Hurricane is a protest song by Bob Dylan co-written with Jacques Levy, about the imprisonment of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. It compiles alleged acts of racism and profiling against Carter, which Dylan describes as leading to a false trial and conviction.
Dylan's Desire opens with "Hurricane", arguably the most popular song on the 1976 release. Named after former middleweight contender Rubin Carter, Dylan had been inspired to write it after reading Carter's autobiography, The Sixteenth Round, which Carter had sent him "because of his prior commitment to the civil rights struggle."
Carter and a man named John Artis had been charged with a triple murder which occurred in the Lafayette Grill, Paterson, New Jersey in 1966. Widely reported as a racially motivated crime, Carter and Artis were found guilty of committing the murders, and both were sentenced to four consecutive life sentences. In the years that followed, a substantial amount of controversy emerged over the case, ranging from allegations of faulty evidence and questionable eyewitness testimony to an unfair trial. In his autobiography, Carter maintained his innocence, and his story eventually led Dylan to visit him in Rahway State Prison in Woodbridge Township, New Jersey.
Dylan had written topical ballads before, including, "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" and "The Death of Emmett Till", but according to Jacques Levy, he wasn't sure that he could write a song…. "He was just filled with all these feelings about Hurricane. He couldn't make the first step. 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."
After meeting with Carter in prison and meeting a group of his supporters, Dylan began to write "Hurricane" in a "cinematic" style. This song was one of Dylan's few protest songs of the 1970s and was his fourth most successful single of the 70s, reaching #33 on the Billboard chart.
Dylan was forced to rerecord the song, with altered lyrics, after concerns were raised by Columbia's lawyers that references that Alfred Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley "robbed the bodies" could result in a lawsuit. Neither Bello nor Bradley were ever accused of such acts. Because there was too much leakage on the multitracks to make a vocal "punch in", Dylan decided to re-record the entire song. At this time, Dylan was already rehearsing for his upcoming tour, and the musicians from the Rolling Thunder Revue were still at his disposal. Dylan took them back into the studio, and a new, faster version of "Hurricane" was recorded again with Don Meehan at the board, with Ronee Blakley providing a harmony vocal. There were no edits in the song that ran over seven minutes. Even though some offending lyrics were rewritten, the song still drew some legal action, from eyewitness Patricia Graham Valentine. Her lawsuit was dismissed by a federal district court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal.
Even with the revised lyrics, "Hurricane" still raised controversy; detractors criticized the song for omitting any reference to Carter's criminal history as well as documented evidence of his antagonistic rhetoric and violent temper. There were other inaccuracies, including Carter's description as the "number one contender"; according to the May 1966 issue of Ring Magazine, he was ranked no higher than ninth around the time of his arrest. Mike Cleveland of the Herald-News and a number of other critics questioned Dylan's objectivity at the time of the song's release. The Herald-News reporter Cal Deal, who covered Carter's case between 1975 and 1976 and interviewed Carter in August and December of 1975, later accused Dylan of a strong bias towards Carter while employing a significant amount of artistic license.