and wrote ‘Spirit In The Night’, went home, packed my rhyme dictionary and wrote ‘Blinded By The Light’, the two best songs on the album.”
Both songs are picked up by Manfred Mann and especially “Blinded By The Light”, a huge world hit, not only establishes Springsteen’s name as songwriter, but also places a tick in the ‘Second Dylan’ checkbox; after all, Manfred Mann is the undisputed Grandmaster of the Dylan covers and from now on seems to be concentrating on Springsteen covers.
“Spirit In The Night” is the most fascinating song on that album, an audience’s favourite to this day, and the primal model for what music historians in the coming centuries will label as an archetypal Springsteen song.
A mini-novella, exuberant, fragmentary narrative style, baroque named main characters (Crazy Janey, Killer Joe, Hazy Davy, Wild Billy), cars, Saturday night, the masterly symbiosis of lyrics and music, and the superior sense of rhythm (Crazy Janey and her mission man were back in the alley trading hands): this song is the template for later masterpieces like “Born To Run”, “4th Of July” and “Thunder Road”. And for Dylan’s “Tweeter And The Monkey Man”, of course.
Springsteen’s own analysis with regard to the realization of “Spirit In The Night” is conspicuously worded. The song comes from an ‘unself-conscious place‘ (Springsteen himself uses the superfluous hyphen). That seems a somewhat clumsy punctuation choice to include associations with ‘unconscious’ or perhaps ‘subconscious’, but Bruce apparently wants to stress the nuance ‘open-minded, bold’.
This is quite similar to the way in which Dylan tries to express the process of songwriting in his early years. In several interviews, Dylan claims that the songs in the 60s rise from his’ unconscious’, that he loses that ability, and that in ’74, shortly before Blood On The Tracks, he learns to do consciously what I used to be able to do unconsciously. Even more striking, the poet puts in the television interview at CBS with Ed Bradley in 2004:
BD: I don’t know how I got to write those songs.
EB: What do you mean you don’t know how?
BD: All those early songs were almost magically written. Ah… “Darkness at the break of noon, shadows even the silver spoon, a handmade blade, the child’s balloon…” Well, try to sit down and write something like that.
Now, the origin of “Spirit Of The Night” can be traced. Springsteen himself indicates that in those days he listens a lot to the LP Cahoots of The Band, and that album includes Robbie Robertson’s song “The Moon Struck One”. The parallels are unmistakable:
Little John was stung by a snake over by the lake
And it looked like he’s really, really hurt, he was lyin’ in the dirt
… Springsteen turns it into:
Well now Hazy Davy got really hurt, he ran into the lake in just his socks and a shirt
Me and Crazy Janey was makin’ love in the dirt
And the choice for the name ‘Crazy Janey’ suggests that The Boss is at least vaguely familiar with the Crazy Jane poems of the Irish master W.B. Yeats, collected in the aptly titled collection Words For Music Perhaps (1932).
Browsing through that collection yields more aha-moments. Yeats’ Crazy Jane is romantically involved with The Bishop (the mission man), sub-characters appear to be created for a future Springsteen song: Jack the Journeyman, the solid man and the coxcomb, Old Tom the Lunatic and Holy Joe the beggar-man.
Traces of fellow Nobel laureate W.B. Yeats in Dylan songs are every now and then found by Dylanologists, but are usually quite indirect, substantiating Dylan’s own account from a 1965 interview (“I haven’t read Yeats”). Here too, Yeats’ influence only very indirectly seeps into a Dylan song, in this case into a Traveling Wilbury song, the Springsteen homage “Tweeter And The Monkey Man”.
It is a sympathetic subgenre in Dylan’s oeuvre, the homage. On his first album he pays his tribute unequivocally (“Song To Woody”) as he can do in later years too, once in a while (“Lenny Bruce”, 1981), but he usually wraps his honouring more subtly. For example through style paraphrase (“Clothes Line Saga”, the nod to Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe”), by copying sound and melody (like “Sugar Baby”, the reverence to Gene Austin), but most often by littering a song with textual references, such as the loving greetings to Wilbert Harrison’s “Kansas City” in “High Water (For Charley Patton)”, to John Lennon (“Roll On, John”) and here to The Boss in this “Tweeter And The Monkey” Man”.
The many winks in the song are eagerly listed on the various fanfora. Stolen Car, Thunder Road, Jersey Girl, The River, Mansion On The Hill … with some tolerance more than ten references to Springsteen songs can be found in Dylan’s song. Co-author Tom Petty confirms, smiling, in a Rolling Stone interview, 2003:
“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.”
A slightly more romantic story tells that Tom Petty and Dylan visit a Springsteen concert at the Memorial Sports Arena in Los Angeles at the end of April 1988. One of the songs played is “Part Man, Part Monkey” (baby, that’s me) and those words, plus the massive presence of Clarence Clemons with his honky hooter, inspire Tweeter and Monkey Man.
The references then are the ornaments for a cinematic story in the best Springsteen tradition, an action thriller about a triangular relationship, with petty crime, car chases, shootings, a fatal finale and a film noirish, melancholic coda in black and white. Word choice, rhythm and narrative style, however, have a Dylanesque touch, resulting in a peculiar mirror effect: Dylan who writes a Dylanesque Springsteen song. Only the chorus,
And the walls came down, all the way to hell
Never saw them when they’re standing, never saw them when they fell,
…with that biblical image of collapsing walls, the road to hell and the aphoristic quality of the antithesis in the second verse, is full-blooded Dylan. And the confounding shuffling of personal pronouns is a typical Dylan idiosyncrasy. Tweeter goes to Vietnam as a she, but is apparently a transsexual; in the eighth verse Jan says about Tweeter: I knew him long before he ever became a Jersey Girl.
Some legitimate fame the cover of the Canadian punk rockers from Headstone receives, due to their grunge-like, exciting energy, which roughly rubs off the rather dated, smoother 80’s varnish of the original (and casually reassigns Tweeters gender).
The adaptation by Dutch cabaret artist Freek de Jonge for A Tribute To Bob Dylan, 2014 in the Concertgebouw Amsterdam, “Libelle En Mug” (“Dragonfly And Gnat”), is humorous and pleasantly disrespectful:
Annie kende Abraham van een zuster van haar neef
Die verkering met een vent had die voor Libelle schreef
Dus noemde Annie Bram Libelle en Abraham Annie Mug
Omdat ze altijd ergens jeuk had en meestal op haar rug
(Annie knew Abraham through a sister of her cousin
Who was dating some guy who wrote for ‘Dragonfly’
So Annie called Bram Dragonfly and Abraham Annie Gnat
Because she always had some itching and usually on her back)
Curiosity attraction has Roy Orbison Jr., who includes precisely this song, the only song on Traveling Wilbury’s Vol. I to which his father does not contribute, in his repertoire. A safe, unremarkable interpretation, by the way.
Enjoyable are the live performances of co-owner Tom Petty with his Heartbreakers, but they stay very loyal to the original – including a Petty who seems to want to imitate the singing style of Dylan; thus adapting the role of the Monkey Man.
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