Louie Kemp was 11 and Bobby Zimmerman 12 when they met at Herzl Camp in Webster, Wis., in 1953.
They did things boys do at camp — swim, sing and spray shaving cream on sleeping campers. The camaraderie — and hijinks — continued for 50 years off and on as Kemp, a Duluth native, ran a famous eponymous seafood company and his Hibbing-bred friend ran around the world as Bob Dylan.
Dylan’s story has been told many times, but not by someone who knew the man behind the mask, the boy who loved cool cars and rock ’n’ roll, the international icon who is just a northern Minnesota kid at heart.
“Dylan & Me: 50 Years of Adventures” is Kemp’s memoir. His story resonates because it’s so entwined with Dylan’s. Not only were they teenage pals, but Dylan asked Kemp to produce his Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975-76, and Kemp asked Dylan to be the best man at his (first) wedding in ’83 — in a tuxedo, no less, at the groom’s insistence.
“People will be surprised to see how down to earth he is,” said Kemp, who will make four appearances in the Twin Cities this week including Sunday at the Electric Fetus in Minneapolis. “He just is one of the boys. That’s who he is to me. To me, he’s Bobby Zimmerman. These are all Bobby Zimmerman stories.”
“Dylan & Me” is, according to Kemp, “all positive. It’s not a kiss and tell.”
He’s not that kind of a guy.
In fact, Kemp said, he never intended to write about Dylan until a dear friend — TV producer Tzvi Small, who was dying of cancer in 2016 — insisted one day that they call singer-author Kinky Friedman for advice on writing a book.
Kemp promised to share stories about Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Marlon Brando, Cher, Joan Baez, Dennis Hopper and other celebs that he’d been spinning for years.
With a foreword by Friedman, the book is self-published because Kemp wanted control. He didn’t seek Dylan’s permission but did send copies to the singer’s manager in New York. He hasn’t heard back.
Kemp, 77, hasn’t seen or talked to Dylan in about 12 years. He implied that they had a falling-out (“It’s not easy being Bob Dylan,” Kemp said), but he won’t go into details. He’s not that kind of guy.
Playing the heavy
He is the kind of guy who stood up for his friend against two of the most powerful men in the music business — Albert Grossman, Dylan’s longtime manager, and Walter Yetnikoff, CEO of CBS Records.
Grossman was allegedly taking advantage of Dylan by having the same lawyer represent both parties in a new management negotiation. So in the early 1980s, Kemp enlisted an old University of Minnesota fraternity brother to become Dylan’s new lawyer and resolve things.
When putting together the unconventional Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975, Kemp cold-called Yetnikoff, asked for a meeting and requested $100,000 to underwrite the tour.
“I was a fish peddler from Duluth,” Kemp said recently from his Los Angeles home. “None of that Hollywood stuff means anything to me. I didn’t have any fears or other aspirations that I’d ever need Walter for anything. I wouldn’t have to make a compromise for another client. My only concern was what was good for Bob. As a businessman, I understood the leverage I had.”
That leverage included introducing Yetnikoff to Dylan for the first time.
At Dylan’s behest, Kemp got to play the heavy at the Last Waltz, the Band’s all-star farewell concert in 1976. Martin Scorsese was filming the event, featuring the likes of Neil Young and Van Morrison. Dylan asked Kemp to make sure the director shot only two of Dylan’s four songs because his own movie, “Renaldo and Clara,” was in the works.
The iconoclastic rocker was having so much fun that he spontaneously kept playing more songs. Kemp argued with Scorsese and promoter Bill Graham to turn off the cameras.
“Back off,” Graham screamed. “This is history, man. Don’t mess with it. This is my show.”
Afterward, Kemp explained to Dylan what went down. Said the boss: “It’s OK, Louie. You did a good job.”
Bob vs. Bobby
Reflecting on his occasional forays into showbiz, Kemp contends “Bobby is one of the few people in the entertainment business who doesn’t court fame and attention. For an entertainer, Bobby had no ego.
“He doesn’t take himself so seriously like everyone else does. Bob Dylan is a performer who goes onstage and doesn’t say a word to the audience. Just speaks with his songs and leaves. He doesn’t explain anything to anybody. Bobby Zimmerman, who is my friend, speaks for hours about anything and everything.”
To Kemp, Bobby is the kid who sang rock ’n’ roll at Herzl Camp, the pal with whom he went to see Buddy Holly in Duluth days before the rock star died, the best man who sang rock classics at his wedding reception, the godfather to two of his six children (from two marriages).
The book also includes plenty of stories about the third amigo in their Herzl Camp posse, Larry Kegan of St. Paul, who was paralyzed at age 16 in a diving accident but stayed connected with Dylan and Kemp until his death in 2001.
Kemp said he and Dylan remained friends so long because of their similar background — Jewish families in northern Minnesota — and similar values, notably standing up for the underdog. Plus, neither had an ulterior motive.
“I was successful in my own right, and he did the same thing. We didn’t need anything from each other,” said Kemp, who sold his fish firm in 1987. “We were very comfortable, and we trusted each other.
“Sometimes friends from high school or whatever grow apart; in our case we grew in the same direction. We’re both very spiritual. And we both don’t take ourselves seriously. We both know our success was a gift.”