Saturday, February 15, 2014

Track of the Week: Bob Dylan, "Gotta Serve Somebody"

Bob Dylan has made a career confounding critics and frustrating his fans.  In recent days he has done so by figuring prominently in a Chrysler commercial that aired during the Super Bowl.  A couple of years ago he put out a perversely old-fashioned Christmas album, which while not quite on par with him going electric in '65 or country in '69, occasioned plenty of exasperation.

His most surprising and divisive change, however, probably came in the late 1970s, when he started putting out albums full of Christian music, beginning with 1978's Slow Train Coming and ending with .  The music reflected his involvement with the Vineyard Church, which was part of the explosion in the size and influence of non-traditional evangelical Christianity during the 1970s.

The single "Gotta Serve Somebody" boldly announced Dylan's new perspective, wrapping it in a pop package for maximum impact.  Dylan's fans, of course, were not amused.  To this day most view his music from this time as anathema, and voted "Gotta Serve Somebody" his second worst song in an online poll.  For the poet of the sixties counterculture to trade in the apocalyptic imagery and scripture-quoting of a revival preacher was just too much for a lot of people.

Looking back, Dylan's religious period was just a more intense expression of aspects of his art that had been there since the beginning.  Back in his earliest folky days his songs were packed with Biblical references.  "When the Ship Comes In" is the story of the Second Coming, complete with lyrics referencing the drowning of Pharaoh's army and conquest of Goliath.  "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" comes across like a piece of Old Testament prophecy.  Later songs in his career, like "Ring Them Bells," brim over with religious imagery.

Seen in this light, "Gotta Serve Somebody" is another "finger-pointing" Dylan song with heavy religious overtones, already common in his work, more pronounced.  What strikes me when I listen to it is the sound, which is as slick as slick can be.  It's got groovy funk and polished production and reminds me powerfully of the blockbuster work of Fleetwood Mac in this same era.  It is a far cry from the more off-the-cuff, thrown together sound you hear on most Dylan recordings.  (For him the song has been much more important than its mechanical reproduction.)  While some of the other material on the album might suffer from this approach, "Gotta Serve Somebody" still sounds great.

The lyrics point to a fundamental truth that exists for all of us, whether we be religious or not.  None of us is the master of our own destiny, and to think otherwise is a delusion.  We spend most of our lives serving somebody or something else, and ought to think long and hard about what it is that we are actually serving.  In this song Dylan proclaims his desire to serve the Lord instead of material things.  I read this as a statement about what really matters in life, and what doesn't, and what it means to live a good, meaningful live.  Even if you're turned off by Dylan's religious overtones, it's still a topic well worth contemplating.


Anonymous said...

John Lennon's reply, "Serve Yourself"

Anonymous said...

In the commercial, Dylan says cars changed America. They sure did. They turned us into a nation of parking lots and interstate highways, drive-thrus and strip malls.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

As much as I am not a fan of fundamentalist religion, I also cringe at Lennon's narcissism in his 70s work. In "God" when I hear him name all the things he doesn't believe in, but says "I just believe in me" I cringe.