The Meaning Behind “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” by Traveling Wilburys and How It Subtly Takes Digs at Bruce Springsteen

Traveling Wilburys featured some of the finest musicians of the ‘60s and ‘70s getting together to form an ‘80s supergroup. But it was a fellow legend not in the band who was indirectly responsible for one of the group’s finest songs “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” which seemed to take parodic aim at the early story-songs of Bruce Springsteen.

Videos by American Songwriter

What is the song about? How was it written? And was it indeed meant to poke fun at the Boss? We have our guesses, so let’s indulge them as we dive into “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” one of the highlights of Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, released in 1988.

“Monkey” Business

On many songs by the Wilburys, each of the five men in the band collaborated on the writing in a group effort to come up with the best lines. But “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” appears to have been a different case. Based on interviews given by the participants, it looks like Bob Dylan did the bulk of the work on the track.

Dylan and Tom Petty got the ball rolling by coming up with the names of the two main characters, at which point they began brainstorming about what these two might be doing. Because Jeff Lynne and George Harrison were a bit confused about the America-specific jargon and locations, they basically sat back and jotted down all the ideas of the other two. (The fifth Wilbury, Roy Orbison, sat this song out.)

At that point, Dylan needed to cut the vocal quickly because he was due to head back out on tour. He took “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” and essentially rewrote the song as he was recording. The wild crime story then received excellent treatment in the studio, thanks to Harrison’s dobro part and Jim Horn’s conspiratorial saxophone punctuation.

Ribbing the Boss

Now for the nagging question: Was “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” written as a sarcastic ode to the street anthems of Bruce Springsteen? Petty and Lynne have both used the word “homage” in describing the song, which name-checks Springsteen songs and lyrics including “Thunder Road,” “Mansion on the Hill,” and “Jersey Girl” (which was written by Tom Waits but memorably covered by Springsteen).

And yet, it’s hard to believe Dylan wasn’t having at least a little bit of fun with a certain style of Springsteen song, albeit one Springsteen hadn’t written much past the mid-‘70s. We’re talking about songs like “Meeting Across the River” or “Jungleland,” ones where the characters all seem to have colorful names and get involved in small-time scams and crimes for lack of any other better opportunities.

The names Tweeter and Monkey Man also seem like they could have come straight out of a Springsteen random-name generator. Dylan indulges in some idiosyncratic fun with the template, including a gender-bending twist that arrives at the end of the song: Jan said to the Monkey Man, “I’m not fooled by Tweeter’s curl / I knew him long before he ever became a Jersey girl.”

What is the Meaning of “Tweeter and the Monkey Man”?

Even if you don’t recognize any of the Springsteen references, “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” in Dylan’s sure hands, still comes off as a compelling crime drama full of dark humor. The participants include the instigating, double-crossing Monkey Man, his faithful companion Tweeter, Monkey Man’s mistress and Tweeter’s sister Jan, and an undercover cop trying to corral the titular pair for their drug-dealing ways.

Dylan is in his glory, snapping off hard-boiled lines, including one that you’d swear Springsteen said first (but didn’t): In Jersey anything’s legal, as long as you don’t get caught. And even though the Wilburys were generally known for their genial, good-natured tunes, this couplet from “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” suggests something quite different in this description of the closing shootout: The undercover cop was found face-down in a field / The Monkey Man was on the river bridge using Tweeter as a shield.

As far as we know, the ever-guarded Bob Dylan never has made any public comment about the provenance of “Tweeter and the Monkey Man.” Nor has Bruce Springsteen ever mentioned his feelings on the song. All we know is that Dylan writing a song based on a classic Boss setup turned out to be dynamite.

When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Leave a Reply

Born to Tour: New Bruce Springsteen Documentary Focusing on His Latest Trek to Premiere in October

Born to Tour: New Bruce Springsteen Documentary Focusing on His Latest Trek to Premiere This Fall