Released as a single in 1975, but serving as the opening track of Dylan’s 1976 studio album, Desire, “Hurricane” is one of the best story songs Dylan ever recorded.

Dylan became interested in the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the boxer who imprisoned for murders that he did not commit, after reading the man’s autobiography. Carter had sent him a copy after being told that he was a politically aware celebrity at a time that the fighter needed powerful friends, and when Dylan read it he made a note to visit Carter in prison when he was next on the east coast. After meeting Carter in a New Jersey prison, he was determined to join a growing group of celebrities who had dedicated themselves to winning a new trial for Carter. The result was this anthemic song, co-written with Jacques Levy.


Musically, the song is a departure for Dylan. Larry Sloman, in his marvellous book about the Rolling Thunder Revue, has extensive chapters about Dylan’s meeting with Carter (Sloman interviewed Carter about it, and the two spoke regularly) and also about the re-recording session for the single. Dylan had cut a version of the song that was to be released, but, unfortunately, it had errors of fact in it that may have been deemed libellous, so it had to be rewritten and re-cut. Sloman’s description of the long night’s recording session gives what seems to be a very good sense of the chaotic way that Dylan was working at this time – literally picking up a fiddle player off the street while driving around New York, for example.

It was this song, Sloman argues, that was the inspiration for the work that went into Desire with Levy, and also to the Rolling Thunder Revue, the insane tour that sprung from it (and which included the Hurricane Carter benefit show).

One of the problems that I have with some of Dylan’s longer story songs, is the feeling that once I know the story, I generally lose interest. His more ambiguous material – with its aphorisms – generally holds more interest for me. This isn’t the case for me with “Hurricane”, which has some of Dylan’s most evocative and powerful lyrics. This is one of the best verses he has ever written:

All of Rubin’s cards were marked in advance

The trial was a pig-circus, he never had a chance

The judge made Rubin’s witnesses drunkards from the slums

To the white folks who watched he was a revolutionary bum

And to the black folks he was just a crazy nigger

No one doubted that he pulled the trigger

And though they could not produce the gun

The D.A. said he was the one who did the deed

And the all-white jury agreed

Sloman reports an interesting perspective from 1975 where he suggested that despite the “disco” flavour of the song, he felt that black radio would avoid the song for two reasons. First, Dylan was seen by some as an arriviste to the Carter cause, attaching himself only after others had already done so. Second, George Jackson’s mother had apparently complained that she didn’t receive royalties from Dylan from his song about the death of her son. Sloman reports that Dylan found the latter a bizarre claim, but there you have it. Ultimately the song did only ok on the pop charts (peaking at #33, ironically the exact same as “George Jackson”)

It’s a great opener to an even better album. I listened to Desire twice today on the plane (and Hard Rain twice, and two full live shows from 1976) and I may want to retract last week’s contention that Blood on the Tracks is his best album.

As for Carter, he won a new trial in 1976, but was convicted for a second time. A federal court dismissed the case against him in 1985, at which time he was released. A terribly sad story.

Basement Tapes (again)



Sorry that this is late. I’ve been on the road for the past four days watching The Masters, and haven’t had a second to listen to Bob Dylan at all. I’m back now.

We’ve been through The Basement Tapes already pretty thoroughly, so a large part of me suggests that you just go back and re-read what I previously wrote. Columbia released The Basement Tapes officially in 1975, so this post is belated. It wasn’t so much a Dylan album as a Robbie Robertson album. He picked the tracks, and The Band laid down overdubs to clean things up, but Dylan wasn’t involved with any of that. Of course, Robertson also included a number of demos by The Band on the album as well, making it more collaborative than it was in actuality. The image that the official release paints is of Dylan hanging out with The Band, and with them writing some new songs and Dylan writing some new songs. I don’t think that’s how it actually was.

A Tree With Roots is significantly better than The Basement Tapes, not just because it is so much more complete (a lot of the work on it just isn’t very good), but because the official album feels sort of ersatz. The Band material feels intrusive here in a way that it doesn’t on an album like Before the Flood, and I actually found myself quickly skipping these songs when they would come on. Also, and I don’t know much about this, I think that there have been allegations that The Band material has actually been muddied in the studio in order to make it sound less professional than it really was, to fit the aesthetic of the album. As I said, ersatz.

I bought this album as a teenager and was really disappointed by it, and I wonder if I would have been as let down by it if I had bought it in 1975. Dylan is said to have been surprised it sold at all, because he figured most of the people that would have wanted it already owned the bootlegs. That’s the situation that I found myself in as well. This one won’t get much play from me in the future, since if I decide to hear this material it will be from A Tree With Roots. In fact, there is nothing here that I think is better than the versions on the bootleg album, so I think it is the first disposable Dylan album.