Louis Kemp Talks Making Prank Calls, Studying Judaism With Bob Dylan

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Courtesy of Louis Kemp
Bob Dylan and Louis Kemp

Louis Kemp met Bobby Zimmerman during the summer of 1953 at Herzl Camp in northern Wisconsin, when Kemp was 11 and Zimmerman -- who, of course, went on to become Bob Dylan -- was 12. They became fast friends, in touch off but mostly on during the past 66 years; Dylan even tapped Kemp, who became a successful international fish merchant, to produce his famed Rolling Thunder Revue tours during 1975-76, and he served as best man at Kemp's 1983 wedding in Duluth, Minn. The two have shared a great deal over the years, and their relationship is at the heart of Kemp's new book Dylan & Me: 50 Years of Adventures. It's 240 pages filled with anecdotes and photos, a foreword by Kinky Friedman and more insight than dirt -- which is just as Kemp feels it should be.

After all these years, why a book now?

People who have known my story have been asking me to write it for years. I'd always say, "Yeah, maybe one day," never really thinking or knowing I would do it, just to kind of pacify them. And then I have a friend, Tzvi Small, who was a TV producer (Grammy Awards, America's Got Talent). He came down with stage four lung cancer three years ago and I would go to visit him all the time. I walked in one time and the first thing he says to me is, "When are you gonna write your book?" I came to see him and see how he was and he said, "I don't want to talk about that. I want to talk about your book. You've got to write it. You've got to share it with the world. People need to hear these stories. You're the only one who can write this book!" Long story short he wouldn’t let me off the hook until I promised him I was gonna write the book, and then six months later he passed away. I said, "Well, I've made this promise. I've got to do it." So I did it.

Was Bob OK with the idea of you doing it?

We're not really in touch right now. I didn't call him. I let his manager know, and he passed it on, so (Dylan) knew I was going to write it. But Bob knew I would write an honest, righteous, positive book, 'cause that's all I know and that's how I am. He knows who I am.

So what's the story you wanted to convey in Dylan & Me?

I wanted people to see the human side of him. This book isn't about Bob Dylan; It's about Bobby Zimmerman. I'm not a fan, I'm a friend. That's who my friend is, and that's who my experiences have been with -- not the entertainer Bob Dylan, the person Bobby Zimmerman. I always saw him as two different people. Bobby Zimmeman's professional side is Bob Dylan -- that's not my friend. If he's talking to the press or dealing with fans, obviously it's very limited what he gives you, and it's very guarded. He goes on stage and he speaks with his songs. He doesn't talk with the audience. So this (book) gives you the real side of him.

He comes off as a pretty funny guy.

Absolutely. THAT's Bobby Zimmerman. He's just one of the boys. You gotta remember when we were at camp and growing up, he was just one of the boys, and he still is to me -- and vice-versa. He's a very funny guy. I remember when I came to New York after not having seen him in a long time and he was famous, we were doing prank calls to my girlfriend back in Minnesota. That's him.

What was the experience like of seeing your camp buddy turn into a cultural icon?

Obviously at some point a long time ago, when he became a shooting star and the whole world was talking about him and he was in every magazine, TV, that became something I was obviously aware of. But as far as relating to him, it has always been Bobby Zimmerman.

Did his success surprise you?

Oh, yeah. I mean, he wrote "Blowin' in the Wind" -- when I heard that and then the whole world figured out who wrote it and Peter, Paul & Mary made it a huge hit, and then he started spitting out song after song in incredible quality and stirring everybody up, yeah, that was (a surprise) because when we were younger he was singing other people’s songs. It's not 'til he got to New York that he became Bob Dylan the songwriter. So, yeah, that surprised me. I always knew he had the talent, but it's one thing to know and another thing to see it. Once those songs started coming out it was like a faucet, if you remember right. He kept spitting them out. It was amazing.

You did come into his professional orbit at times -- accompanying him on the road during his 1974 tour with The Band and, of course, producing the Rolling Thunder Revue. What was that like?

Like any two friends, we had our careers -- mine in fish, his in music -- and you get exposed to what each other are doing. When you have a friend who invites you to hang out with him, you go as a friend. That's what I did on Tour '74. Then when he asked me to produce Rolling Thunder he needed me as a friend to do that because the professionals he had approached didn't get it and he figured I would and I could do it. So I did it -- as a friend. I write about in the book how the whole thing was conceived and we brainstormed how it was gonna work -- we won't tell anybody where it's gonna be, we'll hand out handbills, we won't even tell the entertainers or the people on board where it's gonna be, we'll keep it secret from everybody. Those things today are precious because those are personal things that he and I experienced and developed together. Nobody else was involved. And then how the whole thing evolved to a point where, after I put it all together and went out to lay it out for him in Malibu he said, "Let me think about it" and I gave him a time ultimatum for two days later and he waits 'til one minute before I was walking out the door to say, "OK, let's do it." (laughs) It was very personal and special, separate from a lot of people who were either observing it or were even there.

Did you realize how wacky the whole Rolling Thunder idea was at the time?

It didn't seem wacky to me. It seemed creative and it seemed personal. As well as I know Bobby, I knew that it was an extension of who he was. I went on the big money tour with him (in 1974) and saw what it was and he said, "I don't want to do that again. I want to do something different," and when he explained it to me I could identify with that because that's who he is. He said, "I'm not looking to make money on the tour. I just want me and all the people on the road and all the fans to have a good time, and I want to go places where people wouldn't ordinarily see me and play small venues." That made a lot of sense to me, because that's who he is.

The experience didn't make you want to drop everything and go into the entertainment business full time?

That's correct. I appreciated what I had in the fish business -- as I say in the book, the fish don't talk back.

Do you feel like you pulled any punches with the book?

I wrote the stories I felt I wanted to share, and that kind of flowed out of me. I never had any second thoughts or any additional stories or anything else. This was it.

With that in mind, and knowing him as you do, have there been portrayals of Bob over the years that have surprised or even angered you?

Well, basically nobody knows Bobby. They only know Bob Dylan and Bob Dylan is his professional persona and Bob Dylan speaks with the words of his songs. Bobby Zimmerman and I would talk for hours on the phone about everything. Very few people know that side, that person. So whatever they write about Bob Dylan, it really is inconsequential to me because whether it was good or bad I never took it that seriously -- just like he doesn't, either. The thing about Bobby is he's always been his own man and he's proved that so many times you can't question it.

What was it like to watch him go through his Christian phase during the late '70s and early '80s, coming from a shared Jewish background, and you becoming orthodox in your practice?

It was unusual because I was actually working with him part of that time. It wasn't my cup of tea, obviously, but Bobby was always very spiritual, and it was interesting because he was the one studying the New Testament and I'm in the other room studying Torah. At some point I made up my mind it was my mission to see that he was educated in Judaism, too, and not just educated in the New Testament, so that's what I did. I brought the rabbi I learned with to him. We had never learned Judaism like that, prior to that. I thought he should have the opportunity to learn about his own heritage and then make a decision, and that's what happened. He certainly had a more well-rounded spiritual education than I did, because he studied both.

Did you read Bob's book (Chronicles: Volume One in 2004)?

Yeah, I did. I thought he was really open, more open than he usually is with the public, and he shared a lot of good stuff.

What have you thought of his latest recordings, dipping into the Great American Songbook? That's surprised a lot of people but you must recognize where that comes from with him.

Yeah, we grew up with that stuff, and then we found rock n' roll. We both came from that '50s rock n' roll scene -- Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, all that stuff, and Buddy Holly, of course, who we saw play at the Duluth National Guard Armory. Bobby learned from all that. I enjoyed it as fan, but he learned from it as a musician and he walked his way up the ladder by learning from all these different musical influences, and it has never stopped. He's like a sponge; He learns and then he incorporates it into his professional being. That's who he is.


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