Behind the Song: “Hurricane” by Bob Dylan

With rare film of Dylan’s most passionate performance of the song, before it was released

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

From “Hurricane” by Bob Dylan & Jacques Levy

Videos by American Songwriter

“Hurricane,” the fiery, visceral epic of rage and injustice emerged at the start of 1976. It was the first single from his new album, Desire, his first new album since the dimensional-cubist heartbreak songs of his classic Blood On The Tracks. That album was so poignantly powerful, and presented a newly unleashed Dylan at the height of his creative powers, that nobody knew what he could possibly do next. Except perhaps disappear.

Not only did he not disappear, he did the opposite. With the playwright-lyricist Jacques Levy, who enjoyed narrative epic songs in Dylan’s elaborate rhyming patterns, Dylan wrote a new song cycle of amazingly detailed, charged songs. Songs of spiritual, global journeys, of mythic, mysterious love, and more. Even a beautiful epic of heart and history about his wife, “Sara,” connecting with his first epic love song for her, his muse, “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” from Blonde on Blonde. (Although the latter, at over eleven minutes long, is twice the length of “Sara.”)

But opening this new collection of wonders was a song of outrage, which burst into our lives and culture with a force made more urgent by Dylan’s use of stage-instructions to set the scene. It all opens with the loud cracks of gunshots, which sets the song in perpetual motion. 

Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night
Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall
She sees the bartender in a pool of blood
Cries out, “My God, they killed them all!”

The song is about Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a champion boxer in prison convicted of a 1966 triple murder in New Jersey. He proclaimed his innocence, and his conviction seemed to be racially motivated, based on false evidence and worse. He received a second trial, and was found guilty again in 1976. This was overturned in 1988, when he was released.

That Hurricane was a real man was both the power and the curse of the song. As Dylan and Levy brought it to a mythic place, as they did with the song “Joey” also on Desire. Another epic, it’s about Joey Gallo, the vicious crime boss. Countless people attacked Dylan for glorifying Gallo in the song, which he does.

Yet “Joey” and “Hurricane” are both remarkable, passionate, brilliantly crafted songs. They are written in the tradition of great old folk songs about outlaws, which Woody Guthrie also embraced in “Pretty Boy Floyd” and other songs. For Dylan, this link to actuality seems to have inspired the genuine passion instilled in each, in the same way his early protest songs were attached to the changing times of that moment. But at this time, the mid-seventies, this was a  hurdle many listeners did not want to leap. 

It’s no secret Dylan loves old movies, and has used lines from old films in his lyrics since the start. “Hurricane” is a true story, yet told cinematically. Jacques Levy said it was like a game he and Bob would play, both attempting to present a linear, coherent narrative, while also embracing the electricity of the music and mandate of rhymes. Dylan’s tendency was to go off in many directions, while Levy kept them to the story arc.

“I think he liked the idea that I could tell a story,” Levy said in an interview with Prism Films, “that there was a story in that song. Bob is not that good at telling stories. He doesn’t go from A to B to C to D to E. He’s got a lot of good stuff in his songs, but they don’t usually add up to a story.”

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“Bob wasn’t sure that he could write a song [about Hurricane],” said Levy. “I think the first step was putting the song in a total storytelling mode. I don’t remember whose idea it was to do that. But really, 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.’ Boom! Titles.

“You know, Bob loves movies, and he can write these movies that take place in eight to ten minutes, yet seem as full or fuller than regular movies.”

And that is exactly what they did, after meeting with Hurricane at Rahway Prison.

The song was recorded several times in the summer of 1975, with a faster version being the one that was released. Produced by Don DeVito, it featured wandering gypsy violinist Scarlet Rivera, Steve Soles on guitar, Rob Rothstein on bass, Howie Wyeth on drums, Luther Rix playing percussion, and harmonies by Ronee Blakley.

Though the record was not released until January of 1976, Dylan performed an intensely focused incendiary rendition on September 10, 1975 at WTTW studios in Chicago, for the taping of a TV tribute to John Hammond, the man who signed Dylan, called “The World of John Hammond,”  produced by Ken Ehrlich, who went on to produce the Grammy Awards each year.

With Rob Stoner on bass, Howie Wyeth on drums, and Scarlet in white providing a great visual counterpoint of grace to Dylan’s intensity, he delivered the song for the first time ever with stunning focus and force, evoking his early protest-song days. Those who had already concluded that Dylan had lost that electric urgency forever came to realize, as people have for decades, that easy answers about Bob Dylan do not exist. His talent, and his body of work, is simply overwhelming. As he said, “People have a hard time with anything that overwhelms them.”   

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