Throughout his six-decade-long career, Bob Dylan has taken up quite a few causes in his songs. In the 1960s he was especially given to musical accusations of miscarriages of justice like “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” which he recorded less than two months after the assassination of Medgar Evers. But he kept it up even in the 70s, as demonstrated by his 1976 album Desire. “Here comes the story of the Hurricane,” he sings on its opening track, “the man the authorities came to blame for something that he never done: put in a prison cell, but one time he could have been the champion of the world.”
This “Hurricane” is, of course, former star boxer Rubin Carter, who’d been convicted for a triple murder at a Paterson, New Jersey bar a decade earlier. Today, many know the story of the Hurricane from the eponymous Denzel Washington-starring Hollywood biopic. By the time that film came out in 1999, Carter had long since been exonerated and made a free man, but when Dylan sang of his having been “falsely tried,” and “obviously framed,” the man was still serving a double life sentence. It was Carter’s autobiography The Sixteenth Round, written in prison, that inspired the literarily-minded Dylan to champion his release.
Written with songwriter-psychologist Jacques Levy, Dylan’s collaborator throughout Desire, “Hurricane” still today sounds as if it pulls no punches, delivering a host of can-he-say-that moments in its seven minutes. But in truth, says Far Our Magazine, “Dylan’s initial vision for the track had been a little different before the lawyers at Columbia Records began pawing over the lyrics. While many of Dylan’s claims of racial injustice are there in plain sight, the men in suits were more concerned with the lyrics implying that Alfred Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley (the two lead witnesses of the original case) as having ‘robbed the bodies'” of Carter and acquaintance John Artis’ alleged victims. Given that they hadn’t been accused of stealing from any corpses, Columbia feared that the implication would draw a lawsuit.
Dylan had previously exhibited a devil-may-care attitude about such matters in his protest songs: “I should have sued him and put him in jail,” grumbled an aged William Zantzinger, the real-life attacker in Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” But this time Dylan acquiesced to the lawyers. Returning to the studio with members of his Rolling Thunder Revue, he laid down a new version of “Hurricane,” censored but musically even harder-hitting (below), that did make it onto Desire. In the video at the top of the post, you can hear the original, which is longer, slower, and more raw in every sense. In the event, the expurgated “Hurricane” still got Dylan sued, but by a different witness: Patricia Valentine, who lived above the bar where the killings occurred and insisted that she did not, in fact, see “the bartender in a pool of blood.” Even a future Nobel Prize winner, it seems, isn’t safe to take a bit of poetic license.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.