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Music History #7: "Hurricane"

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“Hurricane”
Written by Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy (1975)
Performed by Bob Dylan

The Music

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.

http://youtu.be/LHr6fiyuJJw

The History

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.

Legacy

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.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Orchestra, a Symphony, and a Philharmonic?
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Remember when your brain exploded after your fourth grade math teacher told you “every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square!” Understanding the difference between an orchestra, a symphony, and a philharmonic is kind of like that. Every symphony is an orchestra, but not every orchestra is a symphony. Likewise, every philharmonic is a symphony, but not every symphony is a philharmonic.   

Okay, let’s take a breath. 

Orchestra is a broad term for any ensemble featuring a hefty lineup of strings. Two basic orchestras exist—chamber orchestras (small!) and symphony orchestras (big!). Chamber orchestras employ about 50 or fewer musicians (who may all play strings). As the name suggests, they play “chamber music”—older tunes written for private halls, aristocratic parlors, and glitzy palace chambers. Of course, contemporary composers still crank out chamber music, but the style peaked during the 17th and 18th centuries as wigged songsters like Haydn, Mozart, and Vivaldi tore up the scene.   

On the flip side, a symphony orchestra can boast more than 100 players, who are divided into strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. As that name suggests, they play “symphonies”— hulking pieces that usually require 18 to 25 different instruments. (Think of the heavy hitters of the 1800s: Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, and company.)  

Essentially, if an orchestra is big enough to play a symphony, it’s a symphony orchestra. Simple!

Okay, maybe not.

A symphony orchestra and a philharmonic are the same thing—sort of. They’re the same size and they play the same kind of music. The two terms exist to help us tell different ensembles apart, especially in cities that boast multiple groups. For example: New York City is home to both the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the Brooklyn Symphony. They’re the same kind of orchestra, but they have different names so you don’t confuse them. The divide between symphony-philharmonic is just a matter of identity.

And that’s what makes them different. “Symphony orchestra” is a generic term, whereas “philharmonic orchestra” is always part of a proper name. So, you can call every philharmonic a symphony, but you can’t call every symphony a philharmonic—even though they’re the same.

And as for “pops?” That just means the orchestra isn’t afraid to let its hair down and play a jaunty show tune.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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#TBT
When 'November Rain' Excited, Confused Rock Fans
GunsNRosesVEVO via YouTube
GunsNRosesVEVO via YouTube

Slash had no idea what it was about. Axl Rose insisted it be based on a short story. At roughly nine minutes, it stretched the patience of MTV’s viewers. For these reasons—or maybe in spite of them—the music video for the Guns N’ Roses hit “November Rain” remains one of the most infamous, impenetrable rock operas of all time.

“November Rain” was a single from the group’s Use Your Illusion I album. Released in 1991, it broke into the Billboard top 10 and immediately entered music trivia lore as the longest song to make that list. Rose had started writing it in 1983, with an original running time of more than 20 minutes.

For the video, which was released in February of 1992, the group hired director Andy Morahan, who had supervised two previous G N' R efforts: Don’t Cry and You Could Be Mine. Rose also enlisted friend and writer Del James to allow them to loosely adapt one of his short stories, “Without You,” about a singer haunted by the death of his girlfriend. Model Stephanie Seymour, Rose’s girlfriend at the time, played the bride.

The crew respected the band’s wishes for an increasingly epic approach to their videos by going on location to shoot a wedding ceremony between Rose and Seymour at a makeshift church in a New Mexico desert—fabricating it cost $150,000—and arranging for a concert shoot with 1500 extras; Slash’s guitar solo was covered with swooping helicopter shots.

Speaking with authors Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks, Morahan described the indulgent nature of the era: “You’ve got five cameras, cranes, helicopter, this big crew.” He recalled one observer asking him, “Is this the whole video? ‘No, it’s about 27 seconds of it.’” (The video cost a then-record $1.5 million.)

Though Seymour’s character appears to be elated at the reception, the video implies she commits suicide shortly after.  


The couple in happier times.

GunsNRoses VEVO via YouTube

Or not. No one really seems to know what happened. “To tell you the truth, I have no idea," Slash told The Huffington Post in 2014. It was a concept. The song itself is pretty self-explanatory, but the video is so complex ... I knew there was a wedding in there somewhere and I was not into the concept of the wedding." Morahan said he has "no idea" why Seymour was shot in a casket with half her face obscured by a mirror.

While the spot wasn’t heaped with MTV Video Music Awards praise (though it did win one, for Best Cinematography, and earn a nomination for Best Art Direction), it has aged well. By the end of 1992, viewers had voted it their favorite video of the year. Morahan, James, and Rose were even asked to collaborate on an episode of HBO’s Tales From the Crypt.

That didn’t come to pass. But even today, November Rain stands as one of the most-played music videos of the 20th century on YouTube, with more than 940 million views. Watch it enough, and maybe it’ll begin to make sense.

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