Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about music and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the music urban legends featured so far.
MUSIC URBAN LEGEND: Bob Dylan had to re-record a song due to worries about slander/libel.
How could I make it past the start of Music Legends Revealed without featuring a legend about Bob Dylan?
“Hurricane” is one of Bob Dylan’s most famous songs from the 1970s.
It was co-written by Jacques Levy, and tells the story about the false imprisonment of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.
Carter was a boxer from New Jersey who was accused of committing a triple homicide in a bar in Paterson, New Jersey in 1966.
Some time around 2am on June 17, two black men entered a bar and shot and killed the bartender and a customer, with a second customer also dying a month later from her wounds. A third customer survived the assault, even though he was shot in the head (and lost an eye).
A petty criminal, Alfred Bello, was the first man on the scene, followed by a woman named Patty Valentine (then Patty Graham). They described two black men driving off in a car.
Their descriptions led to the police pulling over Rubin Carter and a friend, John Artis, about a half hour later. In their car, the police found a live .32 caliber pistol round and a 12-gauge shotgun shell – they both matched the two calibers used in the shootings
Carter and Artis were released, but about a month later, Bello came forward with the fact that he was actually with a partner in crime that night, Arthur Dexter Bradley. The police re-questioned both men and they both independently identified Carter and Artis.
And that was really about it – the guns from the car stop and the testimony of Bello and Bradley. That kept Carter and Artist locked up in jail for over 20 years (for Carter) and 15 years (for Artis).
In any event, in the early 70s, there began to be a bit of a movement to try to get Carter freed.
One person who was intrigued by it all was Bob Dylan, who wrote the aforementioned song, Hurricane, in 1975, which appeared on his 1976 album, Desire.
Right from the get go, Dylan did not exactly spend a whole lot of time getting the facts all the way correct. However, one specific line scared the suits at Dylan’s record company, Columbia (this actually was Dylan’s second album in a return to Columbia after a short-lived excursion with David Geffen’s Asylum Records for two albums), so much that they actually made him re-record the song!
Dylan said in the original version of the song that Alfred Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley were
“robbing the bodies.” Now, clearly, this was never ever mentioned by anyone, so if either Bello or Bradley pushed it, they might have a pretty good case for slander/libel.
So Dylan actually re-recorded the song while rehearsing for the Rolling Thunder Revue (his traveling tour at the time), using the musicians from the Revue. In doing so, he actually sped the tempo up, as well, giving us the song that we now know today.
Even WITH the edits, Dylan was still sued by Patty Valentine, who Dylan frames in the song as a knowing accomplice (if not an active one) in what Dylan proposes was a frame job on Carter. “And Miss Patty Valentine just nodded her head.” Ultimately, Valentine’s case was dismissed by a federal court (and the dismissal was held up on appeals).
Still, Dylan did not really acquit himself so well in the whole “facts” department with this song. Whether Carter was falsely arrested or not (and I personally lean towards “he probably was falsely tried and he should not have been imprisoned, but that does not mean that he did not actually do the crime”), Dylan could have presented the case with at least a LITTLE more facts and a LITTLE less just making things up as he saw them:
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.”
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
Now 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.”
Dylan visited Carter in 1975.
In 1985, Carter was freed from prison (after actually being convicted TWICE, both times mostly on the basis of Bello’s testimony) after a judge determined that the ruling was “based on racism rather than reason and concealment rather than disclosure.”
The New Jersey District Attorney’s office could have pursued a third conviction, but since they were unsure of Bello being a good witness over 20 years after the fact, and since Artis has already been paroled, they decided to give up and dismiss the indictments in 1988.
Carter was finally a free man. He lives today in Canada, working mostly with foundations devoted to the wrongly incarcerated.
The legend is…
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