Recording "Hurricane" by Bob Dylan

Discussion in 'Music Corner' started by John B, May 13, 2003.

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  1. John B

    John B Once Blue Gort,<br>now just blue. Thread Starter

    Location:
    Toronto, Canada
    Bob Dylan works in mysterious ways. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his singular oeuvre. He has always managed to do exactly as he pleases without regard to trends or the accepted ways of doing things. This is even true in the recording studio, where he is famous for working very quickly, engineers' and musicians' needs be damned. He is interested in capturing spontaneity and freshness; forget about spending two hours trying to get the perfect bass drum sound. Engineers better be ready to have the tape rolling the minute he walks into the studio, because he's liable to start a take without warning and nary a downbeat, and that first take might be the keeper. He's famous for changing tempos and other arrangement ideas from take to take, and also for radically reworking songs from one session to another. His songs sometimes are mere sketches when he enters the studio, to be fleshed out by the musicians he's picked to accompany him that day. If his albums occasionally have a tossed-off quality, it is because they are not labored over endlessly by either the musicians or the engineers. For the first two decades of his career, it often seemed as though he was barely able to record his new songs quickly enough to keep up with the sheer volume of his output.
    Dylan has enjoyed several periods of undisputed genius. Certainly his first several years as a recording artist, from his earliest folk days through Blonde on Blonde in 1966, represent a body of songwriting that is unequaled. These are the songs that changed the course of rock 'n' roll in the mid- and late '60s and turned the medium into a thinking person's artform. If he had never made another album after this, Dylan would still have to be regarded as one of the most influential musicians of all time. But Dylan was never one to sit back and soak in accolades, and that's one reason he remains a vital talent nearly four decades after he first turned up in Greenwich Village coffeehouses. His creative restlessness always gets the best of him, and he's compelled to follow his muse wherever it leads him. It's like he sang in "Tangled up in Blue": "The only thing I knew how to do was to keep on keeping on like a bird that flew..."
    After his incredible first five years, Dylan's next great period came in the mid '70s, when he produced Blood on the Tracks (then and now my favorite Dylan album) and Desire, an unusual but mostly brilliant work unlike any other record
    he ever made. This month's Classic Track is the leadoff cut from Desire, which was recorded at CBS Studios in Manhattan in mid-1975.


    There are a number of qualities that separate Desire from other Dylan albums of this era. Musically, the album is marked by the sinewy, gypsy-flavored violin work of Scarlet Rivera--a one-time street performer who fell into Dylan's world around the time he was writing the songs for Desire--and by the ragged backup vocals of Emmylou Harris and Ronee Blakely. This is also the only Dylan album where he used a collaborator on most of the lyrics: Jacques Levy was a veteran of New York's adventurous off-Broadway theater scene and had worked with Roger McGuinn on The Byrds' Untitled album. He and Dylan hit it off and spent several days at Levy's Manhattan flat and out at Dylan's Long Island retreat writing material for Desire, which ranged from "Joey"--a bizarre lionization of mobster Joe Gallo--to the evocative "Black Diamond Bay," which almost sounds like the denouement of some great adventure novel.
    "We were both pretty much lyricists," Dylan said of Levy in 1991. "[We wrote] very panoramic songs because, you know, after one of my lines, one of his lines would come out. Writing with Jacques wasn't difficult. It was trying to just get it down. It just didn't stop, lyrically."
    "Hurricane" is an eight-and-a-half-minute story-song about the murder conviction of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, one of the most popular and feared middleweights of the '60s. Dylan was inspired to tackle the subject after a screenwriter named Richard Solomon sent him a copy of Carter's memoir, The Sixteenth Round. Later, Dylan and Levy visited Carter in jail.
    "When the Hurricane thing started," Levy recalled, "Bob wasn't sure he could write a song at that point. He was just filled with all these feelings about Hurricane. He couldn't make the first step. I think the first step was putting the song in a total story-telling mode. I don't remember whose idea it was to do that. But really, the beginning of the song is like stage directions, like what you would read in a script:
    `Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night/Enter Patty Valentine in the outer hall/She sees a bartender in a pool of blood/Cries out, "My God, they've killed them all!"/Here comes the story of the Hurricane...' Boom. Titles. You know, Bob loves movies and can write these movies that take place in eight to ten minutes, yet seem as full or fuller than regular movies."
    Part short story, part documentary and part polemic, the song lays out a scenario in which Carter was "obviously framed" and convicted for a robbery and triple-murder he did not commit. Dylan and Levy don't pull any punches--they accuse various witnesses of lying on the stand; the judge of tainting Carter's witnesses as "drunkards from the slums"; the media of blindly accepting the "pig-circus" trial; and society in general for having a system "where justice is a game."
    Columbia staff producer Don DeVito was assigned to oversee the making of Desire, and DeVito brought in engineer Don Meehan to record the sessions, which began in mid-July 1975 in CBS' Studio E, which had been a broadcast studio originally. Meehan had been with Columbia since the mid-'60s, working in a number of different engineering capacities--tracking, mixing, mastering--and maintaining a highly successful career as a bassist and a backup and commercial singer on the side. He was at CBS when the label's studios made the transition from 3-track to 8-track, 16-track and beyond. Desire was cut on an MCI 16-track, through Studio E's 48-input MCI board.
    "Studio E was a very small studio, about 30 by 30, with a little closet for a vocal room, and we had a little drum house in the corner of the room," Meehan says. "And Dylan came in with all these musicians; they were everywhere. I couldn't even tell you how many there were. It was kind of crowded, but it worked."
    Meehan remembers the Dylan sessions as "very loose," and "with Dylan it had to be live with no overdubs; that's the way he worked." Though he found Dylan to be reasonably cooperative, "I had to follow him around the studio to set up a mic on him because he wandered all over the place. On one take, he might want to be over near the drums, on another over in some other place, so I had to be ready.
    "I used a dynamic mic on him," Meehan remembers. "I would never use a condenser mic on anybody who was singing live in the studio like that because it would pick up everything. I asked him to work as close as he could to it to cut down the leakage. I probably used an RE-20, which is pretty good for most anything." Meehan also set up two vocal mics for Dylan because of the singer's habit of moving off-mic.

    Engineer Don Meehan at the mixing console Columbia Records designed and built for him in the late '60's to mix pop singles and albums from 8- and 16-track masters. "Hurricane" was mixed on an MCI console.
    Even with an idiosyncratic singer like Dylan, Meehan always liked to carefully ride every lead vocal. "Being a singer I know that almost everybody drops off at the end of a word, but you want the end of that word to come up because it's got to be intelligible. So I'd work with my fingers and a limiter [usually LA-2As] and then limit again even in mixing."
    Meehan recalls that bassist Rob Stoner was "the driving force behind the music," which was barely organized when the large group of players straggled into the studio. There were so many players on some songs that instruments had to be stacked three to a track in a few cases; hardly ideal conditions. The first version of "Hurricane," which has been described by some who have heard it as having an almost disco beat, was cut on July 28 with a large band that included guitars, bass, drums, trumpet, bouzouki, accordion, fiddle and Emmylou Harris gamely trying to keep up with Dylan on tandem vocals.
    "I didn't know her well," Meehan says. "She was following him around and didn't seem to know half the words. That pissed me off because I wanted to get it right, but that's the way they wanted it, so fine, we went with it."
    Two days later, the group took a shot at more takes of the song, and by that time the tempo had veered away from the beat-heavy version of July 28 to a more flowing rhythmic feel anchored by Stoner and drummer Howie Wyeth. By the end of the session, Dylan was pleased with "Hurricane," and it seemed as though one of the versions from the 30th would make the album.
    While all this was going on, Dylan was enjoying a huge surge of interest in his music. Blood on the Tracks was a commercial and critical smash, and in mid-'75, he authorized the release of a double-LP's worth of songs from the legendary 1967 Basement Tapes sessions with The Band. In the fall of '75, too, he and a loose amalgam of musical friends and fellow travelers put together the Rolling Thunder Revue, which played sporadic gigs in clubs, arenas and a few stadiums through the middle of 1976.
    One night in late October 1975, Don Devito got a call from CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff informing him that for legal reasons, the master tapes for "Hurricane" would have to be erased. Apparently, Dylan and Levy had mistakenly placed a character at the murder scene who was not there, an error which certainly could be considered libelous.
    "I got this call from Don telling me, `You've got to get those tapes out and erase them!'" Meehan says. "I said, `I can't do that, man!' He said, `You've got to--everything with Emmylou on "Hurricane."' So I pulled the tapes out but I just couldn't do it--I couldn't bring myself to erase all those 16 tracks. I ended up erasing the vocal tracks only, so at least the tracks would still be there. Those are probably still in the vault somewhere. But then, instead of just doing a new vocal, Dylan wanted to record the song again from scratch, so that's what we did."
    On October 24, Dylan and a much smaller group--Stoner, Wyeth, Rivera, guitarist Steven Soles and conga player Leon Luther, with singer Ronee Blakely (the star of Robert Altman's Nashville and part of the Rolling Thunder Revue) taking Emmylou's place--went into Studio E and laid down 11 takes of "Hurricane" with DeVito and Meehan, finishing up in the wee hours of the next morning. The version on Desire is believed to be a splice of two different takes from that marathon session. Meehan mixed the tune on the MCI board, using EMT plate reverb on much of it. Though Studio E was equipped with huge Altec A7 loudspeakers, Meehan says he liked to
    mix on 4-inch Lafayette speakers: "If I could get bass on those, I knew I could get it anywhere," he says with a laugh.
    At one point on the October "Hurricane" session tapes, Dylan impatiently notes that he's anxious to get the song out on the streets, no doubt because he believed its release might affect Carter's status and win him a new trial. A single version--"Hurricane, Part One"--was rush-released in November and made it all the way to Number 33 on the Top 100 singles chart. And on December 8, the Rolling Thunder Revue touched down at New York's Madison Square Garden for a benefit concert for Carter, dubbed "Night of the Hurricane," attracting wide publicity for Carter's cause. The album was released in January 1976 and quickly shot to Number One on its way to becoming Dylan's first Platinum album.
    Dylan's efforts were undoubtedly helpful in getting Carter a new trial, but the euphoria of his supporters was short-lived: Carter was convicted a second time. (Eventually, he was granted clemency. He's been free for a number of years, and he still turns up at Dylan concerts from time to time.) Despite acceding to the erasure of the original vocal tracks for "Hurricane," Dylan was sued by one of the principals in the case (Patty Valentine) anyway, and the litigation stretched into the early '80s.
    Don Meehan would go on to record and mix Dylan's live TV special/album, Hard Rain, in October 1976, but he still views Desire as a career high point: "I consider that album the best I've ever done," he says. "My style was to get every bit of energy I could out of every track, and I think you can hear it on that album. I'd love to do another album with Dylan in that style."

    by Blair Jackson
     
  2. mudbone

    mudbone Gort Annaologist

    Location:
    Canada, O!
    AH Thanks John. I've only read two sentences so far and I have a problem.

    It's this word: oeuvre

    mud-:D
     
  3. John B

    John B Once Blue Gort,<br>now just blue. Thread Starter

    Location:
    Toronto, Canada
    It's short for "hors d'oeuvre" - Bob Dylan loved them! ;)
     
  4. mudbone

    mudbone Gort Annaologist

    Location:
    Canada, O!
    I knew you could help me out.

    mud-:D
     
  5. GuyDon

    GuyDon Forum Resident

    Another great read. Thanks John!
     
  6. Matt

    Matt New Member

    Location:
    Illinois
    Anyone know what the version found on the Genuine Bootleg Series (Volume One) is? Is it that first version with the "disco beat" or the one that had the vocals erased later on?
     
  7. Mark

    Mark I Am Gort, Hear Me Roar Staff

    John: from a fellow Dylanologist, thanks for this. I had read bits of this elsewhere, but never in this depth. I've always enjoyed Dylan's approach to making records.
     
  8. aashton

    aashton Here for the waters...

    Location:
    Gortshire, England
    I always read it and translate it as egg - whilst I know this fails the factual correctness test - it tends to make passages with the word in more amusing :)

    &ru
     
  9. CardinalFang

    CardinalFang New Member

    Location:
    ....
    Great track, great album. Thanks!!
     
  10. Bob Lovely

    Bob Lovely Super Gort Staff

    Hey Mud,

    Another "epicurean" thing....

    Bob:D
     
  11. jdw

    jdw Forum Resident

    I read somewhere on a Dylan website that the Genuine Bootleg Series version is the one with the controversial lyrics (later to be erased). I never have actually compared the GBS version and the official release to hear how they are different.

    John
    Vancouver
     
  12. mudbone

    mudbone Gort Annaologist

    Location:
    Canada, O!
    Bob, according to Andrew it's "hors d'egg".

    mud-:D
     
  13. Richard Feirstein

    Richard Feirstein New Member

    Location:
    Albany, NY
    The Genuine Bootleg version is the final "release" version that got pulled at the last min.

    Richard.
     
  14. Richard Feirstein

    Richard Feirstein New Member

    Location:
    Albany, NY
    Also, to see what professional production can do to a song, listen to the commercial release of "Abandoned Love", the outtake from Desire, with the live tape he made in the Village at a Jack Elliot club date on July 3d. The live version from a hand held cassette recorder will knock you socks off and the over produced, compressed and limited production will not even curl your toes.

    Richard.
     
  15. jamesmaya

    jamesmaya Forum Resident

    Location:
    Mudwest, CA
    John B -- Great post on one of my favorite Dylan tracks. That period ('75 - '76) saw a string of Dylan releases with Blood On the Tracks, Basement Tapes, Desire, and Hard Rain. I seem to recall a Rolling Stone review of Hard Rain where the writer wondered whether Dylan was in danger of over-exposure.

    Jim W.
     
  16. Evan L

    Evan L Beatologist

    Location:
    Vermont
    John B,

    Another great read; this one actually took a few minutes, since there was so much to absorb.

    Oeuvre and out-
    Evan
     
  17. mudbone

    mudbone Gort Annaologist

    Location:
    Canada, O!
    Yo Ev, how's about some bacon and oeuvres?

    :laugh:

    mud-:D
     
  18. Evan L

    Evan L Beatologist

    Location:
    Vermont
    I always like my eggs oeuvre easy.:D
     
  19. mudbone

    mudbone Gort Annaologist

    Location:
    Canada, O!
    Let's not oeuvre do it.:D

    mud-
     
  20. guy incognito

    guy incognito Senior Member

    Location:
    Mee-chigan
    Meanwhile...

    This is slightly OT, but there's a very interesting web site out there that puts forth the case against Carter's innocence.

    http://graphicwitness.com/carter/

    Among other things, the author claims that Dylan's song "murders the truth" and is "a great song if you just ignore the words".
     
  21. Matt

    Matt New Member

    Location:
    Illinois
    Yowza. I already heard about all the changes made in the movie to make the story more simplistic, but that's a mountain of evidence the guy's compiled against Carter. It would be interesting to check for inaccuracies in that site, though, if you had the time.
     
  22. Damián

    Damián Forum Hall Of Fame

    Location:
    Spain now
    You know who would enjoy this fine piece of writing for sure? The folks over at rec.music.dylan.. there's been a lot of complaining about the group not being 'what it used to be' from some people there.

    Just an idea.. was about to post a link myself but then I thought 'hey.. '
     
  23. MMM

    MMM Forum Hall Of Fame

    Location:
    Lodi, New Jersey
    Thanks John - interesting. Always nice to hear stories like this told from the engineer. Great song.
     
  24. Steve Hoffman

    Steve Hoffman Your Host Your Host

    Our station JUMPED on Hurricane when we were "serviced" by Columbia. We got a 33 1/3 long version 7" picture sleeved record.

    I loved the song, but the, er, sound quality of the thing always bugged me, and the fact that it starts out at one tempo and by the end of the song is going twice as fast.

    I also wish Bob hadn't used that really awkward rhyming "..Pin that triple MUR-der on him". Whee, that was a painful way to make a rhyme.

    Great song though! :)
     
    squittolo likes this.
  25. Ed Bishop

    Ed Bishop Incredibly, I'm still here

    Excellent story, Johnny B; but then, you always come up with the best.

    But I have to be honest: after the love affair this listener had with BLOOD ON THE TRACKS(sorry, couldn't resist the color, shame, shame), I found not only the preachy, interminable "Hurricane" irritating, but a good portion of DESIRE to be the same, and I've never gotten over it. BOTT was so cohesive, DESIRE so disjointed, almost thrown together. And to really enjoy the song, I think you have to assume that Mr. Carter was innocent, which, despite Dylan's clever lyrical defense, is by no means entirely certain to this day(the case was a bungled muddle from the beginning). Hurricane became a cause and brought Dylan back--for the moment--to his old pre-electric 'protest' days certain critics loved until he showed his true, innovative and brazen colors, which was when they turned on him and we embraced him.

    Yet, a fascinating tale. How do you do it, yet remain so 'blue'?:D ;) :p

    ED:cool:
     
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