Bob Dylan Brought Hurricane Carter’s Story to Light, and Then Left It

When you think of Bob Dylan, chances are you think of protest songs. Well, if any of the subjects of his protest songs deserve a day in the sun, it’s Rubin Carter. For those who don’t know, the song Hurricane tells the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. You see, while he was contending for the middleweight boxing championship, Carter was arrested, charged with, and convicted of three murders. In fact, the boxer was even convicted twice for those murders.

Photo by Associated Newspapers, Shutterstock / Granger, Shutterstock / Source: Tumblr

Dylan released the song in 1975 on his Desire album. The song contains more than 800 lyrics and tells the tale of the incident that led to Carter’s arrest. But since the song is so long, Dylan also had the time to go through the alleged errors and missteps that resulted in his trial and false conviction.

From Number 1 to 45472

The song is based on an account that Bob Dylan took from Carter’s 1974 autobiography, which he wrote while he was still incarcerated. In his book, The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to Number 45472, Carter explains the pain and suffering he experienced as a victim of a racially unjust judicial system.

Rubin Carter posing in a boxing stance

Photo by Associated Newspapers / Shutterstock

After reading Carter’s captivating book, Dylan visited him in prison. Shortly after that, Dylan and Jacques Levy penned the tune. It comes as no surprise that Dylan chose this story to write a song about and it made this much of an impact. The song displays an exceptional use of storytelling. But, then again, isn’t that what Bob Dylan is known for?

The Tale of an Innocent Man

In his typically unique way, Dylan weaves a tale of an innocent man framed for a murder that he simply didn’t commit. But before we get to the lyrics, it only makes sense to start with the story of Rubin Carter and the events that brought him into this mess in the first place.

Rubin Carter holding a monocle up to his right eye in 1965

Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Many people don’t know about Carter’s personal life before his famous career as a professional boxer. Rubin Carter was born in Clifton, New Jersey, in 1937; he was the fourth of seven children. The truth is that before he even reached his teenage years, Carter spent time in a juvenile reformatory for attacking a man with a knife.

A Hurricane Is Born

After running away from the reformatory, he joined the United States Army. During his service in West Germany, he spent time boxing. He was discharged in 1956, deemed unfit for service after being court-martialled four times. He then returned home to New Jersey, where he was convicted of two muggings and was ultimately sent to prison.

Rubin Carter in his military uniform

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Carter was in prison until 1961. Upon his release, he started boxing professionally. Standing at 5’8”, Carter was shorter than the average middleweight boxer. But the man had power – his aggressive style and ability resulted in numerous early-stage knockouts. People started to take notice of this small boxer from Jersey, and it didn’t take long for him to earn the nickname “Hurricane.”

His Rise to Fame

By the end of 1965, the boxing magazine The Ring ranked Carter as the fifth-best middleweight boxer in the world. Soon after, though, his ranking began to decline as he lost an increasing number of fights. To give you a picture of his boxing career: out of 40 fights, he won 27, lost 12, and drew once, chalking up a total of 19 knockouts (11 of them total knockouts).

Rubin Carter vs. Harry Scott in the boxing ring

Rubin Carter vs. Harry Scott at the Royal Albert Hall. Photo by Ronald Fortune / Associated Newspapers / Shutterstock

He accumulated an impressive record throughout his career, but his hopes for the title came to an end once he was arrested as a murderer in the triple homicide that landed him in prison. It all started on one fateful night that essentially ruined Carter’s life and took that of three others.

One Fateful Night

At approximately 2:30 a.m. on June 17, 1966, two men walked into the Lafayette Grill in Paterson, New Jersey, and began shooting. The bartender and one customer were killed immediately. The third victim succumbed to severe injuries about a month later. Carter and his friend, a man named John Artis, were arrested.

The front of Lafayette Bar with police and on-lookers standing around

The front of Lafayette Bar the morning after the shooting. Source: Paterson Museum

The arrest occurred after eyewitnesses Alfred Bello, and Arthur Bradley described the shooters as two black men driving a car that happened to be similar to Carter’s. The witnesses pointed to Carter as one of the men who was carrying weapons at the scene of the crime. The following year, in 1967, Carter was convicted for the crimes.

Maintaining His Innocence

Although Carter was represented by a prominent defense attorney at the time, both he and Artis were found guilty of the triple homicide. Carter was given three life sentences in Rahway State Prison in New Jersey, but he continued to profess his innocence.

Rubin Carter and John Artis with news channel microphones in front of them while they sit at a table

Rubin Carter and John Artis at a press conference in December 1976. Photo by Ed Hill / NorthJersey.com

While serving time, he wrote his autobiography, entailing his journey from the boxing ring to solitary confinement. In his book, he maintains that he had absolutely nothing to do with the triple murder. Considering his notoriety, copies of his book were sent to different celebrities in hopes of drawing attention to his cause and a new campaign for his release.

Dear Dylan

By this time, there was, indeed, public awareness about Carter’s conviction. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier paid their dues by standing in protest outside the prison where Carter was being held. Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell also gave their support. And then, of course, Dylan came into the picture as he was also sent a copy of Carter’s book.

Muhammad Ali and Carolyn Kelley at a rally in support of Carter and Artis

Muhammad Ali and Carolyn Kelley at a rally in support of Rubin Carter and John Artis in Newark, September 9th, 1975. Photo by Al Paglione / NorthJersey.com

Why? It’s because of his prior commitment to the US Civil Rights struggle. Dylan and Jacques Levy decided to write a song about it all. But first, he needed to meet the guy. After reading The Sixteenth Round on a trip to France, Bob Dylan decided to visit Carter in prison.

An Instant Connection

The two reportedly made an immediate connection, spending a total of two hours together. Dylan was taking notes on what Carter told him. According to Carter, “We sat and talked for many, many hours, and I recognized the fact that here was a brother.”

Bob Dylan posing in front of a blurred out staircase leading up to a porch

Photo by Fotos International / Shutterstock

Dylan felt the same way: “I realized that the man’s philosophy and my philosophy were running down the same road, and you don’t meet too many people like that.” There’s more to the story than just the fact that Dylan liked to write protest songs. Carter’s story was more personal for Dylan. Dylan had always been a boxing fan. You might have seen the photos of him with Muhammed Ali.

Rooting for the Underdog

While it isn’t known for sure, it’s likely that he would have followed Carter’s boxing career and triumphs in the ring long before the triple murder ever occurred in 1966. And anyone who knows Dylan’s musical work knows that he tends to take the side of the “underdog.”

Rubin Carter with his boxing gloves on and hands up in a pose / Bob Dylan with a harmonica standing behind an overhead microphone

Photo by Everett Collection, Shutterstock / Everett Collection, Shutterstock

So, it is therefore unsurprising that Dylan read the book in the first place and believed that the case was tainted by racism. After meeting with Carter in prison, Dylan knew he wanted to tell the story of the “Hurricane”, and the injustice involved, in song form.

Enter Jacques Levy

According to reports, though, Dylan was unable to find the perfect lyrics to express the story in the way he desired. That’s when Levy came into the picture. He contacted the stage director and lyricist, asking him for some assistance. Dylan didn’t realize at the time that Levy would be the man to co-write his 1976 hit album Desire.

The corner of Lafayette St. and E. 18th St with the Lafayette Grill, now called the Moya E Bar-Liquors

Photo by Tyson Trish / NorthJersey.com

Levy had a background in musical theatre, which was just what Dylan needed to perfect the song Hurricane. “The first step was putting the song in a total storyteller mode,” Levy said about the process. Levy explained how the beginning of the song is like stage directions, “like what you would read in a script: ‘Pistol shots ring out in a barroom night… Here comes the story of the Hurricane’.”

A Movie in Eight Minutes and 33 Seconds

He described how Dylan loved movies and could basically write these mini-movies that take place in eight to ten minutes, “yet seem as full as or fuller than regular movies.” When coming up with the lyrics for the 8 minutes 33-second song, Dylan used Carter’s book, his notes from his visit in prison, and various news clippings and reports about the case.

Rubin Carter chatting with the police at the scene of the murder outside of the bar in June 1967

Rubin Carter and police at Lafayette Grill after the shooting in June 1967. Photo by Archive / NorthJersey.com

Dylan liked to bend reality in his songs – Hurricane was no exception. He took liberty with the lyrics, including much of the dialogue. The song Hurricane debuted on September 10, 1975, during Dylan’s performance on the PBS broadcast “The World of John Hammond”. Then it was officially recorded in the studio in October and released as a single in November. Hurricane is the opening track of the album Desire.

“We Gotta Get This Man Out of Jail”

Dylan played it at every stop on his Rolling Thunder Revue tour. It was obviously played at the Night of the Hurricane benefit concert – a show staged in Carter’s honor. It also featured an all-star ensemble of musicians, all campaigning for Carter’s release. In his introduction to the song, Dylan told the audience, “We gotta get this man out of jail.”

John Artis and Rubin Carter walking with police in the background

John Artis and Rubin Carter. Source: Paterson Museum

As Dylan toured across New England and Canada by the end of 1975, Carter’s retrial was one of his main objectives. He played a total of 31 shows. In the last show, the Night of The Hurricane, there were guests like Roberta Flack (who replaced Aretha Franklin in a last-minute cancellation), and Muhammed Ali, who even called Carter in his jail cell while he was on the stage.

The Night of the Hurricane

What ended up being seen as controversial, Dylan used the real names of the people involved in the case, including Patty Valentine, Arthur Bradley, and Alfred Bello, the witnesses. As a result, Valentine sued Dylan in 1976 for defamation, claiming she was suffering emotional distress after being portrayed as a liar.

Patty Valentine posing in a portrait

Source: Pinterest

Dylan countered her claim, saying that his descriptions were accurate. He said her “beautiful” name was “a piece of thread that holds the song together.” The case was ultimately dismissed. As you will soon see, Bradley and Bello were also described unfavorably in the lyrics. Lawyers at Columbia Records ended up forcing Dylan to change some of the lyrics to avoid lawsuits.

Parts One and Two

Due to its length, the song Hurricane was split into two parts, with “Hurricane (part 1)” as the A-side, runs for 3 minutes 45 seconds, and “Hurricane (part 2)” as the B-side, runs for 4 minutes 47 seconds. The A-side was most commonly played on the radio since it was a more manageable length for radio airplay.

John Artis and Rubin Carter being led by the police to their first trial opening

John Artis and Rubin Carter led to their first trial on April 17th, 1967. Photo by Joe Giardelli / NorthJersey.com

The opening verse sets the scene right off the bat and introduces the story that is about to be told. It begins with an account of the murder and the “witnesses” to it. It’s easy to see that Dylan has a way of captivating his listeners from the very beginning.

Pistol Shots Ring Out…

Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night

Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall

She sees a bartender in a pool of blood

Cries out my God, they killed them all

Here comes the story of the Hurricane

The man the authorities came to blame

For somethin’ that he never done

Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been

The champion of the world

The Lafayette Grill closed off after the shootings happened with the upstairs apartment showing in the photograph

The Lafayette Grill circa 1960s. Source: Pinterest

Patty Valentine was the star witness in both of Carter’s trials. She lived just above the bar where the murders occurred and was awakened by the sound of the shots. The two men shot on the spot were James Oliver and Fred Nauyoks. Carter ultimately spent nearly 20 years behind bars.

Three Bodies Lyin’…

Three bodies lyin’ there does Patty see

And another man named Bello, movin’ around mysteriously

I didn’t do it, he says, and he throws up his hands

I was only robbin’ the register, I hope you understand

I saw them leavin’, he says, and he stops

One of us had better call up the cops

And so Patty calls the cops

And they arrive on the scene with their red lights flashin’

In the hot New Jersey night

Rubin Carter posing with his hand on his chin in the lobby of the Cumberland Hotel in London

Rubin Carter. Photo by Daily Mail / Shutterstock

Insinuating Bello as committing a crime of his own after the murder had taken place were the lyrics that Dylan was forced to later change. He described them as stealing the possessions of the shooting victims – something they were never accused of.

Meanwhile, Far Away…

Meanwhile, far away in another part of town

Rubin Carter and a couple of friends are drivin’ around

Number one contender for the middleweight crown

Had no idea what kinda shit was about to go down

When a cop pulled him over to the side of the road

Just like the time before and the time before that

In Paterson that’s just the way things go

If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street

‘Less you want to draw the heat

Rubin Carter getting his shoes shined in London

Rubin Carter in London. Photo by Daily Mail / Shutterstock

At this stage in Carter’s life, he was a fighter in the middle of his career, but he wasn’t a law-abiding citizen. He had several stints in jail for mugging and assault. Still, he was screwed over by the corrupt justice system.

Alfred Bello Had a Partner…

Alfred Bello had a partner, and he had a rap for the cops

Him and Arthur Dexter Bradley were just out prowlin’ around

He said, I saw two men runnin’ out, they looked like middleweights

They jumped into a white car with out-of-state plates

And Miss Patty Valentine just nodded her head

Cop said, wait a minute, boys, this one’s not dead

So they took him to the infirmary

And though this man could hardly see

They told him that he could identify the guilty men

Fred Nauyoks sitting at the bar surrounded by people

Fred Nauyoks sitting in the same seat he was shot in. Source: graphicwitness

Bello was a petty criminal who had been near the Lafayette to rob a factory that night, becoming the supposed eyewitness to the murders. Four people were shot in the Lafayette Bar and Grill that night. Oliver and Nauyoks were killed instantly, but Hazel Tanis died a month later. The sole survivor, Willie Marins, was blinded in one eye from a gunshot wound to the head. Despite hardly being able to see after the attack, the police still told him he had credibility in identifying the guilty men.

Four in the Mornin’…

Four in the mornin’ and they haul Rubin in

They took him to the hospital and they brought him upstairs

The wounded man looks up through his one dyin’ eye

Says, wha’d you bring him in here for? He ain’t the guy!

Here’s the story of the Hurricane

The man the authorities came to blame

For somethin’ that he never done

Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been

The champion of the world

Rubin Carter wiping the sweat from his head in the mirror

Rubin Carter. Photo by Associated Newspapers / Shutterstock

Tanis and Marins both said the shooters were black men, but they didn’t identify either Carter nor Artis. Marins argued that it wasn’t Carter, but his testimony was ignored.

Four Months Later…

Four months later, the ghettos are in flame

Rubin’s in South America, fightin’ for his name

While Arthur Dexter Bradley’s still in the robbery game

And the cops are puttin’ the screws to him, lookin’ for somebody to blame

Remember that murder that happened in a bar

Remember you said you saw the getaway car

You think you’d like to play ball with the law

Think it might-a been that fighter that you saw runnin’ that night

Don’t forget that you are white

Rubin Carter with his daughter and a bodyguard walking in the street

Rubin Carter and his daughter with a bodyguard. Photo by Mike Riccie / Paterson Evening News

From July 18 to July 23, 1966, the Hough riots were going on in Cleveland, Ohio. The racially motivated riots were dominated by arson and fire bombings, and the entire area was ablaze during the period. Dylan mentions it to shed light on the racial tension that was building in Black communities, both literally and metaphorically.

Arthur Dexter Bradley Said…

Arthur Dexter Bradley said I’m really not sure

The cops said a poor boy like you could use a break

We got you for the motel job and we’re talkin’ to your friend Bello

You don’t wanta have to go back to jail, be a nice fellow

You’ll be doin’ society a favor

That sonofabitch is brave and gettin’ braver

We want to put his ass in stir

We want to pin this triple murder on him

He ain’t no Gentleman Jim

Rubin Carter with the police in the hallway outside of what seems to be the courthouse

Rubin Carter. Source: Paterson Museum

To “put someone in stir” is a term that means throwing him into prison. Dylan alludes to the cops asking Bello and Bradley to help them frame Carter. There is also a reference to James J. Corbett, the “Father of Modern Boxing,” who was a fighter back when boxing was outlawed. Dylan says Carter isn’t a “Gentleman” like Jim since Carter is black – thereby portraying these cops as racist.

Rubin Could Take a Man Out…

Rubin could take a man out with just one punch

But he never did like to talk about it all that much

It’s my work, he’d say, and I do it for pay

And when it’s over I’d just as soon go on my way

Up to some paradise

Where the trout streams flow and the air is nice

Rubin Carter boxing circa 1965

Photo by Associated Newspapers / Shutterstock

And ride a horse along a trail

But then they took him to the jailhouse

Where they try to turn a man into a mouse

Once Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was introduced in the song, it became clear what Dylan’s stance was: that Carter’s unjust incarceration was racially motivated. He claims the authorities tried “to turn a man into a mouse” by incarcerating him.

All of Rubin’s Cards…

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 ni@$&r

No one doubted that he pulled the trigger

And though they could not produce the gun

The DA said he was the one who did the deed

And the all-white jury agreed

Rubin Carter pointing to himself during an interview

Source: YouTube

Dylan’s attention now turns to the trial, claiming it was a “pig circus” and that Carter “never had a chance.” To imply the trial was rigged from the start is a powerful political message, again raising the issues of racism in 1960s America.

Rubin Carter Was Falsely Tried…

Rubin Carter was falsely tried

The crime was murder one, guess who testified

Bello and Bradley and they both baldly lied

And the newspapers, they all went along for the ride

How can the life of such a man

Be in the palm of some fool’s hand

To see him obviously framed

Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land

Where justice is a game

Rubin Carter and John Artis holding a press conference after their second conviction.

Rubin Carter and John Artis after their second conviction. Source: Paterson Museum

Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties

Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise

While Rubin sits like Buddha in a ten-foot cell

An innocent man in a living hell

That’s the story of the Hurricane

But it won’t be over till they clear his name

And give him back the time he’s done

Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been

The champion of the world

The Aftermath of the Hurricane

The song concludes somewhat bitterly with Carter in prison and the real perpetrators “free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise.” However, Dylan makes it clear that the story is far from over and suggests that the authorities should “give him back the time he’s done.”

Rubin Carter standing next to a prison cell / Rubin Carter being interviewed by Mike Douglas while he was in prison

Photo by William E. Sauro, The New York Times / Everett Collection, Shutterstock

Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue continued into 1976, and, on January 25, there was a second tribute concert called Night of the Hurricane II. It took place in Houston and featured headliners like Stevie Wonder and Stephen Stills. That March, arguably at least in part due to Dylan publicizing the case, Carter was awarded a retrial and released on bail. But the celebrations came to an abrupt end…

Another Life Sentence

The second conviction in 1976 saw the eyewitnesses retracting their previous testimony from 1974. Carter and Artis were granted new trials based on the fact that the prosecution failed to disclose evidence regarding the reliability of its principal witnesses. But, on December 22, 1976, both Carter and Artis were found guilty again and re-sentenced to life in prison.

Rubin Carter sitting in a chair at a hotel talking to the press

Photo by Daily Mail / Shutterstock

Dylan did not take up his cause for a second time and never played Hurricane live again. After being sentenced to life in prison yet again, Carter’s conviction was eventually overturned in 1985 by Judge Haddon Lee Sarokin of the New Jersey Federal District Court. Carter’s attorneys filed a petition for habeas corpus.

From the Cell to the Championship

Sarokin claimed that the prosecution was “predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure.” At the age of 48, Carter was finally freed without bail in November of 1985, after almost two decades in prison, most of which had been spent in solitary confinement.

Rubin Carter and Muhammed Ali making their way through a crowd

Rubin Carter and Muhammed Ali making their way through the crowd after Carter was released. Source: Paterson Museum

After his release, he received an honorary World Champion title in 1993. He has since traveled the world to take part in innocence projects. For 12 years, he headed the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted and founded Innocence International in 2004. But the storm wasn’t over just yet…

His Name Was Never Cleared

Prosecutors appealed Sarokin’s ruling and filed a motion to bring Carter back to prison, pending the outcome of the appeal. The court, thankfully, denied the motion and ultimately upheld Sarokin’s judgment. The prosecutors then appealed to the United States Supreme Court, but they declined even to hear their case.

Rubin Carter talking to supporters with a woman holding a sign stating don’t let them railroad me again / Rubin Carter talking to supporters who are listening intensely

Rubin Carter talking with his supporters outside of the courthouse. Source: Paterson Museum / Walt Piechowski, Patterson News

Despite the “true crime” nature of Hurricane and the relief that was ultimately granted to Carter in the end, it’s easy to forget that Carter was never actually found innocent. For many, the problem remains that his name was never actually cleared. Carter and Artis were actually at risk of being tried a third time, but instead, the prosecutors filed a motion to dismiss the original indictments.

The Lasting Legacy of the Hurricane

The story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter has touched many people across the world and serves as a reminder of issues surrounding the American legal and justice system, as well as police corruption and racial tensions and prejudices. A number of biographies have been written about Carter since, and a movie, The Hurricane, was released in 1999, with Denzel Washington playing Carter.

Denzel Washington in the ring during a scene from The Hurricane 1999

Denzel Washington in The Hurricane 1999. Photo by Ken Regan / Beacon / Universal / Kobal / Shutterstock

Carter passed away on April 20, 2014, from prostate cancer. As for the song, Hurricane was a huge hit, reaching No. 33 on the Billboard Hot 100 and becoming Bob Dylan’s fourth most successful single of the ‘70s. Since the Night of the Hurricane II, Dylan hasn’t performed the song live, yet it has been covered by many, including Ani DiFranco, Furthur, Middle-Class Rut and the Milltown Brothers.