Music History #7: "Hurricane"
Written by Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy (1975)
Performed by Bob Dylan
In 1974, when Bob Dylan wrote “Hurricane” about Rubin Carter, the boxer had already been in prison for ten years for a murder he supposedly did not commit. But his case had become a kind of cause célèbre for civil rights leaders and politicians. No stranger to topical protest songs, Dylan poured his outrage about racial profiling and what he saw as a false trial into an eight-minute song (“Here comes the story of the Hurricane / The man the authorities came to blame” went the chorus). Lengthy for a single, an abridged version became Dylan’s biggest hit in years, rising to #33 on the charts.
In October 1966, while Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was training for the world middleweight boxing title match, he was arrested. The charge was for the murder of three patrons at a bar called Lafayette Grill in Paterson, NJ. Months earlier Carter and an acquaintance, John Artis, had both been arrested on the night of the crime. Though they fit an eyewitness description of the gunmen (“Two Negroes in a white car”), they were cleared by a grand jury when a surviving victim failed to identify them as the killers.
But two new eyewitnesses came forward, and they made positive identification of Carter and Artis. A trial followed. The prosecution had little evidence linking Carter and Artis to the crime, and a shaky motive about it being a racially motivated revenge for the murder of a black bar owner by a white man in Paterson the same day. The two eyewitnesses, Alfred Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley, both had criminal records, and it was later revealed that they had received reduced sentences and cash in exchange for their testimonies.
Nevertheless, in June 1967, Carter and Artis were convicted of triple murder and sentenced to successive life-in-prison terms.
The Boxer Meets the Folk Singer
In jail, Carter maintained his innocence. He defied authority by refusing to wear an inmate’s uniform. He vowed to kill any prison official who touched him. In solitary confinement, he read, studied and worked tirelessly on his autobiography. The 16th Round: From Number 1 Contender to Number 45472 became a best-seller that attracted attention to his plight.
One of Hurricane’s new champions was Bob Dylan. After visiting Carter in prison and then meeting with some of the boxer’s supporters, Dylan started to write his epic song, collaborating with Broadway director and songwriter Jacques Levy.
The original release of “Hurricane” was halted after lawyers at Columbia Records raised concerns about several lyrical references being potentially libelous. Chief among them, Dylan said that the two eyewitnesses, Bello and Bradley, “robbed the bodies” of the victims.
Because the original recording had too much leakage on the tracks for a vocal punch-in fix, Dylan couldn’t just replace the offending lines. He had to recut the entire song. Even in the new version, the song was controversial. Penny Valentine, one of the other eyewitnesses who’d been name-checked in the song, filed a lawsuit that was ultimately dismissed.
In 1975, the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the convictions, and Carter and Artis were freed from prison. But a year later, deep in debt and with his family on welfare, Carter was accused of assaulting his former parole officer. Shortly after, he and Artis were retried for the murders at the Lafayette Grill and found guilty. Carter was sent back to prison in 1976, and remained there for another eleven years.
He was finally freed in 1988. He now lives in Canada, where he works and lectures on behalf of wrongly convicted prisoners. In 1999, Carter’s autobiography was made into a motion picture The Hurricane, which starred Denzel Washington.