The Story Behind Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane”. The protest song about the false imprisonment of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.

Ask any avid Bob Dylan fan what their favorite Dylan songs are, and chances are “Hurricane” will be named. The song was recorded back in October 1975 and released as the opening track of the 1976 hit album “Desire,” which was Dylan’s 17th released album. It tells the infamous story of the middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was convicted of murder in 1967 and incarcerated for almost 20 years. To celebrate the release date of this incredible, iconic album, we will uncover the full story of “Hurricane.”

A Hurricane is Born

Rubin Carter was born in Clifton, New Jersey, in 1937 and was the fourth of seven children. Following time spent serving the US Army in West Germany, during which he began to box, he was discharged in 1956 and arrested shortly after for two muggings.

Source: YouTube

He was convicted and sent to prison, where he stayed until 1961. On his release, Carter started boxing professionally. And at 5 foot 8 inches, he was shorter than the average middleweight boxer, but his aggressive style and punching power resulted in various early stage knockouts and earned him the nickname “Hurricane.”

Rise to Fame

People began to take notice of the small boxer from New Jersey, especially after he defeated a number of middleweight champions. By the end of 1965, boxing magazine The Ring ranked him as the fifth-best middleweight boxer in the world.

Source: YouTube

However, shortly after, his ranking began to decline as he lost an increasing number of fights. By the end of his career, out of a total of 40 fights, Carter had won 27, lost 12 and drawn once, chalking up a total of 19 knockouts (with 11 being total knockouts).

One Fateful Night

At approximately 2:30 a.m. on 17 June 1966, two men walked into the Lafayette Grill in Paterson, New Jersey, and began shooting. The bartender and one customer were killed immediately, and another customer died from severe injuries around a month later.


Rubin Carter and a man named John Artis were arrested by police after eyewitnesses described the attackers as two black men driving a car similar to Carter’s. The following year, after being tried and convicted, both Carter and Artis were found guilty of the murders, which were widely reported as being racially motivated.

Rubin’s Plight

After being sentenced to life in prison for multiple murders and incarcerated in Rahway State Prison in New Jersey, Carter continued to profess his innocence. Written from prison and first published in 1974, his autobiography titled The Sixteenth Round documents Carter’s tumultuous journey from the boxing ring to solitary confinement, maintaining that he had nothing to do with the 1966 triple murder.


Copies were sent to numerous celebrities in hopes of drawing attention to the cause in a new campaign for his release. And Bob Dylan received a copy because of his prior commitment to the civil rights struggle in America.

Dylan Rolls into Carter’s Life

After reading The Sixteenth Round during a trip to France, influential American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan decided to visit Carter in prison. The two reportedly had an instant rapport and spent a total of two hours together, with Dylan taking notes on what Carter said.


According to Carter, “We sat and talked for many, many hours, and I recognized the fact that here was a brother.” Dylan couldn’t have agreed more: “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.”

Why Did Dylan Take on Carter’s Story?

For all of his life, Dylan was a boxing fan – there are even published pictures of him with Muhammed Ali. For this reason, it’s likely that he would have followed Carter’s career and success within the ring long before the triple murder in 1966 and, therefore, had some previous affiliation with the sportsman.


Additionally, evident in his musical work, Dylan often took the side of the oppressed, frequently favoring the “underdog.” It is, therefore, unsurprising that Dylan read The Sixteenth Round and took the perspective that the legal case was tainted by racism, which ultimately led to an unfair trial and a false conviction.

Dylan’s Writer’s Block

After meeting with Carter at Rahway State Prison, Dylan decided to document the story of the “Hurricane” in musical form and set about creating a song. According to reports, however, he was unable to find the right lyrics to express Carter’s story in the way that he desired.

Source: YouTube

As a result, he contacted stage director and lyricist Jacques Levy and asked for assistance. Little did he know then that Levy would be the man with whom Dylan would end up co-writing his 1976 hit album “Desire.”

Levy, Dylan and “Hurricane”

Levy’s background in musical theatre was exactly what Dylan needed to perfect “Hurricane.” “The first step was putting the song in a total storyteller mode,” said Levy about the song. “…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 as or fuller than regular movies.”

Sourcing the Story for the Song

Dylan sourced the story told in the song from Carter’s autobiography and various news clippings and reports about the case. He had a personal willingness to bend reality in his songs, and “Hurricane” was no exception – he took many liberties with the lyrics, including most of the dialogue.


However, if we are to assume Levy wrote the lyrics while Dylan provided the lyrics and the voice, and if blame is to be attributed, Levy would have to take responsibility for the historical inaccuracies. Arguably, though, this could be put down to “poetic license.”

Building Momentum: Anticipating the Hurricane

Having been finalized with the help of Levy, “Hurricane”, which lasts a total of 8 minutes 33 seconds, was publicly debuted on September 10, 1975 during Dylan’s performance on the PBS broadcast The World of John Hammond.

Dylan with Rubin ”Hurricane” Carter (2013). Source:

It was then officially recorded in the studio on October 24 and released quickly as a single in November, making it the opening track of the album “Desire.” It was due to be released the following January. The “Hurricane” roadshow, which featured an all-star ensemble of musicians, served as a platform for a campaign for Carter’s release.

Night of the Hurricane

In his introduction to “Hurricane”, Dylan says to the audience, “We gotta get this man out of jail.” Touring across New England and Canada at the end of 1975, with Carter’s retrial as one of his main objectives.


Dylan played a total of 31 shows, ending the tour at Madison Square Garden on 8 December with a benefit called “Night of The Hurricane.” Guests included Roberta Flack (who replaced Aretha Franklin, a last-minute cancelation), and Heavyweight Champion of the World Muhammed Ali, who called Carter in his jail cell while he was on stage.

The Re-Write

Controversially, Dylan used the real names of the people involved in the story: Patty Valentine, Arthur Bradley and Alfred Bello – the three witnesses. As a result, in 1976, Valentine sued Dylan for defamation, claiming she suffered emotional distress due to being portrayed as a liar.

1966, Rubin Carter at the Lafayette Bar, Paterson, New Jersey. Source: Pinterest

Dylan countered that his descriptions were accurate, saying her “beautiful” name was “a piece of thread that holds the song together.” The case was eventually dismissed. Additionally, Bradley and Bello were described stealing the possessions of the shooting victims, which they were not accused of. Lawyers at Columbia Records made Dylan change some of the lyrics to avoid lawsuits.

The Lyrics: Telling the Story

The song was split into two parts, with “Hurricane (part 1)” running as the A-side for 3 minutes 45 seconds and “Hurricane (part 2)” running as the B-side at 4 minutes 47 seconds. The A-side became the edit most commonly played on the radio, as it was a more manageable length to play on air.

Rubin Carter and John Artis. Source:

The opening verse sets the scene immediately and introduces the story that is about to be told:

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

Incrimination in the Second Verse

The second verse introduces Bello and insinuates that he was committing a crime of his own after the murder had taken place – lyrics Dylan was forced to later change.

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Source: UPI Photo/mt/Files

The use of dialogue compliments the narrative and continues the tale in a story-like fashion:

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

Introducing the Hurricane Himself

It is in the third verse that the audience is introduced to the main character in the song’s story: Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. It is also here that Dylan introduces the theme of racial prejudice, which he claims is “just the way things go” in Paterson, New Jersey.

Mr. Carter, landing a right against Luis Rodriguez at Madison Square Garden in 1965. Source:

It is clear, therefore, from this moment what stance Dylan is taking – he clearly believes Carter’s unjust incarceration was racially motivated:

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

Continuing the Story

The next two verses continue the story of what happened last night, now introducing Bradley to the scene:

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

Rubin Carter in action against Harry Scott during their fight at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1965. Source:


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


Police Corruption in Paterson

The next two verses are extremely powerful in the sense that they introduce the theme of police corruption and suggest this was common in Paterson. While doing so, the theme of racism and racial prejudice is again referenced.

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Source:

These were two important topics during the 1960s in America, and Dylan was determined to use “Hurricane” to increase awareness of these issues:

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

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

Carter Never Had a Chance

The next three verses that follow outline how Carter’s potential was ripped away from him, claiming the authorities tried “to turn a man into a mouse” by incarcerating him. Dylan’s attention now turns to the trial, claiming it was a “pig circus” and that Carter “never had a chance.”

The Night of the Hurricane benefit concert on 8 December 1975 at Madison Square Garden, where Muhammad Ali visits Bob Dylan backstage and gives him a gift — a huge boxing glove. C/O Estate of Ken Regan / Ormond Yard Press. Source:

To imply the trial was rigged from the start is a powerful political message, again raising the issues of racism in 1960s America:

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
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
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 nigger
No one doubted that he pulled the trigger
And though they could not produce the gun
The D.A. said he was the one who did the deed
And the all-white jury agreed

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

Wrapping up the Hurricane

The song ends somewhat bitterly with Carter in prison and the real perpetrators “free to drink martinis and watch the sunrise.”

George Lois (center, in a Hurricane campaign t-shirt) and co-organiser Paul Sapounakis talk Bob Dylan into writing the protest song, Hurricane (1975)

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” – no doubt he had some idea of the events that were yet to come:

Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties
Are free to drink martinis and watch the sunrise
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 Hurricane’s Aftermath

Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue continued into 1976, beginning on 25 January with a star-studded concert called “Night of the Hurricane II,” which took place in Houston and featured headliners such as 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.

Bob Dylan – “Night of The Hurricane II” Concert Program Houston 1976. Source:

On 22 December 1976, however, both Carter and Artis were found guilty again and re-sentenced to life in prison. Dylan did not take up his cause for a second time and never played “Hurricane” live again.

The Song’s Success

When it was released, “Hurricane” reached number 33 on the Billboard Hot 100 in America and number 43 in the UK charts. Out of all the Dylan songs, “Hurricane” is arguably one that fans would give anything to hear him perform, as he has not done so since the Night of the Hurricane II.

The press interviews Hurricane Carter at Clinton State Prison after Bob Dylan’s concert there, Dec. 5, 1975. (Photo by Cal Deal). Source:

Since then, the song has been covered by Ani DiFranco, Furthur, Middle-Class Rut and the Milltown Brothers, although none of these versions achieved great success.

What Became of the Hurricane Himself?

After being sentenced to life in prison for the second time, Carter’s conviction was finally overturned in July 1985 by Judge Haddon Lee Sarokin of the New Jersey Federal District Court after Carter’s attorneys filed a petition for habeas corpus.


Setting aside the convictions, Sarokin noted that the prosecution had been “predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure.” At 48 years old, Carter was freed without bail in November 1985 after spending almost two whole decades in prison, a lot of which was in solitary confinement.

The Storm’s not Over Yet

Prosecutors appealed Sarokin’s ruling to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and filed a motion to return Carter to prison pending the outcome of the appeal.


The court denied this motion, however, and eventually upheld Sarokin’s opinion. The prosecutors appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which declined even to hear the case. Despite this, Carter was never actually found “not guilty,” so many feel as though his name was never actually cleared.

Third Time Unlucky?

Carter and Artis could have been tried a third time, but prosecutors instead filed a motion to dismiss the original indictments. “It is just not legally feasible to sustain a prosecution, and not practical after almost 22 years to be trying anyone,” said Attorney General W. Cary Edwards.


Prosecutor John P. Goceljak said several factors made a retrial impossible, including Bello’s “current unreliability” as a witness. Goceljak also doubted whether the prosecution could reintroduce the racially motivated crime theory due to the federal court rulings. A judge granted the motion to dismiss, bringing an end to the legal proceedings.

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 titled “The Hurricane” was released in 1999, with Hollywood star Denzel Washington playing Rubin Carter. From 1993 to 2005, Carter served as executive director of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted. He died on April 20, 2014 as a result of prostate cancer.