It was an injustice that inspired Bob Dylan to write his final furious protest song about a specific, real-life case at the height of influence within America’s civil rights movement.
Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who died on Sunday at his home in Toronto at the age of 76, of prostate cancer, was an up-and-coming boxer when he was accused of three murders in New Jersey in 1966. Carter was black and the victims were white, as were the two main witnesses against him. They were believed – even though they were carrying out a burglary at the time.
After a racially charged trial, he was found guilty and jailed until his conviction was overturned in 1985.
Dylan’s song “Hurricane”, on the 1976 album Desire, was the end of a line of protest songs – such as 1963’s “Oxford Town” and 1964’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” – about often African-American individuals viciously trampled by the authorities.
“In Paterson that’s just the way things go,” the singer states laconically in “Hurricane”. “If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street/Unless you wanna draw the heat.”
He was confidently drawing on the history of the Civil Rights struggle during the early Sixties. The song was also inevitably inspired by the boxer who became a symbol of that struggle at the decade’s end: Muhammad Ali. Carter’s travails seemed to link the world of “Blowin’ in the Wind” with the heavyweight champion who refused to fight in Vietnam. When Ali appeared at the Night of the Hurricane benefit concert at Madison Square Garden in 1975, the confluence was complete.
An acoustic guitar accelerates at "Hurricane"’s start, as Scarlett Rivera’s violin adds ambience. Then, with no further warning: “Pistol-shots ring out in the barroom night”. Dylan spits righteous, relished venom, squeezing and stretching syllables and dropping his voice to confiding intimacy, as he communicates amazement verging on bitter amusement at the scale of injustice. It’s an actorly performance, one of his mightiest.
The song, co-written with Jacques Levy, attains cinematic scope during more than eight minutes of quick-fire narrative. It fearlessly names names in a way that seems impossible today. Tweaks from Columbia Records’ justifiably nervous lawyers didn’t stop an unsuccessful lawsuit by a key witness, Patricia Valentine, which dragged an unhelpful Dylan to the witness box.
“Hurricane” hit the US top 40 in 1975, heralding the release of Desire and Dylan’s commercial peak. But, like another song on the album which romanticised a jailed man – “Joey”, a laughable whitewash of the late, murderous Mafioso Joey Gallo – Dylan’s artistic liberality with the facts behind his “J’Accuse” came back to haunt him. Carter’s history of violence outside the ring had been excised from the song. When the boxer’s 1976 retrial saw him found guilty again, Dylan’s support became less vocal. The case of Jack Henry Abbott, a killer released from jail in 1981 with the endorsement of the author Norman Mailer, only for him to quickly kill again, seemed a larger but equivalent misjudgement.
But Carter’s final release as an innocent man confirmed Dylan’s instincts. The dramatic force of his song later helped inspire The Hurricane, Norman Jewison’s equally controversial biopic starring Denzel Washington as Carter.