Dylan & Me: 50 Years of Adventures, a self-published memoir that received a PW starred review, recounts a storied friendship that spanned half a century and all of the globe. The book follows author Louie Kemp and his BFF, Bobby Zimmerman, from their summers as Herzl Camp’s most mischievous pranksters to the Greenwich Village coffeehouses where Zimmerman became Bob Dylan, and to their intense collaboration on the legendary Rolling Thunder Tour—Kemp producing, Dylan and a revolving cast of superstars performing. Warm and intimate, Kemp’s memoir shows the Dylan his fans seldom get to see: a family man and steadfast friend, whose North Country roots and the values instilled by growing up in a close-knit Jewish community in Minnesota informed his life and his art. BookLife spoke with Kemp about his adventures as a wildly successful entrepreneur and as Dylan’s most trusted confidant.
Rolling Stone wrote that you “ultimately decided to self-publish the book to avoid outside interference.” What kind of interference was your concern?
I initially was involved with a big publisher, but through their editing process I realized that they had some different ideas about how to develop and present the stories, so I decided I had to maintain control of the content to achieve my goals for the book. Also, their timetable for finishing and publishing the book was different than mine.
You and Dylan met at Herzl Camp, a Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin. Tell us about how your and Dylan’s roots in Judaism inform your lives, your creative work, and your friendship.
Growing up in homes with traditional Jewish values and attending Herzl Camp for five years during our formative years, as well as the 3,500 years of Jewish DNA that permeated our inner and outer selves, played a big part in who we were and how we approached life and conducted ourselves. We could easily identify with helping the underdogs and confronting the bullies.
You produced the Rolling Thunder Tour despite the fact that you had no prior experience as a tour producer. Do you think Dylan deliberately chose you for that role because the tour—with its guerilla-theater aspects of unannounced pop-up performances and its revolving cast of musicians, poets, and actors—called for someone capable of spontaneity, someone who didn’t have preconceived notions of how to run a tour?
Yes. Bobby knew we both appreciated the same down-to-earth values that had come from our experience of living in Northern Minnesota, and our rebellious spirts of doing things our way. When he told me his contrarian vision for Rolling Thunder, I immediately appreciated and embraced it, unlike the New York promoters. He knew I did not have the preconceived baggage of what a tour was supposed to be or had to be. He trusted me to bring his vision to life the way he wanted it done and that I would cover his back, like we had always done together. The rest is history.
One of the book’s deeply touching aspects is the “triangle of friendship” that existed between you, Dylan, and Larry Kegan, all Herzl Camp alumni. Kegan was injured in a diving accident at age 16 and spent the remainder of his life as a quadriplegic, but that didn’t cramp his style. He went nearly everywhere and did nearly everything with the two of you, before passing away. What are some of the attributes that Kegan brought to the friendship table that you and Dylan especially cherished?
Larry, in spite of his physical limitations, set an example for us: that, even if you were dealt a difficult hand in life, life is for the living, and he lived it to its fullest. He never felt sorry for himself or complained. We saw and appreciated in Larry a person who rose above the obstacles he encountered and taught us to treasure the simplest aspects of life, many of which he was denied, but he overcame with a tenacity that we envied. Larry had an enthusiasm, appreciation, and gratitude for life that exceeded ours. Our successes came relatively easy: they were dropped into our laps by God. Larry had to work hard for every action and breath that he took.
Of all the Dylan concerts and performances you saw, heard, and were a part of, which one stands out in memory as the one you’re most thankful to have been there to witness?
That’s like asking me which of many children do I like the best. The last concert of Tour ’74, at the L.A. Forum, was very memorable, as was that whole tour. The Rolling Thunder concerts—each was an experience unto itself, with different visiting artists participating at the different venues. The last concert of Rolling Thunder 1 at Madison Square Garden, the Night of the Hurricane benefit concert for Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, was a night of nights, with Rubin speaking to the crowd via telephone from prison and Muhammad Ali and many others joining with Rolling Thunder for a night to forever remember.
As a New Yorker, I have to ask... You’ve made a very comfortable living in the smoked-fish business. So, when you’re visiting N.Y.C., who gets the Louie Kemp “best of N.Y.C.” award: Barney Greengrass, Murray’s, or Russ & Daughters?
Zabar’s is good.
Karen Clark is a freelance writer, editor, and tutor who received her MFA from the City College of New York after owning an antiquarian bookshop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for over a decade.