Narrative songs: Tweeter and the Monkey Man

Everything surrounding Bob Dylan seems to have a good story behind it. I think the story of the Traveling Wilburys and their song “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” is pretty interesting. You can get most of what you need to know about the band and this song from their Wikipedia entries. The formation of the band is easily the most amusing, not to mention coincidental, of all time:

Starting at a meal between Roy Orbison, George Harrison and Jeff Lynne, the group came together at Bob Dylan’s home studio in Malibu, California, to record an additional track as a B-side for the single release of Harrison’s “This Is Love”. Tom Petty’s involvement came by chance as Harrison had left his guitar at Petty’s house. The band, however, decided that the song that resulted, “Handle with Care”, was too good to be released as a “single filler”.

The members enjoyed working together so much that they decided to create a full album together. Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, written by all the members, was recorded over a ten-day period in May 1988, and released on October 18.

They released a second album in 1990 after Orbison’s death, which wasn’t as good as the first one. The first album contains all three songs that the band is known for, “Handle With Care”, “End of the Line”, and “Tweeter and the Monkey Man”. George Harrison and Roy Orbison sing lead on “Handle With Care”; Harrison, Petty, and Orbison all sing lead on “End of the Line”; and Bob Dylan is the sole lead singer of “Tweeter and the Monkey Man”.

Given that they let Dylan sing lead at all at that point in his life, you can bet he wrote that song almost in its entirety. Wikipedia states:

“Tweeter and The Monkey Man” is sometimes regarded as a playful homage to Bruce Springsteen’s songs. The lyrics include the titles of many Springsteen songs, and the song borrows many of Springsteen’s themes and settings. For instance, the setting of the song itself is New Jersey, Springsteen’s home state, and places like Rahway Prison and Jersey City are mentioned by name. Springsteen song title references include: “Stolen Car”, “Mansion On The Hill”, “Thunder Road”, “State Trooper”, “Factory”, “The River”, and the song made popular by Springsteen but written by Tom Waits, “Jersey Girl”. Additionally, “Lion’s Den” and “Paradise” are each mentioned and prominently enunciated in the song, each being the title of a Springsteen song released after the Traveling Wilburys album.

Despite being a “playful” homage that “pokes fun” at Springsteen and his stories, there is nothing fun or playful about the story. It is grim and violent, like a Tarantino movie or something.

Here is the Music Player. You need to installl flash player to show this cool thing!

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.

Tweeter was a boy scout ’fore she went to Vietnam
and found out the hard way nobody gives a damn.
They knew that they’d find freedom just across the Jersey line
so they hopped into a stolen car, took Highway 99.

And the walls came down
all the way to hell.
Never saw them when they’re standing,
never saw them when they fell.

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.

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, “Everyone of you’s a liar.
If you don’t surrender now, it’s gonna go down to the wire.”


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 tree
near the souvenir stand by the old abandoned factory.

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.”


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 up out of 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.”


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 gone
ever 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…

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2 Responses to Narrative songs: Tweeter and the Monkey Man

  1. Jacob Winston says:

    If “End of the Line” was Recorded WHEN Ray Robinson was Alive . . . Why is He Not in the Video???

    I “thought” the Empty – {EXCEPT for an Acoustical Guitar} — “Rocking Chair” ( . . that WAS Moving; in the Videoo) — Signified that Ray had “passed” & was No longer (Physically with the Band; yet Played on in Spirit ? ? ? Am I Close?

  2. Sinatra says:


    He was alive when the song was recorded, but dead when the video was shot. The video is a hommage to Roy.