Serve Somebody

The gospel according to Bob Dylan.

Christian musicians who cross over to the pop mainstream run a high risk of alienating their original fan base. Longtime Amy Grant supporters worried she'd abandoned the flock when she hit No. 1 with "Baby, Baby" in 1991, even though the song was about her newborn daughter, not a paramour. Likewise, despite basing much of their early reputation on promoting wholesome Christian values, Destiny's Child have been chastised for singing gospel in midriff-baring outfits. (Excuse mewhich commandment says, "Thou Shalt Not Display Thy Belly Button"? Perhaps that was on the tablet Moses dropped on his way down Mount Sinai.)

When the current runs in the opposite direction, and rockers turn to God, the uproar is just as clamorous. The papers had a field day when Sin顤 O'Connor, who tore up a photo of the pope on Saturday Night Live back in 1992, was ordained Mother Bernadette Mary by the breakaway Latin Tridentine Church. But no conversion to the teachings of Jesus has raised quite so many eyebrows as when Bob Dylan announced in 1979 that he was a born-again Christian.

By this point, Dylan was no stranger to controversy. He was famously booed for plugging in at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. His 1969 foray into straight country, Nashville Skylinefeaturing pedal steel guitar and vocals by Johnny Cashwas also repudiated in certain quarters. The former Mr. Zimmerman anticipated some backlash when he issued his first album in the service of the Lord, 1979's Slow Train Coming. According to Howard Sounes' Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, Dylan's reservations were such that, rather than committing the sacred songs to his own album, he contemplated letting backup singer and sometime girlfriend Carolyn Dennis record them instead.

Ultimately, Slow Train Coming was surprisingly well received, peaking at No. 3 on the charts. The album's testimonial opener, "Gotta Serve Somebody," was released as a singleagainst the wishes of producer Jerry Wexlerand turned out to be Dylan's last top-40 pop hit to date. It also earned him his very first Grammy Award, for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance. In the Sept. 20, 1979, issue of Rolling Stone, reviewer Jann Wenner claimed that Slow Train was "the best album Bob Dylan has made since The Basement Tapes," recorded 12 years earlier (then shelved till 1975).

Many fans, however, were less enthusiastic. Dylan's decision to exclusively perform his new, Christian material in concert riled audiences and sparked negative reviews. Saved, in 1980, proved his conversion was more than a phase, but the tone of the lyrics had now grown markedly more didactic and judgmental. Saved stalled at No. 24, making it Dylan's lowest charting album since 1964. Its 1981 follow-up, Shot of Love, sold worse. It wasn't until 1983's Infidels, with its discernable drop in dogmatic content, that Dylan's recording career steadied itself.

But now, a new record arrives that affords listeners a chance to reappraise Dylan's born-again period. Gotta Serve Somebody (in stores March 25, on Columbia/Legacy) features the biggest living names in gospel tackling tunes from the 1979 and 1980 albums. Of particular note is the kickoff, a rousing rendition of the title cut by Shirley Caesar. At 64, her powerful shout has lost none of its convictionno wonder Dylan tapped her to sing it at the Kennedy Center in 1997, when President Clinton presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

More importantly, when performed in traditional gospel arrangements by artists like Aaron Neville and Mighty Clouds of Joy, the songs plucked from Saved seem less sanctimonious. The doo-wop swing with which O Brother, Where Art Thou? vets the Fairfield Four inject the apocalyptic "Are You Ready" makes the song's closing line, "Get your house in order," sound like a warm invitation, not a harsh admonishment.

This is hardly the first time gospel singers have mined the Dylan catalog. In 1970, producer Lou Adler assembled a huge choir of seasoned vocalistsincluding Rolling Stones sidekick Merry Clayton, Gloria Jones (who recorded the original, 1964 version of "Tainted Love"), and members of the Honey Cone (the 1971 No. 1 hit "Want Ads")for Dylan's Gospel, 10 hand-clapping, roof-raising renditions including "I Shall Be Released." And Dylan songs like "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" were among the first secular selections incorporated into the Staple Singers' repertoire.

Little surprise, then, that Mavis Staples pops up on Gotta Serve Somebody, dropping by to duet with Dylan on a rocking rerecording of Slow Train's "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking." Alas, the cut is arguably this compelling album's weakest. Bob's crusty snarl simply can't match Mavis' pipes when it comes to calling down the spirit. Perhaps his original inclination to give this material to Dennis was right after all. The gospel songs Dylan composed for Saved and Slow Train Coming deserved warmer receptions than they originally received, but they are better served when performed by experts in the field.

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