The lighter side of Bob Dylan's catalogue: from 'Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues’ to 'Tweeter and the Monkey Man’

Beneath that taciturn demeanour lies a knack for a witty pun

FILE - Musician Bob Dylan performs with The Band at the Forum in Los Angeles on Feb. 15, 1974. Dylan’s entire catalog of songs, which spans 60 years and is among the most prized next to that of the Beatles, is being acquired by Universal Music Publishing Group. The deal covers 600 song copyrights. (AP Photo/Jeff Robbins, File)
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Bob Dylan's body of work is rightfully hailed as one of the most influential in music history.

However, while a lot of that acclaim is down to generational classics such as The Times They Are A-Changin', Tangled Up in Blue and Like a Rolling Stone, his 600-song catalogue, recently acquired by Universal Music Group, is also home to some wonderfully hilarious lyrics.

Simply put, Dylan was as good as discussing politics as delivering puns. His six-decade career and 39 albums are full of tracks that are fun, witty, surreal and outright bonkers.

In the grand scheme of things, some of these tracks are as important as his social justice anthems. They serve to both enhance and puncture the aura surrounding one of the world’s most enigmatic artists. They also show that beneath that taciturn demeanour lies a sometimes sly and ready smile.

Here are six songs that show off Dylan's lighter side.

1. ‘Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues’ (1961)

Initially recorded in 1961, this track found the light of day 30 years later as part of Dylan's The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3, a release of rare recordings. Dylan-ologists view the track as one of his first original compositions and it shows, even then, his knack for lacing his work with humour.

Inspired by a real-life cruise ship riot during a voyage to US picnic spot Bear Mountain, Dylan drolly recalls some of the personalities on board and the vessel's precarious position.

Notable lyrics: "Well, we all got on and what do you think? / That big old boat started to sink / More people kept a-piling on / That old ship was a slowly going down / Funny way to start a picnic."

2. ‘Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues’ (1962)

Dripping with sarcasm, this track poked fun at the anti-communism hysteria consuming the US at the time.

Composed in the form of protest song, Dylan takes on the voice of a paranoid citizen who, upon joining anti-communism advocacy group The John Birch Society, scours the US in search for undercover communists.

During the track he rattles off a list of names of suspected "reds", including four former US presidents. Understandably, when invited to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show, producers insisted he didn't play the track due to fears of being sued by the The John Birch Society itself. Dylan refused and stormed off the set.

Notable lyrics: "Looked up my chimney hole / even deep down inside my toilet bowl / they got away."

3. ‘Talkin' World War III Blues’ (1963)

This is another track that captures the Cold War paranoia of the time. After a rash of apocalyptic nightmares, in which Dylan's character traverses a landscape scarred by war and gun-toting residents, he wakes up and hurries to a psychiatrist for advice. On the couch he learns the doctor has been experiencing the same dreams, too.

Notable lyrics: "The doctor interrupted me just about then / Saying, hey, I've been having the same old dreams / But mine was a little different, you see / I dreamt that the only person left after the war was me / I didn't see you around."

4. ‘I Shall Be Free No 10’ (1964)

Another one of Dylan's surrealistic romps. Each of the 11 verses are comedic vignettes featuring confused characters. There is a boxer who thinks he can beat Muhammad Ali, a Democrat suspicious of his party's leadership, the tennis player with dubious skills and a man stuck in a resentful friendship. This is all presented with Dylan’s lackadaisical and tongue-in-cheek vocal delivery.

Notable lyrics: "I got a friend who spends his life / Stabbing my picture with a bowie knife / Dreams of strangling me with a scarf / When my name comes up, he pretends to barf / I've got a million friends."

5. ‘Bob Dylan's 115th Dream’ (1965)

The carefree vibe of this recording is complimented by its off-the-wall lyrics. This is Dylan taking a break from the weight of being the poet of his generation. In this song, he takes immense pleasure in mouthing off random words, conjuring surrealistic images and characters. What we can tell from the lyrics is he is a passenger, or a sailor or a magazine editor, in a ship setting sail for America.

Notable lyrics: "I ran right through the front door like a hobo sailor does / But it was just a funeral parlour and the man asked me who I was? / I repeated that my friends were all in jail / with a sigh he gave me his card, he said, 'call me if they die."

6. ‘Tweeter and the Monkey Man’ (1988)

Meet Bob Dylan, the troll. In jest of the acclaim afforded to fellow singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen, this track, recorded during Dylan's time with the Traveling Wilburys, is full of references to Springsteen songs, themes and Jersey City settings.

Some of the Springsteen tracks mentioned here are Thunder Road, Lion's Den and Mansion on The Hill.

On top of that, the track also tells a story of two criminals, Tweeter and Monkey Man, who are on the run from an "undercover cop”.

Notable lyrics: "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 is gone / Ever since the nightly news showed that the Monkey Man was on."


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