The song that really got me listening to Dylan, rather than just hearing him as background radio listening was his story of the imprisonment of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter for murder. An unusual song in Dylan’s canon, the lyrics co-written with Jacques Levy are unlike some of his other topical songs like ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, having a clarity in their structure and rhyming scheme, and being more direct than Dylan might have written on his own.
The version released on ‘Desire’ was the second go at recording the song, after some twitchiness from Columbia’s lawyers about the possibility of a libel suit. The emphasis on this version is firmly on the violin of Scarlet Rivera and is apparently taken faster than the original version. The urgency of the drums and percussion drive the song to a jittery tension reminiscent of a crime scene and interview room.
There are clear implications of racism and police coercion in one verse: “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 mighta been that fighter that you saw runnin’ that night?” Don’t forget that you are white”.
For me it opened the door a wider appreciation of Dylan’s writing and playing and is still my most played song by him. The version on the ‘Live 1975 – The Rolling Thunder Revue (Bootleg Series Vol. 5)’ is in places quite chaotic and not played at quite the frenetic pace of the studio version, but that may be why I prefer it. Rivera’s violin piece is intact, and the bass rather than drums is the main source of the drive behind the song. But it also shows why it vanished from the live repertoire after that tour. The version on ‘Desire’ was spliced from 2 takes, so playing the whole eight and a half minutes was clearly a strain, and as Dylan’s vocal style changed over time may simply have been beyond him. There are various theories in the dustier corners of the internet as to why he “really” stopped playing the song, but the fact that it was just so hard seems to be the most likely to me.