Shortly before Bob Dylan took the stage at The Last Waltz in November 1976, he turned to concert promoter Bill Graham and told him he’d only play if Martin Scorsese’s camera crew agreed to film just two of the four songs he planned to play during his set. “I’m going to put Louie on stage next to you and Marty,” Dylan said. “He will tell you when you can film me.”
The “Louie” in reference was Louie Kemp, Dylan’s best friend since they met at Hertzl summer camp in the summer of 1953. Kemp had recently criss-crossed America with Dylan as the producer of the Rolling Thunder Revue and now he had to tell the most famous concert promoter in history and one of the greatest directors of all time that they could only film half of the climax of their movie, causing them no small degree of horror. The cameras were indeed dark during “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” and “Hazel” and rolling for “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met) and “Forever Young,” but when Dylan unexpectedly went into a reprise of “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” all hell broke loose.
“That was one of the songs Bob didn’t want me to record,” says Kemp. “I screamed, ‘Stop the cameras!’ That’s when Bill Graham lost it and started shaking me. I grabbed him back and we’re screaming at each other while Marty just ignores us because he wants the footage. It was quite the scene.” (The song did wound up captured for posterity by Scorsese’s crew, and Dylan didn’t realize Graham had another camera rolling in the back the whole time.)
The insane moment at the Last Waltz is just one of many stories that Kemp has been telling to close friends for decades, but he’s finally documented them for his new book Dylan & Me: 50 Years of Adventures, which comes out on August 15th. “This book shows you Dylan’s down-to-earth side,” says Kemp. “To me, he has always been Bobby Zimmerman and these are all Bobby Zimmerman stories. Bob Dylan is his commercial side. I wanted to show a totally different perspective on him than anyone has ever heard before.”
Dylan biographers have been approaching Kemp for decades to tell his stories, but he’s turned all of them down. “I had it in the back of my mind that one day I’d write my own book sharing all these stories that were so interesting and meaningful to me,” he says. “But I always put it off.”
That changed a couple of years ago when his close friend and Grammy Awards producer Tzvi Small was diagnosed with lung cancer. He’d been pushing Kemp to write a book for years, and when he visited him in the hospital, his pleas became more urgent. Kemp promised him that he’d call up Kinky Friedman, his buddy since their days on the Rolling Thunder Revue, and ask him how to go about writing a book. “He said to me, ‘Call him now right in front of me,’” says Kemp. “Kinky said to me, ‘You’ve got the best stories. You have to write this book.’ He then told me how to do it.”
Small died six months later and Kemp was determined to honor his word to him and finish the book. With Friedman’s guidance, he wrote down his memories and started talking to a publisher, but that deal fell apart when they insisted he share details about Dylan’s private life. “They kept asking me to write about things that I didn’t think were pertinent,” he says. “All the stories I’m willing to share in this book are stories that don’t violate our friendship. They are stories that show the human side of Bob. They make him look like one of the boys, which he always was to me.”
Kemp ultimately decided to self-publish the book to avoid outside interference. Friedman wrote the intro and helped edit the early chapters, but Kemp says he wrote the vast majority of the book on his own. It begins with his first meeting with Dylan at Hertzl. “We both came from Northern Minnesota,” he says. ”We both came from middle class Jewish families in the same surroundings.”
The two formed a tight bond with fellow camper Larry Kegan and ran wild through the camp, even barely dodging expulsion one night when they stole a counselor’s car and tried to escape. In 1954, Kemp witnessed what he considers Dylan’s first public performance when he played Hank Ballard’s “Annie Had a Baby” at Talent Night with Kegan. They stayed tight through college, but lost touch in January 1961 when Dylan took off for New York City. Kemp became successful as the president of a fish company famed for its imitation crab meat and reconnected with Dylan in New York City in 1972. Two years later, he was invited to join him on the 1974 reunion tour with the Band where he watched every show from a rocking chair just feet away from drummer Levon Helm. “Bob liked that I was successful on my own,” says Kemp. “I didn’t need anything from him.”
Dylan enjoyed traveling the country with his old friend and asked him to produce the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975. “You’re a successful businessman,” Dylan told him when he expressed shock at the idea. “And you can’t deny that you’ve seen it all from the inside. If anybody can put this together, it’s you.”
A great deal of the book focuses on their adventures on the Rolling Thunder Revue, but Dylan fans will be fascinated by Kemp’s account of Dylan’s religious conversion in the late Seventies and his return to his Jewish roots in the Eighties. It was Kemp himself who played a major role in reintroducing Dylan to his original faith. The book moves very quickly through the Nineties (where Kegan and Kemp were the only non-family members invited to his 50th birthday party) to 9/11 when Kegan, who was paralyzed in a teenage diving accident, suddenly died of a heart attack while driving to buy Dylan’s new LP Love and Theft.
Dylan and Kemp talked on the phone that day, but it’s the most recent interaction documented in the book. “Like most friends, we had our disagreements,” he writes in the book. “We worked through most of them, and ultimately they made our friendship stronger.”
When asked about the current state of their relationship, Kemp gets a little vague. “We’re still friends, but we’re not in touch like we used to be,” he says. “It’s been over 10 years [since I’ve seen him in person]. [What happened] is not something that I would talk to anybody about. That’s between Bob and I.”