Today, we look at how Bob Dylan and the Traveling Wilburys poked some fun at Bruce Springsteen with their song, “Tweeter and the Monkey Man.”
In Meta-Messages, I explore the context behind (using reader danjack’s term) “meta-messages.” A meta-message is where a creator comments on/references the work of another creator (or sometimes even themselves) in their work. Each time around, I’ll give you the context behind one such “meta-message.”
Obviously, you knew that the first post on my site about pop culture would HAVE to be about Bob Dylan, right?
The Traveling Wilburys were a super group consisting of Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne (of E.L.O). In early 1988 (perhaps late 1987, I’m not absolutely positive on the dates) George Harrison was working on the B-Side for a single for his latest album. He was having dinner with Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne (Lynne had produced Harrison’s most recent album, including Harrison’s first hit in a number of years, “I’ve Got My Mind Set On You” and was producing Orbison’s next album) when they discussed working together on the B-Side song, “Handle With Care.” They decided to record the song at Bob Dylan’s home studio, with Dylan joining in on the song. Harrison had lent a guitar to Tom Petty recently and went to retrieve it for the recording of the song. When he picked up the guitar from Petty, he asked him if he wanted to join in on the song, as well. Petty said yes.
The finished song (which was re-written by the five men) was so good that Harrison realized it was better than just the B-Side of a single. So instead, the five men decided to put together a whole album. They came up with fake names and called themselves the Traveling Wilburys, with each guy being a different Wilbury (Harrison was Nelson Wilbury, Lynn was Otis Wilbury, Orbison was Lefty Wilbury, Petty was Charlie T. Wilbury Jr. and Dylan was Lucky Wilbury).
The resultant album was a surprise smash success.
As you might imagine, the different songwriters each had their own style. For the most part, Dylan allowed himself to just contribute a lyric here or there to the songs by the other artists in their styles. Dylan, for his part, mostly decided to just have fun with the project. He was jut there to throw some stuff together quickly before he went back on tour.
So two of Dylan’s three songs (that he did the majority of the writing for on the album) were pastiche (or began as) pastiche songs, songs meant to evoke the style of another artist. I did a Music Legends Revealed about how “Dirty World” somehow started as a Prince riff, but the same was true for “Tweeter and the Monkey Man.”
The song examines two New Jersey drug dealers (the title characters) and the undercover cop trying to take them down, as well as the cop’s sister, Jan, who had fallen in love with the Monkey Man. The whole song is a riff on the sorts of songs that Bruce Springsteen would write about New Jersey and in fact, the song specifically references the titles to the following Springsteen songs: “Stolen Car”, “Mansion on the Hill”, “Thunder Road”, “State Trooper”, “Factory”, “The River”, plus Tom Waits’ “Jersey Girl,” which Springsteen had popularized.
The whole thing is clearly meant in good fun and not as any sort of sharp commentary on Springsteen, just simply, “Hey, this sounds like a Springsteen song, so let’s make it REALLY like a Springsteen song,” including the references and the like. It’s one of the best tracks on the original Wilburys album.
Okay, that’s it for this Meta-Messages. If anyone else has a suggestion for a good Meta-Messages, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org!