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If I learned a song as a kid, I’ve probably never given the lyrics enough serious thought. I tended to accept things much more easily at a young age (like the fact that Sigourney’s an acceptable first name), so revisiting them as an adult can be an interesting experience. Today’s example of that has to do with a song by Bob Dylan. More specifically, a song he penned and sang as part of the first album by Traveling Wilburys. It’s called “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” and even though my friend Melissa burned the cd for me years ago, I was still stuck in my 1988 mindset as I listened to the familiar tunes…until last week. Where was once a song that I’d written off as “a weird but catchy Bob Dylan ditty” is now a song that I intend to dive into head first.
Before I do that though, let me acknowledge my thoughts on Bob Dylan. He’s not famous for his voice, people. The man can write some unbelievable songs, including “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and many more. He’s also a strange dude, throwing out some bizarre lines from time to time. In “I Want You,” he finds it appropriate to sing, “Now your dancing child in his Chinese suit/He spoke to me, I took his flute/You know I wasn’t very cute to him, was I?” Oh yeah, that clears it up, Bob. Anyway, the dude’s great and strange, and “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” has elements of both. Here goes…something.
Tweeter and the Monkey Man were hard up for cash.They stayed up all night selling cocaine and hashto an undercover cop who had a sister named Jan.For reasons unexplained, she loved the Monkey Man.
Ok, this is a great start. In four lines, we get a shitload of plot and backstory. We have established “bad guys” in the titular characters, and they are unwittingly dealing with the police. We also get some family history of the cop, though I don’t know why his sister gets a name but he’s just “the undercover cop.” (Oh yeah, something needed to rhyme with “Monkey Man.”) I think that’s some exceptional storytelling to being the song.
Tweeter was a boy scout ’fore she went to Vietnamand found out the hard way nobody gives a damn.
Ok, what the hell just happened? What do you mean that Tweeter was a female boy scout? Did s/he have a sex change operation in Vietnam or was the war experience just so intense that it could be categorized as “gender-shifting”? Moving on, I guess.
They knew that they’d find freedom just across the Jersey lineso they hopped into a stolen car, took Highway 99.
CHORUS:And the walls came downall the way to hell.Never saw them when they’re standing,never saw them when they fell.
Ok, so apparently they’re either now hip to the fact that they’re dealing with a cop and want to get out of town, or they’re running from other law enforcement. I get it; criminals (especially ones with cool names) often flee their surroundings. The chorus doesn’t really add much for me and is kind of “just there” lyrically. And personally, I’m not a big fan of using “they’re” for “they were,” but I’m getting overly picky. Besides, the chorus is pretty catchy even if it doesn’t advance the plot.
The undercover cop never liked the Monkey Man.Even back in childhood he wanted to see him in the can.Jan got married at fourteen to a racketeer named Bill.She made secret calls to the Monkey Man from a mansion on the hill.
I’m a little confused by the first two of these four lines. I can’t decide whether the Monkey Man is a much older criminal that the cop grew up wanting to apprehend, or if they knew each other as kids. If it’s the latter, then wouldn’t the Monkey Man know that the cop was an undercover cop? If it’s the former, the fact that he “never liked” him strikes me as odd rather than “always tracked him,” or something similar. Meanwhile, Jan gets further character development, and her pedophile husband even gets a name before the undercover cop. One more question: which “bad guy” is the leader of these two? We hear them called “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” and get a confusing snippet of Tweeter’s backstory first, but then the “cop and sister” storyline is focused on the Monkey Man. Tonto and Robin never got that much love.
It was out on Thunder Road, Tweeter at the wheel,they crashed into paradise, they could hear them tires squeal.The undercover cop pulled up and said, “Every one of you’s a liar.If you don’t surrender now, it’s gonna go down to the wire.”
I’m cool with a “crashing into paradise” metaphor that I don’t understand, because it’s the type of fancy phrasing and possible symbolism I’m used to with Mr. Dylan. The undercover cop should probably just be “the cop” now since he’s outed himself to the “bad guys,” right? And is his gun drawn? How does it get more “down to the wire” than this attempted arrest? And who uses “every one of you” for two people? Honestly. (I’m trying to let the forced rhyme of “liar” slide, but I just wish it were for a better payoff than “down to the wire.” Like in “Positively 4th Street,” Dylan forces an entire line to get it to end with “rob them” just so it can rhyme with a very strong line of, “Don’t you understand, it’s not my problem.” Forcing it for that particular idiom that doesn’t make enough sense to me, though. I’m just sayin’. Yeah but still.)
An ambulance rolled up, a state trooper close behind.Tweeter took his gun away and messed up his mind.The undercover cop was left tied up to a treenear the souvenir stand by the old abandoned factory.
If I’m reading this right, the cop (who’s still “undercover” somehow) called in backup, but the antagonists foiled the plan and killed a dude in the process. Why didn’t they kill the “overcover cop”? I’m not sure – maybe there were childhood acquaintances after all.
Next day the undercover cop was hot in pursuit.He was taking the whole thing personal, he didn’t care about the loot.Jan had told him many times, “It was you to me who taught:In Jersey anything’s legal as long as you don’t get caught.”
Wait a second here. What do you mean that “he didn’t care about the loot”? His whole life, he’s wanted to arrest this criminal, and now it’s personal and not about money? When was he going to get money for this? Is he a crooked cop who was taking a piece of the drug dealing action? I don’t get those two lines at all. In the next two, we see a perfect example of me allowing a very forced line in order to set up an important one. Jan’s line tells us a good deal about her character and about the environment as a whole, so I’m ok with the awkward “you to me who taught” fiasco. (Is ‘fiasco’ too strong? Maybe for you.)
Someplace by Rahway Prison they ran out of gas.The undercover cop had cornered them, said, “Huh, you didn’t think that this could last?”Jan jumped out of the bed, said, “There’s someplace I gotta go.”She took a gun out of the drawer and said, “It’s best if you don’t know.”
The undercover cop was found face-down in a field.The Monkey Man was on the river bridge using Tweeter as a shield.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.”
Wow, where do I even begin with this chunk of lyrics? I’ll start with the first four lines, which seems like the most logical resolution. The cop (who is so not undercover now that the moniker is laughable) catches up to his nemeses. Back in the mansion, Jan grabs a piece and bolts to wreck shit up. How old is Jan now? If she got married at 14, has enough time passed that Bill wouldn’t be considered an obvious pedophile by now? Either way, I’m still a little upset that he gets a name while our main protagonist just has an incorrect adjective and his profession.
The next line is a doozy: the cop’s dead. Since this is right after Jan grabbed a gun, we have to assume that she offed her bro in support of her secret love, Mr. Monkey Man. Especially since the “bad guys” onlytied him to a tree before, that has to be what happened, right? I ask because of the next line. Who is aiming to shoot at the Monkey Man? The cop on their tail was killed, so as far as we know, only pistol-wielding Jan remains. Why would she hold them at gunpoint after running over there to help their convict asses? Maybe the next two lines will shed light on that for us…NOPE! Instead, we get a very confusing gender-bending line about a previous relationship. I must be missing something here, because here’s how I sum up those lines: “Monkey Man, I came here to save you from my brother because I love you. But now I must kill you. Oh please, don’t hind behind Tweeter. Tweeter’s my homey, and we’ve been in cahoots since before Vietnam changed him to a her. So you’re out of allies.” There’s a crapload of faulty logic and 180 degree motive changes in that, and yet it’s the best I got. What a strange and confusing way to end the song, right? What’s that? There’s another verse? Ooh, maybe that’ll be the missing piece!
Now the town of Jersey City is quieting down again.I’m sitting in a gambling club called the Lion’s Den.The TV set was blown up, every bit of it was goneever since the nightly news show that the Monkey Man was on.
I guess I’ll go to Florida and get myself some sun.There ain’t no more opportunity here, everything been done.Sometimes I think of Tweeter, sometimes I think of Jan,sometimes I don’t think about nothing but the Monkey Man…
What. The. Fuck. None of this – absolutely none of it – makes any sense. The narrator randomly became a character who tells us more details about where he’s sitting than we ever learned about the story’s hero. So a news show reported on the Monkey Man (and not Tweeter?), which for some reason led to someone or something destroying the television. No one is even hinted at as a culprit, nor is anything resembling a motive mentioned. If I’m watching tv and a heinous crime is being reported, I may go as far as, ya know, turning it off. But blowing it up? That’s extreme, man.
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It’s this final group of four lines that probably confounds me even more than Tweeter’s fluid sexual identification. First, our suddenly existent narrator tells us of upcoming travel plans to catch some rays. Then he laments the state of Jersey City, and admits that he occasionally gives thought to some of the characters in the story he just told. Why? I have no idea. These last lines add nothing to the story at all, especially the last four. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but ending with, “I knew him long before he ever became a Jersey girl” would’ve made much more sense. Instead, we got…that. And I still don’t know which one’s the main bad guy and which is the sidekick.
(If you for some reason haven’t read enough about a 1988 song from a band that no longer exists, Wikipedia’s entry on the song has an interesting point about Dylan nodding to several Bruce Springsteen songs in it. Some of it I’m sure is 100% right, and other parts…not so much.)
So there you go, readers: so much more than you ever wanted about something you don’t give a crap about. That’s what I’m here for. At the very least, I feel a little better now that I’ve properly over-thought through something from my childhood. Who knows, maybe I’ll dig out another old album and find that my younger self accepted another twisted song at face value. Hmm, I wonder if I still have “Wild Wild West” by The Escape Club somewhere. (On second thought, this post took me parts of 4 days to write and review, so this may be one of a kind. Sorry/you’re welcome.) R.I.P., overcover cop.