: Bob Dylan's Legal Hurricane

Bob Dylan's Legal Hurricane

Steven Castan

(Where Music, Politics and the Law crossed over and, despite the obstacles, art finally beat out the law and the world was better for it.)

Flashback to 1975. Bob Dylan is rollicking through America on his Rolling Thunder Tour whereby a cavalcade of stars and hangers-on traipse along for some fantastic shows in a carnival-like atmosphere. (Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, Mick Ronson (Bowie’s lead guitarist), Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Kinky Friedman, playwright Sam Shepard, Allen Ginsberg, and Joni Mitchell among many others join Dylan’s merry pranksters). Dylan is back in the thick of things and his profile is as high as it had been in the mid-sixties. After years in hiding following his mysterious motorcycle crash he hit the road in 1974 for the first ever full tour with The Band, a huge money spinner that played large auditoriums. He followed this tour with the album Blood On The Tracks (1974) which beautifully and simply explored the complexities of love gone wrong. The songs were like windows into his soul, but Dylan felt the need to speak to the people through song once again. Perhaps something was missing for him. He had moved back for a while to the Village. Perhaps the ‘feel’ of Greenwich Village, a yearning for those heady days of the early 60s — that sense of improvisation, that can-do-anything youthful creative spirit — had flashed before him again and inspired him to write songs that explored public and not just private issues. Perhaps it was just a good idea at the time.

Armed with his ramshackle touring troupe, Dylan followed the route of the pilgrims, playing off-the-beaten-track halls, hotels and towns around the US with a true freewheelin’ spirit. The tour was being filmed and would end up as Renaldo and Clara, a 3½ hour film rarely seen in its entirety but which documented this incredibly creative time in Dylan’s life. He collaborated on lyrics for the first time with playwright Jacques Levy. An album, Desire, was recorded during a gap in the touring schedule and which contained some of his most enduring mid-seventies classics such as ‘Mozambique’, ‘One More Coffee’ and ‘Isis’ (dedicated to Leonard Cohen). Dozens of musicians came from all sides of the spectrum; sessions were messy, collaborative and inspired, with ideas and sounds flowing out of the studio and onto the streets of New York. One such player would be crucial to the sound of the album. A long-haired violinist Dylan spotted on the street in the Village, Scarlet Rivera’s playing was prominent on the album and perhaps truly defined what is seen as one of Dylan’s most enduring and significant masterpieces and protest songs: ‘Hurricane’. A song that has resonated throughout the years. A song you can sing along with, dance to and one that makes you think about the world we live in, and the wrongs that need to be righted, all at the same time. There are songs like this that come bursting through the airwaves from time to time: ‘Beds Are Burning’ by Midnight Oil and ‘Treaty’ by Yothu Yindi are good examples. Songs that raise your consciousness, your spirits and your dancing legs all at the same time. Genius.

Dylan met Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in prison. Carter had been jailed in 1966 for a triple murder but the verdict was surrounded by controversy with the common belief being that the charges were racially motivated, faulty evidence had been led in the trial, and questionable eyewitness testimony had been adduced to ‘frame’ the Hurricane. Carter maintained his innocence. And so did Dylan and his merry troupe of Rolling Thunderers.

The song was written and recorded and ready for release. But, at the eleventh hour, there were problems. Under protest, Dylan was forced by Columbia Records lawyers to re-write the lyrics. This was an affront to Dylan, a man determined to tell the story as he saw it, and for maximum effect. The lawyers’ concerns arose in relation to the lyrics, naming Alfred Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley as ‘robbing the bodies’ (which had never been alleged in real life). Dylan eventually, and reluctantly, agreed to the changes after much debate, but insisted that he be able to gather the whole band (or any musicians he could find) and re-record the song from scratch in an all-night session. The resulting version was faster, almost frenetic, and ran for eight minutes. Columbia footed the bill and the single was released the next day.

But controversy still plagued the single. Patti Valentine, another witness named in the song, sued Dylan stating that he had falsely accused her in the song of framing an innocent man. That lawsuit was dismissed. Yet the controversy didn’t stop there. Critics and journalists accused Dylan of bending the truth in relation to Hurricane himself, by calling Hurricane the ‘No 1 contender for the Middleweight Crown’ when he was never ranked that high, and claiming he had not taken into account Hurricane’s previous criminal history and claims of a violent temper.

Well, as history shows, poetic licence won out, the song was released and it was a smash hit. A song that shows us that when the issue is important, the story is well-written and the tune is addictive (the slightly-out-of-tune violin refrain is a vital hook), it must win out — no matter the consequences and the legal obstacles which might arise.

As Dylan sang in 1963:

And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it

And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it …

Hurricane reached millions, as did the plight of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Benefits were held for the Hurricane by Dylan, raising money for his cause. Although it took another decade, finally Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was released after his convictions were overturned on the basis he had not received a fair trial. He was finally free and has happily acknowledged the contribution Dylan’s consciousness-raising eight-minute ode to freedom made to his own situation.

Dylan never played the song again after the last benefit show.

That is freedom personified.


Carter travels the world telling his story and raising consciousness. He was executive director of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (‘AIDWYC’) from 1993 until 2005 and Carter now works as a motivational speaker. He has also received two honorary Doctorates of Law, one from York University (Toronto, Canada) and one from Griffith University (Brisbane), in recognition of his work with AIDWYC and the Innocence Project. Carter received the Abolition Award from Death Penalty Focus in 1996.

Rubin Carter will be appearing at the International Justice Conference, March 2012, in Perth.



STEVEN CASTAN, barrister (and Dylan fan).

(2011) 36(3) AltLJ 220
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