Gotta Serve Somebody

By Tony Attwood

If I am asked for a simple explanation as to why I like Dylan’s music so much, and why it has been part of my life since my teens and onwards for some 50 years, I answer, “it is the metaphor.”

Metaphor, I say, is the key to the language. It gives us the chance to fly.  Folk uses it a bit, but it has never really been central to rock – until Dylan.

“All the world’s a stage,” I conclude, and leave it at that.

And what do we have in “Gotta Serve Somebody?”  Nothing – at least nothing in terms of metaphor.  Indeed there is an absolute absence of metaphor.  The answer is not blowing in the wind – there is no wind, nothing is blowing, the world is not a stage, it is what it is, here is the answer, no arguing allowed.

So this may be a song for you but it is not a song for me, because it avoids the very essence of what draws me to Dylan.

Plus I must admit there is the fact that I utterly disagree with the sentiment.  My position (for what it is worth, and I’m just a guy who writes stuff) is that I’m perfectly happy for believers to get on with their lives as long as they allow me to get on with mine without interference.

Living in England of course I don’t have that, for I live in a country in which the Bishops sit in Parliament influencing laws on things like divorce, the right to die and whether my local supermarket can open all day on sunday (it can’t), because of their religious beliefs.  But that’s another matter.  I don’t serve the Lord of this song, for if I serve anyone it is my family, and people in general.  I just try to be a nice guy.

So yes it is quite true, I don’t like the sentiment of the song, and I admit that.  But far, far more than that, take the metaphor out of Dylan, remove the exciting chord changes and the interesting melody lines, and I have to say you don’t have Dylan.  You have a very average songwriter.

“Gotta Serve Somebody” arrived as the opening to the 1979 album Slow Train Coming.  Quite strangely (in my opinion) the song won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Male in 1979.  It was even a hit single.  I find all that quite  incomprehensible.

Now although I am not a Christian, and indeed I am an atheist, I have tried to understand the dominant religion in my country, and of course I am aware of “No man can serve two masters” in St Matthew.  I am also aware of Leviticus in the Old Testament, but Bob didn’t seem to want to know about that at this stage in his life, even though the OT is still very much part of the Christian understanding of God.

But my goodness he was committed to the song after he recorded it, singing it as the opener for every one of over 100 shows between 1979 and 1981.

Dylan was indeed preaching – for there is surely nothing here apart from the preaching over a modest backing track.  I am not sure I would go as far as the readers of Rolling Stone in voting it the second worst Dylan song – I’d have to think long and hard about that.  Rather I’d say it is just, well, a very ordinary song that bops along and tries to make up in background what it lacks in foreground.  And not too successfully.

And the reason for that, in my view, relates to the subject matter.  For the point about religious belief is that you don’t have to argue it – you just believe it.  So there is no debate.  There is no metaphor beyond God is the Light.  But no matter how much I think about it, I still prefer “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.”

Musically what we have is a song in A minor and largely based around that chord for the four lines of the verse.  The chorus moves to D major, back to A minor and then quickly through E, D and back to A minor.  Nothing there to grab the imagination.

But as I listen to it several times over in writing this little piece what strikes me is the horrible sameness of it all.  It is quite a nice sound as a backing track – but it needs really exciting lyrics over the top to make it work.  But there is nothing unexpected in the chorus; there is a fair enough tune, but it just goes round and round and nothing happens.

What I am reminded of most of all is the comment by Talking Heads, in the song Heaven.  “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.”  Dylan seems to have got that idea and wants to write it in a song, forgetting that David Byrne was being ironic at the time.

When this kiss is over it will start again.
It will not be any different, it will be exactly the same.
It’s hard to imagine that nothing at all
could be so exciting, could be so much fun.

Heaven, Heaven is a place, place where nothing, nothing ever happens…

That’s David Byrne for you.  Interestingly both “Heaven” and “Gotta serve” were issued in the same year.  I’ve often wondered if either artist heard the other’s work before writing his reply.

Either way David Byrne made the point that because Heaven is perfection, and because perfection cannot be changed, it is always the same, and thus Heaven is ultimately boring because nothing ever happens because it is the home of eternal perfection.  The perfect circle.

And it is almost as if Dylan has heard this and accepted it as how it should be, because in Dylan’s song nothing happens.  But it should, because his song is set on earth…

You may be an ambassador to England or France You may like to gamble, you might like to dance You may be the heavyweight champion of the world You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

Yes, I say, but so what?  Well the what is, “You have to serve somebody” and that’s it.  As David Byrne said, “Say it once, say it again.”

And that’s what Bob does with the chorus…

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed You’re gonna have to serve somebody Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

OK Bob I hear you. I disagree profoundly, but I will not ever dispute your absolute right to say it.  I like to choose not to listen any more, except you give me that chorus seven times.  Seven times Bob, the same thing, seven times.  “You’ve got a lot of nerve” Bob to give me that same rather ordinary chorus seven times.

You see Bob, and you know this perfectly well, if you are going to do this preaching, you have to be interesting.  It’s fine if you are talking to a believer, but I think you really believed you were going to convert some people.  But really, in retrospect did you ever think you were going to influence anyone with a verse like this….

You might be a rock ’n’ roll addict prancing on the stage You might have drugs at your command, women in a cage You may be a businessman or some high-degree thief They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief

If I go on any more I’m going to be as dull as the song.  I’ll stop but with one final comment.

Lest you think that my atheism is so all pervading that I am against this just because it is a religious song, and that I could never like any religious music or any music with a religious message let me assure you that is not so.  As it happens I’ve performed in a variety of concerts of religious music, from the B Minor Mass down, as well as having played the church organ in religious services including at two of my daughters’ Christian weddings.  The association with religion doesn’t worry me.  It is just that this song has nothing but a statement of belief.

Compare and contrast with “I believe in you” or indeed with David Byrne’s “Heaven”.

Index to all the reviews

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4 Responses to Gotta Serve Somebody

  1. Pamela Balch says:

    Was on my way to commenting on your writeup of “Disease of Conceit” when I thought it would be good to find out more about where you were coming from. This has been pretty clear. I’m a newish fan, guess I missed this last summer. I’m a Christian and yet of all Bob’s songs I’ve listened to so far there are loads of others I like ahead of “Gotta Serve Somebody,” maybe for some of the same reasons as you. Most of my Christian friends will say of all Dylan’s songs this is the one they like best. I think the fairly simple theme of this song is that humans are either consciously or unconsciously, most of the time the latter, having a spiritual impact on themselves and others, across the whole spectrum of human experiences. There are ultimate, far-flung consequences to our actions, even our thoughts. So try to think about the big picture. If there is a God, what does he expect of people? If there is a devil, am I unconsciously cooperating with his sly and ruthless agenda? I hear that you are an atheist. I respect that. Atheists can have a particular kind of honesty that is refreshing. Makes for invigorating discussions!

  2. TonyAttwood says:

    Pamela yes I am an atheist, but I only mention here because I know that no matter how I try, my background feelings and beliefs will slip in. So I start from a position just as a Christian a Jew or a Muslim or indeed anyone else will start from a particular position. I try not to let it influence me, but I know that it is inevitable.

    For what it is worth, I would love to live in a world in which everyone could have their own beliefs, and talk to those who want to listen, but not do anything that interferes with the views of others. I doubt it is possible, but it’s (for me) a nice dream.

    Thus with Dylan I don’t start from the point of view that this or that is a religious song, except where it is obvious. With Ring them Bells for example, I’m interested in the contradictions perhaps more than the mention of the magnificent St Catherine’s monastery, which I have visited.

  3. Susie says:

    You had it right the first time. There is metaphor. Dylon is not really talking about lord or devil. He’s talking about having to answer to somebody, as in a boss, a husband, a landlord. No man/woman escapes. It is the only leveler of humankind-you have to serve SOMEBODY.

  4. David N. says:

    Whatever. It’s a catchy melody, with VERY fun lyrics. And the message, This or That, is incomparable: you may have a shitty boss, or you may have a prince/princess of a boss — but while you’re at work, you have to serve the boss, and do the best you can at it. It’s not Bob Dylan’s best song, OK. But, it’s my favorite Bob Dylan song; I love it.

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