Bob Dylan Countdown #149: “Gotta Serve Somebody”

On the good side, it was Bob Dylan’s last Top 40 single (although we can always hold out hope for another) and it won him a Grammy. On the bad side, it kicked off an era that alienated some of his fans and set him up for a bitingly funny parody from John Lennon (payback for “4th Time Around?”) What to make of “Gotta Serve Somebody” some 33 years after all the hubbub?

What I find interesting about the song now is that it doesn’t seem overtly religious, certainly not like the rest of the stuff found on Slow Train. Dylan doesn’t take a stand one way or the other, the devil or the Lord. He’s just saying that everybody, in one way or another, is going to have to answer for their actions.

I was only seven years old at the time of the song’s release, so I can’t say I remember the press surrounding it (although I do remember the “You can call me Ray” beer commercials that Bob briefly quotes.) Anyway, I’m guessing there was a pretty strong headwind kicking up in the press about Dylan’s controversial new direction in his music well before the song was released. In that context, it’s easy to see how everybody would have jumped on “Gotta Serve Somebody” as a Christian song.

Listening to it now, I hear playfulness and subtle cleverness in the lyrics that makes it a fun and interesting listen, not at all the dour lecture that its reputation suggests. The music is minimal, only the backing vocalists rising above the low hum as Barry Beckett’s keyboards grumble alongside of Bob, allowing him to list just about every type of person under the sun, making sure to include himself in a final verse that was meta before people knew what meta was.

In a way, “Gotta Serve Somebody” is one of the most straightforward songs in the Dylan catalog. He’s saying that no one escapes responsibility. Ideally, consequences, good or bad, will accompany actions in this life. If not, Bob insinuates, even if he never states it outright, that the next life will sort things out.

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