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The Soundtrack of my Life

Tweeter and the Monkey Man by the Traveling Wilburys

When I was in high school in Ontario, we still had “Grade 13”, which was our final year, composed almost entirely of Ontario Academic Credits (OACs), which were effectively prerequisites for attending university. This was something that friends I would later meet from other provinces (notably those to the west) would snigger at, as they left high school after Grade 12. (I would snigger back, only because they were usually only 18, where I was drinking age at 19 and could go places they couldn’t. Not that I did, but one had to take the advantage whenever it existed…)

Handle With Care was the first single from Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1, which came out in late 1988, and one that hit the charts quite well in Canada, topping out at #2. Although I knew of George Harrison, I was not yet well-versed in The Beatles, Bob Dylan was but a name, Tom Petty starred in that creepy Alice In Wonderland-esque video, there was some guy with curly hair (Jeff Lynne), and Roy Orbison only existed via the renaissance of 1950s music that had erupted during the 1980s.

Despite my general lack of knowledge of artists I now (in 2020) refer to as superstars, Vol 1. was an album that played a lot in my bedroom stereo, likely to the chagrin of my mother, though she never complained. I would use End Of The Line in my mental soundtrack of my trip to the Soviet Union in June/July of 1989, and I’m still searching for the “electric dumplings” mentioned in Dirty World.

It was Dylan’s song, Tweeter and the Monkey Man, that I both loathed and could not stop putting on repeat. Was it Dylan’s voice? Was it the imagery evoked by the (what I know now to be) hints at Bruce Springsteen’s earlier work? Unlike many of the pieces of music that end up in the Soundtrack of my Life, what has left it permanently written into my history wasn’t any specific event … it was a book.

A book I hated.

I struggle to remember the exact year I read Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers, nor can I remember exactly why. It was either Grade 12 or during my final year of OACs, and I know it was for one of my English classes. I think I had to do a book report, though I can’t recall for which teacher. I can’t even remember the time of year accurately. But I do recall how much I struggled with the latter half of the novel.

Stephen King isn’t exactly known for brevity. If you assume an “average” novel length of 320 pages (assuming about 80,000 words, with about 250 words per page), almost 3/4 of his novels are above average length (some significantly so); The Tommyknockers is 558 pages, and I argue the latter half is pretty much a sequel that got bolted onto the first half.

Okay, my memory of the specifics of that book are … well, old. I literally have not picked up that book since about 1989. Except maybe once, in a used bookstore, possibly with my wife, pointing out how much I disliked it.

I think, in all honesty, I felt more betrayed by it than just disliking it. The first half of a book introduces the characters, you feel for their plight, you get a sense of dread (which King is excellent at creating) as they determine something is going very, very wrong, and the moment when one character’s dog’s blind eye is suddenly glowing green had me up for half the night. That point, incidentally, is the most memorable point in the book, the rest of it largely forgotten, but involves an alien spaceship and possession and townsfolk uprisal (I think?) and it just seemed muddled. And hard to finish.

This is where Tweeter and the Monkey Man comes in. I can’t tell you why, but this song was on repeat while I was trying to push through the rest of the novel. (The only other novel I had this much trouble with — that I had to finish — was Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd, a novel I truly detest, which I only “completed” with my classmate Jano, by taking every other chapter and then comparing notes.) Maybe it was the tone of the song that matched the tone of the (second half) of the novel, maybe it was just comforting to have something to help me through the rest.

I’ve never read another Stephen King book as a result of that experience.

I also stopped listening to Tweeter and the Monkey Man because it became synonymous, even tainted, by having been played so much while reading The Tommyknockers. It actually got so bad that I had difficulty even listening to the album. When The Headstones covered the song in 1993, I hated it (whether due to it being an inferior cover, or just because I couldn’t listen to the song itself, I don’t know).

Today, thankfully, I’ve managed to extricate the song from its association with a book I disliked, and The Traveling Wilburys reentered my regular playlists a few years ago, much to my daughters’ dismay. And, somehow, despite all the pain associated with the song’s past, I remember my teenage bedroom, the built-in desk my dad made, the classroom-sized periodic table of the elements that hung on my wall, and the bed where I subjected myself to a novel, enjoying the music that has remained with me well into my own parenthood.