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Rolling Stone Fact-Checks Famous Rock Songs

From Bob Dylan To Nas, 11 songs with a shaky grasp on history

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From Bob Dylan To Nas, 11 songs with a shaky grasp on history

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Bob Dylan – ‘Hurricane’

When rock stars write songs about real people and events they have a tendency to make mistakes. Sometimes they're trivial – and other times they get major historical events wrong by 2,000 years. Here's a guide to some of the most glaring, starting with Bob Dylan's 1976 classic "Hurricane."

Co-written by playwright Jacques Levy, the well-meaning song got many of the details wrong about the plight of middleweight boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter.  Though a rising boxer, he was not the "Number One contender for the middle weight crown," as Dylan sang. The song also says that Carter was "far away on the other side of town" at the time of the murder, but he was actually just a few minutes away. In fact, eyewitness Patty Valentine's role in the song was so distorted that she sued Dylan.

Dylan expert Clinton Heylin does a good job of debunking the song in his book Still On The Road. This doesn't imply that Carter was guilty of murder, just that Dylan and Levy were sloppy with the facts of his case. And don't even get us started on the movie…

By Andy Greene

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Bob Seger – ‘Night Moves’

At the end of Bob Seger's "Night Moves" the narrator wakes up and starts "humming a song from 1962." Seger has long maintained in interviews that the song was "Be My Baby" by The Ronettes. Problem is that song was recorded and released in 1963. Fun trivia: Seger says he was inspired to write the song when he heard Bruce Springsteen's "Jungleland" and wanted to write another song with two bridges.

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RUN-D.M.C. – ‘King Of Rock’

In their 1985 classic "King Of Rock" RUN-D.M.C. rhyme, "There's three of us, but we aren't The Beatles." Do we even need to say it? There were, of course, four members of The Beatles.

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U2 – ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’

U2's 1984 breakthrough hit "Pride (In The Name Of Love)" is a moving tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. Bono was inspired to write it when Rolling Stone writer (and current Rock and Roll Hall of Fame curator) Jim Henke gave him the M.L.K biography Let The Trumpet Sound. Bono did flub one detail when singing about King's assassination: "Early morning, April 4th shots ring out in the Memphis sky." King was killed at 6:01 p.m. Bono often sings "early evening April 4th" in concert, but he didn't catch the mistake in time to fix it on the album.

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Chuck Berry – ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’

In Chuck Berry's 1956 song "Brown Eyed Handsome" man he describes a baseball game. "Two, three count with nobody on," Berry sings. "He hit a high fly into the stand." If the count was two and three there'd be no opportunity to hit a high fly because the batter would have already struck out. Strikes are listed second in baseball.

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Bruce Springsteen – ‘Racing In The Street’

Bruce Springsteen's "Racing In The Street" begins with a detailed description of a car. "I got a '69 Chevy with a 396," Springsteen sings. "Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor.'' Ask any car nut and they'll tell you that fuelie heads can't go on a 1969 Chevy 396. "There was no such thing as fuelie heads on a big block, which is what the 396 was – a big block," a 2005 New York Times story quoted an expert saying.  "Now with the small-block Chevy engine, the 327, you could've had fuel-injected cylinder heads. But with the big block, no.''

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Tom Petty – ‘Swinging’

Tom Petty never mentions which Sonny Liston fight he was referring to in his 1999 song "Swingin'," but it could only be Liston's infamous 1965 bout with Muhammad Ali. "She went down swingin'," Petty sings near the end of the song. "Like Sonny Liston." Just 20 seconds into the fight Liston fell down to the ground, despite the fact that Ali didn't even make contact with him. It's since been called the "phantom punch" by journalists and historians. People are still debating what happened that day, but Liston certainly didn't go down swinging: He just went down.

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The Band – ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’

Before writing the Civil War saga "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," Robbie Robertson went to a library to brush up the history of the conflict – but he didn't study quite hard enough, because he made some mistakes. The song, told from the point of view of a Confederate soldier named Virgil Caine, reflects on the final days of the Civil War. "In the winter of '65 we were hungry, just barely alive," Band drummer Levon Helm sings. "By May the 10th, Richmond had fell." It is literally true that on May 10th Richmond had already been taken over by the Union Army, but it happened five weeks earlier on April 2nd. Jefferson Davis was captured on May 10th, but it's unclear why Robertson settled on that date to signify anything about the fall of Richmond. When the war ends, Caine returns to Tennessee, and Helm sings: "Back with my wife in Tennessee, when one day she called to me, Virgil, quick, come see, there go the Robert E. Lee.'" Just one problem with that lyric: Lee never stepped foot in Tennessee after the war.

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Neil Young – ‘Cortez The Killer’

Neil Young claims to have written the lyrics to "Cortez The Killer" while still in high school. "One night I stayed up too late," he said at a 1996 concert. "I ate like six hamburgers…Felt terrible. I was studying history, and I in the morning I woke up and I'd written this song." If true, it would explain how he got some facts about the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés dead wrong. "Hate was just a legend," Young wrote about the Aztecs. "War was never known." In reality, the Aztecs of Mexico were in a near-constant state of war. "They offered life in sacrifice," Young also wrote. "So that others could go on." That's a crazy spin on what they actually did, which was make human sacrifices to the gods. Innocent people were tied to posts and brutally tortured and killed; "Cortez The Killer" makes the act sound selfless.

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Journey – ‘Don’t Stop Believin'”

"Just a city boy," Steve Perry sings at the beginning of 'Don't Stop Believin'. "Born and raised in South Detroit." Detroit has all sorts of neighborhoods, but South Detroit exists only in Journey's mind. Anybody living there is living in the Detroit River.

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Nas – ‘I Can’

In Nas' 2002 song "I Can" he raps about African history: "Egypt was the place that Alexander the Great went/He was so shocked at the mountains with black faces/Shot up they nose to impose what basically still goes on today." He's off by about 2,000 years, and he means Napoleon. "You can't read about Napoleon without hearing about Alexander The Great, and vice versa," Nas later said.  "You might read one book about it, but that's that author's account of what happened. Someone else might say a whole different story, but if I speak on what happened in one man's book, then that's what it is."

In This Article: Bob Dylan

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