The first Bob Dylan song I remember hearing was Hurricane, the tragic story of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was falsely accused of triple murder and imprisoned for life.
It was 1975, and I was 15 years old. I was standing in my bedroom listening to the radio at the time, and I was spellbound.
In a decade when The Captain & Tennille and John Denver were earning fame and fortune singing 3-minute peppy pop hits like Love Will Keep Us Together and Thank God I’m a Country Boy, here was an angry man spitting out an 8-minute rant against racism, social injustice and the cruel bias of the American justice system. It was as if Dylan had read my darkest unexpressed inner thoughts about life and put them into verse.
But there was more.
This song was also poetic, with lyrics as challenging, as stirring and as commanding as any I’d ever read from Keats or Hughes or Eliot. Dylan was doing what Carter was no longer able to do for himself from the confines of his cell at New Jersey’s Trenton State Prison: Raging against the machine.
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 DA said he was the one who did the deed
And the all-white jury agreed.
And still there was more.
The music matched the lyrics. It sounded pissed off. Insistent, staccato drums. Violins wailing like furies. The biting, cynical sound of Dylan’s own much-maligned voice scraping like a steel hunting knife against a dirty chalkboard. Hurricane sounded exactly like what it was, a protest song.
Yes, there were other serious-minded songs on the charts in 1975. The Bee Gee’s hit Jive Talkin’ was a bitter tirade about a lying lover, for instance.
But it sounds like polyester and nail polish.
Hurricane sounds like an outraged boxer throwing thunderous knockout punches at the flaws in the prosecution’s case, and at the barely beating black heart hidden behind the puffed-up chest of American society. It resonates with authenticity. It thumps you in the head hard, knocking you to the mat and then standing over your bruised and battered body with one fist raised in the air, ready to hit you again if you dare to get up.
Dylan raised more than $100,000 for Carter’s defense with Hurricane. The money and the publicity helped free the boxer from jail in 1985. The federal judge who overturned Carter’s conviction noted that the prosecution’s case was “predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure.” Carter walked out of jail 19 years into his life sentence, his promising athletic career ruined but his fighter’s spirit intact.
The song set me free, too.
First, it sent me on a life-long musical exploration that has taken me from legendary writers like Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie and Muddy Waters to contemporary artists like U2, Radiohead and Tom Waits. Musicians with authentic voices and messages of their own. And, of course, it catapulted me headlong into Dylan’s own extensive catalog, a collection of dozens of albums and more than 500 songs. An extraordinary anthology ranging from the romantic longing of Girl From the North Country and the intense imagery of Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands—perhaps his greatest song—to the sly double entendre of Like a Rolling Stone and the spiritually haunting ghost-waltz of Man in the Long Black Coat.
Second, and more significantly, Dylan showed me—like so many other musicians and writers—that it’s all right, even preferable, to write from your mind and heart, as long as you do it honestly and with passion.
Dylan turns 70 today. That’s pretty old for a man, especially one who spent a lot of his life living out of a tour bus in a never-ending road trip while addicted to cigarettes, alcohol and, at one time, heroin. He’s probably earned the right to retire, or at least to rest on his reputation.
But that’s not Dylan. He’s not a nostalgia act. He’s still creating controversy, as the outcry over his recent concerts in China prove. He’s still a vital, evolving artist, as his brilliant recent albums Time Out of Mind and Modern Times prove. Unlike most musicians, almost nothing he does sounds anything like what he’s done before. Dylan is the sort of artist who only comes along once-in-a-lifetime, probably once in many lifetimes.
I know Dylan will die one day, maybe sooner than later.
But this man is my personal hero. And the 15-year-old boy who still lives inside me and remains spellbound by Dylan’s voice hopes he lives forever.