‘Tweeter and the Monkey Man,’ The Traveling Wilburys

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The cover of the album, “The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1,” featuring, from left, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and George Harrison.

Bruce Springsteen was so hugely popular in the 1980s that when Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne released an album in 1988 as the Traveling Wilburys — The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 — they included one song that’s an obvious homage to him.

Or maybe it’s a parody — it’s hard to say. But “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” sung mainly by Dylan, is studded with Jersey references (“The Jersey line,” “Rahway Prison,” “In Jersey anything’s legal as long as you don’t get caught”) as well as actual Springsteen song titles (“Thunder Road,” “State Trooper,” “Mansion on the Hill”). The cops-and-robbers storyline seems very Springsteenesque as well, and a line such as “I guess I’ll go to Florida to get myself some sun/There ain’t no more opportunity here, everything’s been done,” would have fit right in on many songs on the Springsteen albums “The River” and “Born in the USA.”

Even the names Tweeter and Monkey Man were probably inspired by Springsteen’s habit, in some of his early material, of referring to people by colorful nicknames (Bad Scooter and Hazy Davy and so on).

The songwriting, as on all the album’s tracks, is credited to all five group members, though it’s believed that Dylan and Petty wrote it without help from the others. Orbison doesn’t sing on it, which is a shame, since that would have been a nice bring-things-full-circle twist, as Springsteen paid homage to him on “Thunder Road” (“Roy Orbison singing for the lonely”).

Petty told Rolling Stone in 2013:

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, “Okay, New Jersey.” And he was like, “Yeah, we could use references to Bruce Springsteen titles.”

He clearly meant it as praise. We weren’t trying to knock anybody …

New Jersey celebratedits 350th birthday from Sept. 2014 to Sept. 2015. Andin the 350 Jersey Songs series, we markedthe occasion by posting 350 songs — one a day, for almost a year — that have something to do with the state, its musical history, or both. The complete list is here.

One thought on “‘Tweeter and the Monkey Man,’ The Traveling Wilburys

  1. I think it’s definitely more parody than tribute. I love Bruce, but all of the references are obviously pokes at him. Maybe Dylan was tired of Bruce’s early puppy-like adulation and comparisons of them, and since Bruce’s popularity was soaring while Dykan’s was fading…And who knows, maybe the other Willburys were giving him some $&?! about it, so he decided to write a thinly veiled jab at him. Wouldn’t put it past him, knowing how Dylan could be testy.
    Even a step further, though I hate to think it, is that “monkey man” could be a racist poke at The Big Man. Not cool.
    Once the song became somewhat popular, they had to cover their A’s and say, “Oh yeah, it’s definitely a tribute (nudge, wink)”…

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