Song of the Day: Biography in Music (Day Three). “This is the Story of the Hurricane, The Man the Authorities Came to Blame”.

Hurricane is a protest song written by Bob Dylan for his 1976 album, Desire.  The song, co-written with Jacques Levy, is based on the imprisonment of American / Canadian boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter.  It compiles the alleged acts of racism and profiling against Carter, which led to his trial and wrongful imprisonment.  He was later freed via a petition of habeas corpus after spending almost twenty years in prison.

Carter (6th May, 1937 – 20th April 2014) was arrested in 1966, along with his friend John Artis, for a triple homicide committed in the Lafayette Bar and Grill in Paterson, New Jersey.  Police stopped Carter’s car and brought him and Artis, also in the car, to the scene of the crime.  When the police carried out their search of the car, they found ammunition which fitted the weapons used in the murder.  Police took no fingerprints at the crime scene and at that point in time, did not have the facilities to conduct a paraffin test for gunshot residue.  Carter and Artis were convicted twice for the murders, in 1967 and 1976, but after the second conviction was overturned in 1985, prosecutors chose not to try the case for the third time.

In 1975, Carter’s autobiography, The Sixteenth Round, was published by Warner Books.  In the book, Carter maintained his innocence.  The Sixteenth Round moved Dylan to such an extent that he visited Carter in Rahway State Prison in Woodbridge County, New Jersey and began to write what would become Hurricane.  At first, Dylan was unsure whether he could do justice to Carter and his predicament in song form but using the storytelling method previously used on other topical ballads such as The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (The Times They Are a-Changing, 1964) …

… he eventually found that the words flowed reasonably quickly, such was his contempt for those who had wrongfully imprisoned the former middleweight boxer.  Hurricane was one of Dylan’s few protest songs of the 1970’s and became his fourth most successful single of the decade, reaching number 33 on the US Billboard Chart.

Hurricane was first recorded in July 1975 with Scarlet Rivera on violin and Vinnie Bell on Danelectro Bellzouki 12-string guitar.  In October 1975, Dylan was forced to re-record the song with its lyrics altered, after concerns were raised by Columbia’s lawyers who feared a lawsuit regarding references to Alfred Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley, petty criminals who were in the area to burgle a factory, robbing the bodies.  Bello and Bradley had never been accused of such acts.  Due to the amount of leakage on the multi-tracks, making it difficult to achieve a vocal ‘punch in’, Dylan decided to record the entire song.  The resulting final version of Hurricane is faster than the original cut and in addition to Rivera on violin, uses other musicians from Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue as the back-up band.  The final version was put together from two separate takes, both recorded on the 24th October, 1975, and clocks in at over eight minutes in length.

Despite the fact that some offending lyrics had been rewritten, the song still managed to attract legal action, from eyewitness Patricia Graham Valentine.  However, her case was dismissed by a federal district.  The dismissal was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.  Other lyrics to receive criticism included the line “Number one contender for the middleweight crown” because according to the May 1966 issue of The Ring, Carter was ranked ninth at the time of his arrest and had never been placed higher than third.  Additionally, at the time of the song’s release, reporters for the Herald News, a New Jersey newspaper published not far from the scene of the crime, questioned Dylan’s objectivity and accused him of excessive poetic license.  Others noted that there was no reference to Carter’s criminal history or violent temper.  Another song from Desire, Joey, about the life and death of mobster Joey Gallo, received similar criticism.

Hurricane brought Carter’s case to the attention of the wider public and is credited with harnessing popular support to Carter’s defence.  Following the release of Desire, Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Revue played a benefit concert for Carter in New York’s Madison Square Garden.  The concert raised $100,000.  Dylan and his band also played another benefit at the Houston Aerodrome a year later, alongside Stevie Wonder, Ringo Starr and Dr John, whom Dylan had personally managed to get to play the concert after meeting with managers Richard Flanzer and Roy Silver.  Despite its all-star line-up, after expenses were paid, the Houston failed to raise any money.

Despite winning the right to a new trial, Carter and Artis were once again found guilty and on the 9th February 1976, Carter was sentenced to two consecutive life terms.  Dylan and Carter’s other high-profile supporters did not attend the trial.  In 1985, Federal Judge H. Sarokin of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey ruled that Carter had not received a fair trial and set aside the conviction, commenting that the prosecution had been “based on racism rather than reason and concealment rather than disclosure”.  Ironically, Sarokin had declined to listen to Dylan’s song when it was offered to him by his family.  In 1988, following the prosecution stating that they would not seek a third trial and filed a motion to dismiss, a Superior Court Judge dropped all charges against Carter.

Lyrically, Hurricane is a straight, or as straight as can be from a writer who wasn’t present at the scene of the crime, retelling of the events that led to Carter’s arrest and his incarceration.  The song sets the scene with its opening line, “Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night”, placing the listener at the crime scene.  The star witness, Patty Valentine, who was awoken by the sound of the gunshots, is mentioned in the second line, “Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall”.  Following this, we find Valentine’s view as she entered the bar:  “She sees the bartender in a pool of blood, Cries out, “My God, they killed them all”.  “All” refers to bartender, James Oliver and two customers, who were killed instantly.

The following section of the song and probably its most famous, “Here comes the story of the Hurricane, The man the authorities came to blame, For something that he never done, Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a-been, The champion of the world” finds Dylan lamenting on how Carter lost twenty years of his life along with his career and his chances of reaching the top of his profession in the process.

Following this, we once again find Patty Valentine’s view, “Three bodies lyin’ there does Patty see”.  The prosecution believed that the murders at the Lafayette Bar and Grill, particularly that of white bartender James Oliver, were motivated by the murder of black bartender, Leroy Holloway, who happened to be the stepfather of one of Carter’s friends.  The next lines, “And another man named Bello, movin’ around mysteriously, “I didn’t do it”, he says and throws up his hands, “I was only robbin’ the register, I hope you undertand, I saw them leavin’”, he says and stops”, refer to Bello’s testimony at the 1966 and 1976 trials, in which he stated that he saw Carter and Artis outside the Lafayette Bar and Grill with a shotgun and a pistol immediately after the triple murder.  He apparently came face to face with them on the sidewalk and saw their getaway car.

“”One of us had better call up the cops”, And so Patty calls the cops, And they arrive on the scene with their red lights flashin’, In the hot New Jersey night”.  Due to the murder taking place on the 17th June, the temperatures would most probably have been at an extreme high, common at that time of year.  It has been said that heat can cause people to be enough on edge to commit murder.  This idea was also famously used by Spike Lee in his 1989 film, Do the Right Thing.  In both Hurricane and Do the Right Thing, heat is portrayed as a major physical and psychological factor for rage and violence.

The next lines, “Meanwhile, far away in another part of town, Rubin Carter and a couple of friends are drivin’ around, Number one contender for the middleweight crown, Had no idea what kinda shit was about to go down”, find Carter and his friends driving through town, completely unaware of what was about to happen.  Carter, at this stage in his life, was in the middle of his career.  He had a record of two wins, twelve losses and one draw.  As several publications have noted since the song’s release, Dylan neglects to mention that Carter was far from a law abiding citizen, having done several stints in jail for mugging and assault.  However, on this occasion, Carter was wrongfully convicted by the US’s corrupt justice system.  In the following lines, “When a cop pulled him over to the side of the road, Just like the time before and the time before that”, Dylan suggests that the police continuously pulled Carter over as they were racist.  The idea of the police being racist is carried over to the next lines, “In Paterson that’s just the way things go, If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street”, which suggests that racism against black men like Carter was institutionalised and was readily practised by the local police.  In the following line, “’Less you wanna draw the heat”, “heat” is this time used to refer to the police.

The following lines feature further testimony from Bello and Bradley:  “Alfred Bello had a partner and he had a rap for the cops, Him and Arthur Dexter Bradley were just out prowlin’ around, He said, “I saw two men runnin’ out, they looked like middleweights, They jumped into a white car with out-of-state plates”.  Note the vague way in which the men say, “they looked like middleweights” expressed in Dylan’s lyrics.  Additionally, Bradley refused to cooperate with prosecutors, and neither prosecution nor defense called him as a witness.

The line “And Miss Patty Valentine just nodded her head” refers to the way that Valentine simply agreed with what other witnesses had seen without actually knowing anything.  Valentine provided a description of the car to the police, which changed at the second court case.  Valentine claimed that the lights “lit up like butterflies”.  However, on Carter’s car, this was not the case, as only the end two lights lit up.

“Cop said, “Wait a minute, boys, this one’s not dead”, So they took him to the infirmary, And though this man could hardly see, They told him, that he could identify the guilty man, Four in the mornin’ and they haul Rubin in, Take him to the hospital and they bring him upstairs, The wounded man looks up through his one dyin’ eye, Says, “Wha’d you bring him in here for?  He ain’t the guy!” refers to Willie Marrins who was not killed instantly and the police attempt to have Carter identified as the murderer.  Marrins told the police that Carter was not the murderer but his testimony was ignored.

Further into the song, we find the line “He ain’t no Gentleman Jim”, a reference to James J. Corbett, who is considered to be the father of modern boxing.  Carter is said not to be a “gentleman” because, unlike Corbett, Carter is black.  Other lines of interest in Hurricane include “And to the black folks he was just a crazy nigger, No one doubted that he pulled the trigger”.  Here, Dylan, a white man, single-handedly invented a rhyme (“trigger” and “nigger”) which today is one of the most popular rhymes in hip-hop.  For example, see Nas’s N.Y. State of Mind, from the album Illmatic (1994).

One wonders whether Hurricane’s closing lines, “Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been, The champion of the world” may have influenced Carter receiving an honorary World Champion title in 1993, five years after his release from prison.  Additionally, following his release and before his death in 2014, Carter headed the Association in Defense of the Wrongfully Convicted for twelve years and founded Innocence International in 2004.