September 16, 2019

Louis Kemp Memoir Pulls Back the Curtain on Bob Dylan

 In the recently released concert documentary by Martin Scorsese chronicling Bob Dylan’s 1975 “Rolling Thunder Revue” tour, Dylan says, “If someone’s wearing a mask, they’re going to tell you the truth.” But some have argued Dylan has been wearing a mask ever since he legally changed his name to Bob Dylan from Robert Allen Zimmerman in 1962.

There have been a library’s worth of books trying to explain what’s behind that Bob Dylan mask — even his trash was deemed worthy of study — but large swaths of Dylan’s life remain unkown. How serious was his 1966 motorcycle accident? What led him to embrace evangelical Christianity in the late 1970s? What brought him back to Judaism a few years later, and what was behind his appearances on the 1989 Chabad telethon? 

If few people know Bob Dylan, even fewer can lay claim to knowing Robert Zimmerman. But Louie Kemp may come close. Dylan’s best friend since the duo met at summer camp in 1953, and also the producer of his “Rolling Thunder Revue” tour, Kemp has just released his memoir, “Dylan & Me: 50 Years of Adventures” (Westrose Press). 

In it, Kemp provides readers with glimpses into the unguarded Dylan — the good friend, family man and Jewish seeker. Opening with how he met Dylan at the Wisconsin summer camp, Kemp portrays the teenage Zimmerman as polite and well-spoken but mischievous. He’s the guy who shows up for a school formal in a leather jacket, black jeans and a pink ruffled shirt. But he’s also a nice Jewish boy. When Dylan’s friend Larry Kegan is paralyzed in a diving accident, Dylan regularly shows up in his hospital room with his guitar and, in 1981, invites him onstage for a song.

After high school, Kemp and Dylan drifted apart. Dylan spent a year in college before heading to New York, while Kemp stayed in school and eventually took over his family’s successful fish business. They reconnected in 1972 (after Mrs. Zimmerman told Kemp he should look up her son the next time he’s in New –York). The duo picked up right where they left off as teens — engaging in horseplay and making a crank call to Kemp’s girlfriend. 

Friendship rekindled, the book hits its stride as Dylan invites Kemp to the set of the 1973 film “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” for which Dylan composed the music; asks him to tag along on his 1974 comeback tour with the roots rock group the Band; and asks him to produce “Rolling Thunder Revue.”

Kemp initially demurred, but Dylan insisted, “Louis, you can sell fish; you can sell tickets.” It was a smart move. “Rolling Thunder” was an improvised caravan starring Dylan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn. It would play small rooms without any advance promotion, the show announced by handbills. Any music business professional would have rejected the idea. But Kemp not only was someone Dylan trusted, he was unimpressed by the whole rock ’n’ roll milieu. He could walk into Columbia Records and demand $100,000 in tour support, and when someone threatened he’d never work in rock ’n’ roll again, Kemp shrugged and said he had a successful fish business, “and the fish don’t talk back.”

In the book, Kemp comes off as a grounding force on the tour, keeping the ballooning troupe and overly aggressive members of the press in line. He even manages to puncture Dylan’s aura. While vacationing on a Mexican beach, Dylan constantly wears a heavy leather jacket. Someone assumes it’s because he “must feel a chill nobody else can feel.” Kemp says, “Maybe he just liked wearing the jacket.” 

After “Rolling Thunder,” Kemp and Dylan settled in Los Angeles to live the bachelor life. As Dylan began embracing evangelical Christianity in 1979, Kemp became a more observant Jew, eventually becoming a Chabadnik, determined to “bring Bobby home.” For Kemp, Dylan’s Judaism is key to understanding the man. “There’s no question in my mind,” he writes, “that Bobby’s drive to write songs that mattered was born at least in part from his roots as a Jew.”

It must have taken. By 1983, Dylan had returned to his Jewish roots and Kemp writes a chapter about taking Dylan and Marlon Brando to a Passover seder. That same year, Dylan’s album “Infidels” included “Neighborhood Bully,” a biting, pro-Israel rocker.

The final chapters offer a view of Dylan that few have seen. Dylan as a doting father taking his son Jesse to the Super Bowl. Dylan interrogating Kemp’s fiancée, making sure she’s worthy of his friend. And finally, Dylan attending a Yom Kippur service at the Santa Monica Chabad House in 2007, where he is asked to open the ark by Rabbi Avraham Levitansky. He’s wearing his usual scruffy attire — torn jeans and a hoodie — and is mistaken by a congregant for a homeless person. 

Kemp ends with a benediction, telling Dylan, “It’s obvious God has chosen you … to bring special light and knowledge to this world … may He bless you in this world and the world to come with pleasure and peace.”

“Dylan and Me” is available on Amazon starting August 15 and online.