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.