Let’s take a moment, shall we, and note for the record: Bob Dylan’s last top forty hit. “Gotta Serve Somebody”, the first of a ridiculous four singles from Slow Train Coming, peaked at #24 in the United States in August 1979. He has not even sniffed the singles pop charts in the intervening three and a half decades.
For such a legendary singer, he never did that well on the pop charts. In fifty-two years of recording, Dylan has never had a #1 hit (in the US), although he had two #2s (“Like a Rolling Stone” and “Rainy Day Women”) and four in the top ten. It’s a pretty meagre success rate, if this is your gold standard.
Slow Train Coming was actually a successful album – peaking at #3 on the album chart. It would be his last success until 2001. It has been suggested that the album brought Dylan to an entirely new audience of right-wing Christians, and maybe that is the case. It’s not too far-fetched as to be unbelievable.
“Gotta Serve Somebody” is one of the better songs on Slow Train Coming, which is an album that I generally am finding not too bad. It has a very 1970s bass line, and Dylan sort of whispers the lyrics into the mic. The back-up singers are also used pretty well here. In 1980 this song will win Dylan his first Grammy – which is not so much a celebration of the quality of this song as it is a complete condemnation of the uselessness of the Grammys, but we’ll deal with that next week.
Lyrically, this song is one of the least direct expressions of Dylan’s new-found Christian faith on the album. It’s a song all about humility, and Dylan includes himself in this. I generally like it up until the fourth minute when we get this verse:
You may call me Terry, you may call me Timmy
You may call me Bobby, you may call me Zimmy
You may call me R.J., you may call me Ray
You may call me anything but no matter what you say
That one bugs me every single time as it seems so out of place.
Wikipedia notes that John Lennon didn’t much like this song, and so shortly before he died he recorded “Serve Yourself”, a goofy paean to self-involvement and selfishness that makes him come across like a complete ass. Here’s the Lennon:
Here’s the great Judy Collins singing the Dylan song. It’s even weirder when she asks to be called “Zimmy”: