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The Hurricane bows out

James Westacott salutes a fighter and a song

Giardello v Carter 1964

The boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter has died aged 76. He was primarily famous for two things – in the 1960s, when I was an impressionable schoolboy who followed the Noble Art largely through the pages of Ring magazine, he was a mini-hero of mine as a sometime contender for the world middleweight title, a shaven-headed warrior who – Sonny Liston style – invariably stepped between the ropes in search of a tear-up.

Later, he became a cause célèbre as a potentially wrongly-convicted murderer who spent the best part of 20 years in gaol and was the subject of Bob Dylan’s 1975 protest song Hurricane, which championed his supposed innocence of the crime.

Looking back now, the record shows that Carter wasn’t one of the greats. His pro career ended at the age of twenty-eight with a 40 fight record of 27 wins (19 by kayo), 12 losses and 1 draw. The nearest he got to a world title was losing on points to Joey Giardello on 14th December 1964 after staggering his opponent in the fourth, subsequently blaming himself for not pressurising the champ enough in the later rounds.

The truth behind Carter’s triple-murder conviction in 1967 may never been known. Before he became a boxer he had been a petty criminal who had served time for muggings, assault and robbery. He was identified as the perpetrator of the murders by two witnesses who had been committing burglary at the time of the offence and, after his conviction, a campaign began alleging that he had been the victim of a serious mis-justice. Inconsistencies and flaws in the evidence were highlighted, public figures became involved and a groundswell of support for Carter’s situation grew.

Having said that, and despite a re-trial in 1976 in which he was re-convicted of the crime, Carter was only eventually freed on a technical habeas corpus appeal application in November 1985.

DylanBob Dylan became involved after reading Carter’s autobiography The Sixteenth Round and then meeting him.

The resulting Hurricane (co-written with Jacques Levy) is regarded as one of Dylan’s last and greatest protest songs.

It has been suggested that, to an extent, Dylan played fast and loose with the factual detail of Carter’s case, but I don’t worry unduly about this proposition. It’s impossible to cover all the bases in creative representations of real-life events and the writers of movies, novels and tunes need – in my view – to be granted a degree of latitude. The tale has got to fit a structure after all – we’re talking entertainment here, not necessarily proven fact. If things were any different, tens of great movies and plays down through history would never have made it to public gaze.

As it happens, quite by chance, I was listening to a compilation album of Dylan’s greatest hits whilst driving in my car last weekend and paid special attention to the 8-minute Hurricane. It’s not amongst my favourites of the Dylan canon but, because the lyrics are so barbed, insistent, clever and dripping in sarcasm, it demands concentration if the listener is to gain fully from the experience.

I cannot find anywhere on the internet any link to a video or recording of Dylan’s tour-de-force original version of the song, but at least – as a tribute to both Rubin Carter and Dylan’s epic Hurricane in his honour –  I can include Dylan’s lyrics here, copied and pasted from the official Bob Dylan website:

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!”
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

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

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 wanna draw the heat

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

Four in the mornin’ and they haul Rubin in
Take him to the hospital and they bring 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!”
Yes, 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

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”
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”

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

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

[Copyright © 1975 by Ram’s Horn Music; renewed 2003 by Ram’s Horn Music]


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About James Westacott

James Westacott, a former City investment banker, acquired his love of the Noble Art as a schoolboy in the 1970s. For many years he attended boxing events in and around London and more recently became a subscriber to the Box Nation satellite/cable channel. His all-time favourite boxer is Carlos Monzon. More Posts