Rock and Roll Book Club: Louie Kemp's 'Dylan & Me'

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Louie Kemp's book 'Dylan & Me.'
Louie Kemp's book 'Dylan & Me.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Bob Dylan skis. In fact, he skis quite well; he grew up in northern Minnesota, after all. In fact, between the two legs of his legendary Rolling Thunder Revue tour (1975-76), he brought friends including Joan Baez and Roger McGuinn up to Spirit Mountain for a ski party that culminated in a food fight in a Chinese restaurant in Duluth. You don't believe it? Louie Kemp has the receipts.

As in, he literally has a receipt for $1,083.05. That's the amount (about $5,100 today) it cost to outfit Dylan and Baez with skiing gear on Dec. 22, 1975 at Spirit Valley Ski & Sport in Duluth. Kemp hosted the ski party, and for a lot of Duluthians he might have been its most recognizable member.

The heir to his family's eponymous seafood company, Louie Kemp was a major mover and shaker in North Country shipping and food processing from the 1960s into the '90s, when Tyson took the business over. A peer to power players like Jeno Paulucci, Kemp has a place in American food history for adapting a Japanese technique to create imitation crab meat. Every day, Kemp's legacy can be tasted in salads across America.

Kemp's independent business success might have helped keep his rock star friend feeling comfortable with him — Kemp didn't need to ride anyone's coattails — but the bond forged between the two dates back to 1953, when the two tweens shared a cabin at Herzl, a summer camp for Jewish kids. A photo in Kemp's new book Dylan & Me shows a teenage Dylan with a guitar strapped over his shoulder, sandwiched between Kemp and their fellow lifelong friend Larry Kegan.

Bobby Zimmerman was already a prankster and a performer, Kemp remembers. He played rock and roll piano in the camp talent show, and one day he sat on the roof of a cabin with his guitar, taking requests. The trio became friends outside of camp as well; Louie and Bobby went on a double date to a 1958 teen dance at the Saint Paul Hotel (Bobby "wore black pants, a black jacket, and an open-collared pink shirt with ruffles down the center. And sunglasses"). Kemp was also with the future Dylan in 1959 at the Duluth Armory, when they saw one of Buddy Holly's final performances. It made such an impact on the young Bobby that decades later, he mentioned it in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Kemp fills in a bit of his own biography around this story's edges, but it's called Dylan & Me and that's what it's about. He shares the best stories he remembers, skips the stuff he wasn't around for, and doesn't get bogged down in paralysis by analysis. The two friends didn't see each other much during the '60s, so Kemp skips straight forward to 1972, when they reconnected in New York. Dylan prank-called Kemp's girlfriend back in Duluth, they hung out in the Hamptons with Dylan's then-wife Sara, and then Kemp and Kegan went down to Mexico to meet Dylan on the set of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

(One amazing story Kemp does relate from Dylan's Dinkytown days suggests a possible inspiration for Dylan's deliriously weird Christmas album and "Must Be Santa" video. Dylan's first Minneapolis residence was a Jewish fraternity, and he ended up playing Santa in a raucous and irreverent holiday skit that was performed to a beer-swilling house of brothers.)

One thing led to another, and there in the photo section is a picture of Kemp, Dylan, and Cher singing happy birthday to David Geffen. After Kemp accompanied Dylan on his 1974 tour with the Band, Dylan enlisted the "fishmonger" (as he's called in Martin Scorsese's new quasi-documentary) to produce the Rolling Thunder Revue: a highly unusual tour that basically ran on a pop-up model, with stars like Baez, McGuinn, and Allen Ginsberg along for the ride.

It's a coincidence, but a happy one, that Kemp's book drops just as the Scorsese film hits Netflix and an accompanying Bootleg Series release lands in record stores. While Dylan was about to deliver a decade and a half of live performances that confused and frustrated his fans, the Rolling Thunder Revue was electrifying. With the fascinating Scarlet Rivera standing alongside Dylan as musical and visual counterpoint, Dylan delivered some of the most fascinating and impassioned performances of his career, highlighting songs from his then-new acclaimed albums Blood on the Tracks and Desire.

The tour included a "Night of the Hurricane" at Madison Square Garden, a legal-aid benefit for Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the boxer whose case Dylan took up in the song by that name on Desire — now one of his best-known songs, and certainly his most impactful protest song since the '60s.

Kemp believes Dylan trusted him in the unaccustomed role of tour producer because of their longstanding connection and also because Kemp's independence from the music industry allowed him to operate outside the box in financing and managing the tour. Kemp is particularly proud of walking up to CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff and demanding, successfully, $100,000 to fund the operation.

The strange celebrity encounters really started piling up in the late '70s, as Kemp spent more time in Los Angeles. Marlon Brando, for example, sought Kemp out to provide some manual labor for his son, who was running with a group the Godfather regarded as the wrong crowd. Kemp hired the young Brando to work on one of his fishing boats in Alaska; problem solved.

Kemp's friendship with Brando led to a memorable seder where both Dylan and the Apocalypse Now actor attended and played roles: Brando did a reading, and Dylan sang some songs. Once again, Louie Kemp was the glue.

Kemp ended up living with Dylan for a time in the '80s, and reconnected with his own Judaism just as the born-again Dylan was nose-deep in the New Testament. Kemp introduced Dylan to a Minnesota rabbi who joined the friends for extended conversations that provided food for thought as Dylan reconsidered his relatively newfound Christianity. When Kemp was married in his Duluth mansion in 1983, Dylan was his best man.

"My closeness with Bobby has never had all that much to do with music," writes Kemp, "any more than it has revolved around fish." To Kemp (who hasn't talked to Dylan in over a decade), Bob Dylan is still Bobby Zimmerman, pal and prankster. Dylan & Me brings us a little closer to that Bob.

Louie Kemp will be reading from his new book at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis tonight, Aug. 14, at 7 p.m. Tomorrow, Aug. 15, he'll be at the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum in Duluth at 5:30 p.m.

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