Thursday November 20, 2008 5:50 pm
Werd: Service - Part Four
While we may have noticed a mingling of church and state in the past few years, it seems that church and stage are as far apart as ever. In the modern music scene, most popular musicians of note either move from a religious message towards a more secular message (e.g., Evanescence and Kate Perry) or tone down their religious leanings to offer a message that can be more broadly applied to a larger audience (e.g., U2 and Sufjan Stevens). Certainly, there are large markets that promote strictly religious music, but you will find their audiences homogeneous in belief. Similarly, there are allusions to religious belief in all types of popular music, but very few artists promote their religion ahead of their marketable product.
In 1978, spurred by a cross flung on stage during a concert, a road-weary Bob Dylan decided to go against the grain. Not only would he embrace his born-again religion, but within a year he would transform from the rebellious voice of the hippie generation to a Bible-wielding evangelist gospel singer. In 1980, after the release of his gospel album Slow Train Coming, Dylan received a Grammy for the single “Gotta Serve Somebody.”
The main message, repeated throughout the song (Dylan banging his hammer of righteousness upon the listener’s ears) is that, no matter who you are, rich or poor, beer-drinker or milk-drinker, preacher or politician:
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 [Full lyrics here]
In respect to its content, the gospel “Gotta Serve Somebody” is certainly a thematic movement away from Dylan’s earlier, folk-inspired works (it also includes that syrupy 70s sound that forces me to gag reflexively). But in tone, the all-or-nothing pitch of his lyrics actually matches his earlier pieces. It seems that in Dylan’s world, you are either part of the problem or part of the solution (with Dylan himself always placing himself in line with whatever good may match the day). So the unequivocal message of the song — you either serve the devil or the lord — remains consistent with Dylan’s propensity for dividing the world into sides, even if the way he communicates his message here has changed. The general tone of the entire album Slow Train Coming was one of angry castigation, just as were many of his earlier works. We see here in Dylan not an about-face, but a mere change of tactics.
John Lennon, meanwhile, experienced a similar religious transformation at the end of the 70s (an interesting account can be found here). Immersed in the world of celebrity he had come to resent, Lennon sought (as we all do) some answer that would comfort his insecurities (even going so far as calling into The 700 Club hotline for advice). After a brief but intense period of born-again fervor, Lennon returned to a broader belief in a more general spirituality that did not submit to one singular, exclusive deity (as Dylan’s version of Christianity certainly did). In this pantheistic state, hearing Dylan’s song, Lennon felt the need to respond. He penned the acoustic demo called “Serve Yourself.”
To Lennon, Dylan was saying “You are either for us or against us” (the moralist’s ultimatum). It’s difficult to parse Lennon’s words (I don’t entirely understand the “mother” bit but that’s Lennon for you….) but it seems to me the most pertinent lines are:
A fight for God and country
We’re gonna set you free
We’ll put you back in the Stone Age
If you won’t be like me [Full lyrics here]
Lennon suggests that if you serve Dylan’s “Lord,” you’ll only find the us-vs.-them war. Therefore, he suggests, serve yourself and at least you might have a chance of finding peace.
Now, granted, Dylan (in my eyes) is my right hand and Lennon is my left.
I went to a Dylan show in 2002 in New York. My friend Jason and I left the concert after six songs because it was so lame. And we both love music (and all kinds of music). While there are some songs of Dylan’s that I love, there are many more (in his very large opus) that lack any dynamic qualities that attract me. At his worst, he is self-indulgent: keeping his listeners away from his music.
As a Beatles fan, I am predisposed to loving Lennon. If Dylan’s tone is a nasal whine, Lennon’s words and music have always been more of a moving lament: a dirge for the death of hope. Lennon loves the world so much that he is angry. Dylan never loved anything more than the sound of his own voice.
But, in the spirit of serving all, I will take both of these geniuses at their word. With Dylan’s words, I know the world is divided into black and white. If true, then do not the voices that Lennon and Dylan give here represent two opposing views of service? If I listen to Dylan, I must serve someone here: either Dylan or Lennon.
So I listen to the songs and I come to the conclusion that Dylan’s song absolutely sucks: a saccharine and trite repetition of a singular theme lamely accompanied by the worst sounds of the 70s (limping bass, unambitious guitar, and an I-almost-forgot drum beat). Lennon’s song is an aggressive (though certainly not complicated) acoustic attack, blistered by the pace of his searing vocals. “Gotta Serve Somebody” is a song made for The Man; “Serve Yourself” is a song made for the people.
When Dylan asks who I serve, I must reply: “Lennon.”
Lennon then tells me to serve myself to find peace. Is this, friends, the key to service? Or do you actually believe that Dylan’s blathering is more convincing?
Please note, however, that I am notoriously left-handed. So Dylan, being my right, is the business end of my life, whereas Lennon is the creative side. Dig?
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