Gotta Serve Somebody: gotta change the lyrics. Bob Dylan in depth.


by Jochen Markhorst


The world’s best songwriter does not always strike home and occasionally misses to such an extent that simple mortals overcome all humility and dare to bark at the boss. Wiggle wiggle like a bowl of soup (from “Wiggle, Wiggle”, the opening song of under the red sky, 1990) is the definitive turning point for many critics; now Dylan’s expiry date really has been exceeded. And decades later he is still being blamed for that song, and especially for that particular verse line.

In 2011 the song is in Time‘s list of ‘The 10 Worst Bob Dylan Songs’, Rolling Stone asks the readers to vote for their least favourite Dylan song in 2013 where the song even takes first place and the respected Louis Theroux tweets precisely this one line to his two million followers to give in to his amazement at the Nobel Prize awarding (on his Twitter account @louistheroux, October 13, 2016).

To some, however, it is not the all-time worst low-point. To Joe Queenan, for example, a journalist from the American premier league. In his readable, though insulting and devastating, interview / essay The Free-Fallin’ Bob Dylan (Spy Magazine, August 1991) he writes about the wobbly soup: “Actually these are not the most embarrassing lyrics Dylan has ever written. Those lyrics are from his 1979 song “Gonna Serve Somebody”. You may call me Terry, you may call me Timmy / You may call me Bobby, you may call me Zimmy.”

Viewed clinically, the verse indeed is far from titanic. But then again: any poetic depth is not intended at all. Dylan here paraphrases a conference of those days, from the cabaret artist Bill Saluga. One of his characters was Raymond J. Johnson Jr., and his gimmick was that he did not want to be called ‘Mr. Johnson’:

“Now you can call me Ray, or you can call me J, or you can call me Johnny, or you can call me Sonny, or you can call me Junie, or you can call me Junior; now you can call me Ray J, or you can call me RJ, or you can call me RJJ, or you can call me RJJ Jr. . but you doesn’t hasta call me Johnson!”

Towards the end of the 70s, when Dylan writes his “Gotta Serve Somebody”, Saluga’s personage, with a variation on that monologue, can be seen almost daily for months in a national television commercial for a beer brand, for Anheuser-Busch Natural Light Beer.

Looking back, it is rather mysterious why the sketch and the persona were so popular. It is a saltless, pointless text of an over-acting cabaret artist without any recognisable charisma. Different times, apparently.

Saluga and Mr. Johnson are rightly forgotten, and with it the source of Dylan’s paraphrase. This leads within a few years to critics who are unable to place the lyrics in that cultural context, with consequently failing criticism.

Funny then at least are the analysts who bend over backwards in trying to find depth or poetic strength in that silly reference. Oliver Trager confidently asserts that ‘Timmy’, ‘RJ’ and ‘Ray’ are all aliases of Dylan, professor Christopher Ricks is once again inimitably delighted, this time about the supposed symbolic power of the switch from You may be in all previous couplets to You may call me in this last verse and several exegetes sharply conclude that Dylan drops his mask, exposes himself completely, returns to who he really is: Robert Allen Zimmerman – Zimmy.

It is something to get used to, this style. Dylan’s great, Nobel-worthy, poetic appeal has always been the brilliant expression of ‘his pictorial way of thinking’, as the Nobel Prize Committee says. Thereof is little to be found in this song, or on this album at all, for that matter. In “Gotta Serve Somebody” there is not even a single metaphor (well all right, young Turk is a metaphor for a political activist, but is not meant metaphorically here).

This temperance is not due to the chosen form. Dylan often writes ‘list songs’, lyrics that rely on the power of repetition. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, “Forever Young”, “Everything Is Broken”, “Blowin’ In The Wind”, just to name a few of the better known – not the least songs and from Hard Rain, for example, one can hardly maintain that it is poor in images.

From that, lack of imagery, “Gotta Serve Somebody” suffers, and that indeed is a surprise. Dylan has just repented, sings and plays more energized than ever before, is passionate and inspired by the gospel and the Holy Scriptures, but apparently that fuels everything but his poetic brilliance. This specific repetition, for instance, the poet does not forge himself, but he steals it from Elvis (probably), from his fourth single “Baby, Let’s Play House” (1955):

You may go to college,
You may go to school.
You may have a pink Cadillac,
But don’t you be nobody’s fool

Or else from Memphis Slim, from the song that the radio show host Dylan runs in his second episode of Theme Time Radio Hour, “Mother Earth” (1951), which also comes close to Dylan’s song content-wise:

You may play race horses
You may own that race track
You may have enough money baby
To buy anything you like

Don’t care how great you are
Don’t care what you worth
When it all ends up you got to
Go back to mother earth

The content of all those You may’s appears not to be too beatific to the performing artist Dylan. The chorus is carved in stone, but on stage he comes up with dozens of variants of the verses. You might get naked and mow the lawn, he sings in ’87 in Brussels, and in Rotterdam that same year:

Might be Jimmy Connors, might be Al Capone
Might be living with a million people, might be living alone

At any rate, he fiddles around the most, by far, with that maligned last verse, the verse with Timmy and Zimmy. And he is not the only one either; quite a lot of artists who cover the song take the liberty to rewrite. Pastor Shirley Caesar, ‘The First Lady Of Gospel’ sings a version of which Dylan declares in Biograph’s booklet: “I liked her version better than mine.”

Shirley sings:

You might call me Sally, you might call me Jean
You might call me Sheila and you might even call me Irene
You might call me Molly, but my name is Shirley
But God gave me another name, I know I’ve been born again

Not too spectacular, all in all, and stylistically weak too, with that poor but my name is Shirley, but God gave me another name there at the end.

When Natalie Cole plunges onto the song (on Snowfall On The Sahara, 1999), the master is personally involved. At least, both the liner notes and The Bob Dylan Copyright Files 1962-2007 claim that Dylan has rewritten a verse. Producer Phil Ramone knows that the master has even written two verses for Natalie, as he tells in his autobiography Making Records – The Scenes Behind The Music (2007):

“One of the unexpected songs to top the list was Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody”, which Natalie’s sister suggested. Natalie loved the song, but after running it down at a rehearsal, she voiced a concern. ‘The message is powerful, but Dylan makes reference to guns in one of the verses, and I’m not comfortable with it,’ she explained.

“Gotta Serve Somebody” was a very strong choice, and I knew that Natalie would be disappointed if we didn’t include it. So I decided to ask Bob Dylan if he’d consider changing the verse in question for Natalie’s recording.

I sent Bob a message through his manager (Jeff Kramer), and Bob quickly sent back two new verses written especially for Natalie. They worked beautifully, and Natalie wrote Bob a note to thank him and to let him know how much of a musical influence he had been. Until then, I had no idea that she was a fan of his work.”

On the various websites that pretend to have Natalie Cole’s song lyrics, it seems in any case to go back to that mocked last verse:

Now you can call me Terry or you might call me Moore
You may call me David or you might call me Coe
You can call me RJ or you can call me Ray
You can call me anything, I don’t care what you say

‘Terry Moore’? That would be the name which Dylan’s associative spirit comes up with? Terry Moore is a famous actress who in the fifties causes a furore as a sexy tomboy, she is a popular pin-up model, befriends Elvis and is married to the immensely-rich, eccentric, womanizing playboy / pilot / filmmaker / aircraft manufacturer Howard Hughes (or not, Hughes’ heirs deny Moore and Hughes were officially a couple).

And, as it usually goes, Moore disappears from sight when she gets older, in the late sixties, but: in the 80s she returns to the front. In 1984, at the age of 55, she poses naked for Playboy, she reappears in small extras in films and TV series (Love Boat, Knight Rider and Murder, She Wrote, for example) and that restart is solid – Moore (1929) is back for good. Her supporting role in the hit series True Detective (2014) is memorable. But whether Dylan thinks of her in 1999, when he rewrites a verse from an evangelical masterpiece, is highly unlikely.

The intervention in the second line seems just as puzzling. David Coe? Dylan would refer to David Allan Coe, the outlaw country musician and songwriter, who is publicly honoured by him several times. For example in the Rolling Stone interview, May 2009, when he calls him one of my favourite guys and before that in his Theme Time Radio Hour, episode Tennessee:

“Here’s my man, the great David Allen Coe. A dangerous man, in and out of reform schools, correction centres and prisons since the age of 9. He supposedly spent time on death row for killing a fellow inmate who made advances to him. A Rolling Stone magazine reporter questioned Coe about this. His musical response was the song, ‘I’d Like To Kick The Shit Out Of You’.”

Agreed, a nod to Coe can be traced. But would still very wondrous in this edifying text.

It is not true, of course. When listening to Nathalie Cole’s version, it appears that Dylan has deleted two entire verses, including the latter, and replaced it with a fresh new verse:

You might be heading north, you might be heading south
You might be laying up in bed, with a gun up to your mouth
You might be going nowhere, or you might have been there before
Maybe all of a sudden you don’t know yourself no more

… and that indeed has more poetic power. In fact, it grabs you more by the throat, it is more Dylanesque and more beautiful than all the other lines of the original text. Incidentally, half of Ramone’s story does not survive: the gun has not been deleted and is now embedded in a context that is even more sinister than the original (laying in bed with a gun up to your mouth versus you might own guns).

The source of these erroneous lines with Moore and David and Coe is David Allan Coe himself, as further digging reveals. In 1983 he records the beautiful album Castles In The Sand.

The title song is a tribute, a passionate loyalty statement to Bob Dylan and an assertive tirade against all those journalists who sell nonsense and lies about his hero. That will have pleased the old bard. At least as charmed he probably is by the next song, an exciting country-funk version of “Gotta Serve Somebody”. And here Coe sings:

Now you can call me Terry or you might call me Moe
You may call me David or you might call me Coe
You can call me RJ or you can call me Ray
You can call me anything, I don’t care what you say

So: Moe – not Moore. And only chosen to let it rhyme with Coe.

All that fiddling with the last verse does not affect the strength and the popularity, the one-dimensionality of the other lines does not matter either, apparently. “Gotta Serve Somebody” is by far the most beloved song from Slow Train Coming. It is awarded with a Grammy Award, the single scores – by Dylan’s standards – very nice, it pops up regularly in films and TV series (in The Sopranos, for example) and it is, as opposed to the other eight songs of the album, endlessly covered. John Lennon’s villainous answer song, the vicious “Serve Yourself” does not change that.

The covers, certainly from the professional artists, generally do not differ too much and are always good. Shirley Caesar’s recording, so admired by Dylan, is truly beautiful and honourably selected for the soundtrack of the rambunctious Dylan vehicle Masked And Anonymous (2003). Just as steaming and swinging are comparable ladies as the aforementioned Natalie Cole, Dylan’s childhood love Mavis Staples (Tangled Up In Blues, 1999) and Etta James (Matriarch Of The Blues, 2000), and even the very British Marianne Faithfull remains remarkable close to the blistering gospelsoulfunk of both the source and the majority of the covers (with Jools Holland’s band, 2002).

In any case irregular, though not necessarily better are a few gentlemen. Veteran Eric Burdon does it without driving rhythm section, but semi-acoustic with a dry double bass and a funky guitar, Willie Nelson provides a vague Doobie Brothers vibe and Booker T. is – naturally – instrumental.

For non-artistic reasons Pops Staples scores the most points. The “Gotta Serve Somebody” on his second solo album, Father Father from 1994, is an ‘ordinary’ beauty, but the version on the posthumous Don’t Lose This (2015) is a smooth, contagiously optimistic live recording, sung by an audibly happy, ancient ancestor (recorded in 1998, he is 83) of the Staple Singers. He can only remember the first two verses and halves and improvises that damned last verse (You can call me Robert, you can call me Jimmy), but soit; it’s an 83-year-old Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples and he’s irresistible.

Footnote from the publisher: The David Allen Coe song was added by me, not because it is immediately illustrative of the points made in the article, but because I love the piece, and you might not have heard it before.  Truth is not the way to sell subscriptions.  Tony.

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  1. ….hidden in your melody

    ….like a wind that could bend in the wind-
    Birches: Robert Frost

    ….like a river that flows around the bend –
    Bend Of The River: James Stewart

  2. ” And me like his song Serve Somebody quite a bit as well…I can tell you that it don’t mean anything to him that people might not like what he is doing. Him still do it. ” ( Bob Marley, Biograph notes ).
    Despite the Nobel Prize, professors and other assorted academics writing hundreds of books, presidents and other heads of state conferring prestigious honours, millions of journalistic words including Rolling Stone magazine labelling ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ the greatest ever song, an Oscar and an audience with the Pope, I believe that Dylan much prefers the approval of his peers especially those singer songwriters who can cut it live on stage ( I dislike the label “world’s greatest songwriter” as this suggests someone who writes songs for others to sing and Bob Dylan is surely the world’s greatest singer songwriter ). So when a kid takes the bus to sing songs for his hero and wins approval that is worth more than any so-called 5 star review. When Joan Baez says Dylan’s voice blew her away or Lennon says ” you don’t have to hear what Bob Dylan’s saying, you just have to hear the way he says it ” or Elvis performs ‘ Tomorrow is A Long Time ‘ ,imitating Dylan in the studio, or Bono says ‘ Shot of Love ‘ is one of Dylan’s greatest albums because of the power of his singing then this means you cannot receive any greater reward. It would be wrong given Dylan’s recent studio recordings not to include the fact that Sinatra requested ‘Restless Farewell’ at the tribute show then invited Dylan alone back after the event. The superb David Allan Coe tribute song above is wonderful and ,of course, joins a long list including Bowie’s ‘Song for Bob Dylan’. Probably the finest performance of ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’, despite the magnificent studio vocal performance, is the terrific Grammys performance with the harmonica blast at the end…look at his peers in the crowd howling their approval. Last year Dylan picked up the song again, part way through his tour, now delighting the crowds with a wonderful intense performance.

  3. I laughed out loud when I heard the original final verse of “Serve Somebody” for the first time in ’79. I thought it was a classic case of Dylan’s brilliant humor shining through on an album that lacked much in the way of humor. I don’t think those words are anywhere close to Dylan’s worst. “All the Tired Horses” anyone? It’s right up there–or down there–with “Wiggle, Wiggle.”

  4. I don’t see why “Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a bowl of soup,” is considered that bad. I think it’s kind of cute and clever. Haven’t we all played with our soup and watched it wiggle?

    Now the “You can call me Terry…….” Ok, that’s pretty bad.

  5. You can call me Edgar Allan Poe
    You might call me David Allan Coe
    But you don’t have to call me Robert Allen Zimmerman

  6. It is always a humorous moment for me when the cast of characters trots out as self-proclaimed music and lyric critics and then take to naming the flaws or highlighting the praises of this or that or such as such. “Gotta Serve Somebody” is neither the best nor the worst, not should best or worst even be used to evaluate songwriting. The key is, does it connect with an audience? If it doesn’t connect with you, fine, move on, and either write your own superior lyric or find an example of what connects with you. The fact that the “You can call me …” verse is talked about frequently is prima facie evidence that Mr. Zimmerman knows what he is doing and will do it, without regard for the self-appointed critics. Be assured, “Gotta Serve Somebody” has a definite audience that saw it as Dylan finally speaking some of their truth. I know some of those folks, and they are genuine in their appreciation of that song.

  7. Tommy – such a view as you express here is widespread, and oft repeated. In essence it seems to suggest that there are no absolutes in any art form beyond the personal appreciation. From such a view we cannot decide anything about art in any of its forms – everything is personal. Thus there can be no art galleries because we cannot ever decide what to put there. Everything then is down to the artist’s judgement, take it or leave it, that’s it. The soap opera on TV is seen as equal to Macbeth.
    That is a way of seeing the world, but without the world in which decisions are made there would just be a vast array of music, visual art, theatre productions… with nothing ever attracting attention because nothing would ever be open to critical acclaim or its reverse.
    We then live in a world of personal judgement only, wherein the artist’s work is unlikely to reach a wider audience because, with no judgements ever made, no one can be guided. Arguments cease, debate ends.

    But perhaps what is even more interesting is that those who proclaim this view see those whom they oppose as “self-proclaimed” as you put, but do see themselves as self-proclaimed – yet theirs is just another view. Yet they endlessly proclaim the view that those whom they oppose (“self-proclaimed music and lyric critics”) are denounced – itself a proclamation.

    Surely that is the cause for the greatest merriment – that inability to see that in denying the validity of exploring the merits of a work of art, the chances of any of us being able to find wonderful works of art is diminished because there is nothing left but a catalogue of everyone’s work, from the scribbles of the three year old, to the ramblings of the drunkard.

    And of course the fact that those who denounce the self-appointed critic (and how is such a person different from the critic who has been appointed by a newspaper?) are themselves self-appointed critics who despite their dislike of those whom they criticise, keep reading.

    Thanks for your commentary because it highlights something that often bemuses me, and I’ll see if I can expand this further in an article reflecting perhaps on the fact that without my pals as I writing away on this site, the site would be nothing other than a list of the songs Dylan has composed, in the order he wrote them. Valuable in itself, but only a fraction of the value of exploring them.

    But of course I don’t want to spoil your fun.

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