Louie Kemp on his friend Bob Dylan: 'You can take the boys out of Minnesota, you can't take Minnesota out of the boys'

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Bob Dylan is at center in a group of Herzl campers in 1957.
Bob Dylan is at center in a group of Herzl campers in 1957. Louie Kemp is immediately to the right of Dylan; Larry Kegan is immediately to the left. (Mark Alpert)

Louie Kemp has known Bob Dylan since before the times a-changed. The North Country native met me in Minneapolis for a candid conversation about his legendary friend, his new book Dylan & Me, and his portrayal in the new Martin Scorsese documentary about the Rolling Thunder Revue.


Your new book is about Bob Dylan — your friendship with Bob Dylan — but you've done much more over the years than just hang out with your friend. I'm sure many people in Minnesota and beyond recognize your name, and don't even know about your friendship with Bob Dylan.

Well, you're right. This is really my memoir. Like you mentioned, I have and had a big life — besides being friends with Bob Dylan. Some people know me through the fish business, because that was my career and my business for all my life. Other people know me as Bob Dylan's best friend. So I have those two different worlds, and a few other worlds. I'm a grandpa and a father. I have six kids and five grandchildren. I've worn a few hats. But Bob and I met when I was 11 and he was 12. We spent 50 years of adventures together, which is part of the theme of this book.

What would you say, overall, are your greatest accomplishments in life?

I go right to my children and my grandchildren. To me, that's the best of the best. I was blessed with having a big family — and that keeps reproducing. When I'm long gone, they're going to be carrying on my legacy, the things I taught them, and the things that are important.

You've known Bob Dylan for 66 years now, if I'm doing the math correctly.

You're right, it is 66 years.

So why have you chosen now to tell your story in the form of this new book?

For years, people would ask me — I'd be at dinners and luncheons and gatherings, "Tell us a story!" So I would tell a story here, and a story there. Ultimately, everybody said, "These are amazing stories, you have to write a book." And I would say, "Yeah, one day," not really serious about knowing whether I would do it or not.

A couple years ago, a very close friend mine, his name was Tzvi Small, he was a producer of the Grammys for 21 years, and for the last five years of his life he was a producer of America's Got Talent — just a great guy. We were very close. He came down with cancer, stage four. I went out to Malibu to visit him. I walk into his place, and almost right away, he said, "When are you going to write your book?" Because he was one of the people that knew my stories; he had great stories too, so he would say to me, "You gotta write this book."

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

So I walk in there, and he says that to me, and I say, "Wow, I don't know, I haven't really thought about it." And he said, "No, you gotta write the book." And I said, "Well, I'm here to see you — you have cancer, how do you feel?" He said, "I feel like s--t, but you gotta write this book." He was that type of guy; he was just a great guy. So to make a long story short, he got me to promise him to write the book. He died six months later, so I had to keep my promise.

The book is about the story of your friendship with Bob Dylan, but also about your third friend that the two of you met in the same cabin at summer camp.

Yes. Larry Kegan. Larry and Bob and I bonded right in the beginning. We were at camp for five summers together, the three of us. And we maintained a lifelong friendship from that experience. Larry was very much like we were, he was a maverick, he was a wild kid — he was more wild than we were in many ways. He stole his parents' car when he was 14 or 15, and headed out for California, got as far as Iowa. He was a real actor. He would take his parents' car for joyrides when they fell asleep at night. But he was great. And we loved him. And then he had this tragic accident when he was 16; he had a diving accident off of a retaining wall in Florida, and he broke his neck. And he was in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. But we stayed close with him.

Bob Dylan is obviously a singular artist in many ways, but he's also similar to other celebrities, in that it's clearly been important to him to maintain close friendships with the people he knew from his childhood. Why do you think it is that people like Bob Dylan, other celebrities, like to stay close to people who knew them from before they were famous?

Once you become famous, I think it's really hard to make close friends of the type and quality that you had before you were famous. Once you're famous, it's always suspect, their ulterior motives. With kids, there's no ulterior motives. You either like someone, or you don't. You share the same values and you bond, or you don't. And that's what we all have in common — it's hard to come by once you become famous.

Maybe keeping someone like you close helps keep you feel real and connected to your roots?

Yeah. When I would travel with him — he invited me to go on tour in '74 — he was with people he basically didn't know. Of course the Band was there, which he knew, but basically everybody else was just people who were working for Bill Graham — didn't know Bill Graham either, just met him. So it's good to have a close friend there to cover your back, and that you're comfortable with.

Let's talk about the Rolling Thunder Revue. You've played personal and professional roles in Dylan's life over the years, but the one that's right on the cover of the book here is, "Producer of the Rolling Thunder Revue." There has been so much more attention paid to that in the last couple of years, with the Bootleg Series release, and, oh, look at that...

I'm handing you, as we speak — because you brought up the Rolling Thunder Revue — I'm handing you my all-access backstage pass for the Rolling Thunder Revue concerts that I wore the whole time. This is the original — I actually have a picture of this in the book, but this is the one that I wore.

And you're offering a colorful gesture to the camera there.

Yes.

Do you think that was emblematic of a different attitude you brought to the music industry?

Yeah. I'm a northern Minnesota boy. I wasn't impressed by any of that entertainment stuff; I was there because Bob was my friend. He asked me to produce it, and I was there to look out for his interests. These stories I tell in the book explain that to some extent, like the story with Walter Yetnikoff, the president of Columbia Records.

I went up there on Bob's behalf, and was able to get him to agree to give $100,000 — and that's in 1975 dollars, that's like a half a million dollars — to support the tour, because we were playing small halls, and it was a fan's tour. Walter's first reaction when I said that to him was, "Oh no, we don't do that." He said, "If we do that for Bob, we'd have to do that for everybody else."

So I said, "Well that's too bad, Walter. Because if you're not going to be supportive to Bob on this tour and put some of Columbia's money in the pot, I can't cooperate with you on the tour." I said, "There'll be no tickets for Columbia Records, and I'm not going to give you the itinerary. Maybe you can buy some tickets on the street if you're lucky."

And I turned and I start walking out the door, hoping he would stop me, which he did — "Come back, come back!" He said, "Okay, we'll give you $100,000, but we need access." I said, "No problem, just have the check delivered to Bob's office tomorrow." Which they did.

If I was in the business, and I represented other people, I couldn't have pulled that off. Because I would've had a conflict of interest. I would have to go in front of Walter for my other clients, and I could never talk to him like that. But being that my only interest was Bob, I could play hardball on Bob's behalf. And that's what I did throughout the whole process of working with him.

There's a meeting depicted in the Martin Scorsese documentary that just came out. Is that the one?

I'll tell you what that is. I went up there two days before, and I said to Bob's business manager — I didn't even know who the president of Columbia Records was — I said, "I want to see the president of Columbia Records."

She said, "Why do you want to do that?"

I said, "Because I want to see if I can get some promotional support for the tour."

She said, "Oh, they'll never do that." She said if I had asked him many times, and they just don't do that.

I said, "Well, I'm from Duluth, so I'm going to find out for myself. Just give me his name and number and I'll call him myself." She didn't laugh with me, she laughed at me — this naive fish-peddler from Duluth is going to go up to Columbia Records and get money just like that. So I said, "Just give it to me."

So she gave it to me, I called up, I got a hold of his assistant, told her my name, I said, "I'm working for Bob Dylan, I'm on the tour he's about to do, I'd like to see Walter to coordinate between Columbia and the tour, for maximum benefit for Columbia."

She said, "Let me tell him, and I call you back."

She called me back in a half hour, said, "Mr. Yetnikoff would be very pleased for you to come in and see him. When do you want to come?" So I said, "I'll come in tomorrow."

So that's when I went up and had that meeting, and basically shook him down for a hundred grand that he didn't want to give. So I went back, and I told Bob's business manager to expect a check tomorrow for $100,000, and she was amazed. She said, "I don't believe this."

I said, "You'll see." Sure enough, it was there. And then I told Bob, and of course he was pleased.

Two days later, Bob was having a meeting with the camera crew. We had a camera crew, because Bob decided about three or four weeks before the tour that he wanted to shoot a movie. And that's where all this footage for Rolling Thunder came from. We actually had a camera crew that traveled with us.

They were going to do some footage around New York City, offstage stuff, just to get some additional scenes — some of which was shown in Rolling Thunder. They were brainstorming where they should go. I said, "You know what? We should go to Columbia Records unannounced and crash, and go see Walter."

Bob said, "That's great, let's do that." So that's it. Bob and I went to Columbia, with the camera crew following us, and that scene that you saw in the movie is from that second visit.

And just as you describe it in the book, there are the security guards saying, "You can't film in here, you can't film in here."

They were trying to throw us out. "You can't film here." There was a lot more footage where they were trying to push out the door.

I said, "You better not throw us out, because Walter's going to be very upset if you throw out Bob Dylan."

And then the guy said, "What?"

And I said, "Yeah. You better call before you do this. It's not going to be good for your career."

So the guy said, "Oh, okay, let me call."

So what's your take on the documentary, now that you've seen it?

The performance footage is amazing. And of course I knew that, because I went to every concert, and they were just incredible concerts. The documentary gives you a taste of it, but these were four- or five-hour shows. They were truly revues, they weren't just concerts. They went on for four to five hours. We had so many talented people who were part of it: Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn. And in most cities that we went, entertainers — everybody heard about the Rolling Thunder, they wanted to see it, so Bob would put them on stage. These shows were just incredible. And I knew that.

So that part of the movie is amazing. And the other, original footage that was shot offstage, like the CVS footage, and other stuff with the original people is all precious, actual footage. Bob is a prankster. And it turns out it looks like Marty [Martin Scorsese] is a prankster also. You get two pranksters together, they start feeding off each other: "Let's do this! Let's do that!"

I don't know which one came up with it, but they agreed apparently, to put some fictitious characters into the footage, as if they were part of the original tour, which they weren't. I guarantee, if Sharon Stone had been there, I would've noticed her, okay? That wouldn't have gotten past me. Of course she wasn't there. And there were three other guys: one claimed he was the film producer, one claimed he was the producer — that he had my job — another one was a congressman. None of those people were for real. It was just some landmines that Bob and Marty put in to mix it up.

And you were amused by the result?

Yeah, I was. At first when they started coming, I said, "I don't know that person, who is that?" So then I realized that there was a pattern, and I saw what they were doing, and I laughed.

The reason you needed this money upfront, or Bob Dylan did, is that this was a self-financed tour — it was run differently than a typical tour.

Not only self-financed. Many professional promoters had come to him and said, "Let's do a big money tour; arenas and auditoriums. You'll make a lot of money, you'll fly in private jets, everybody wants to see you." That's basically what tour '74 was like.

He said, "No, I did that in '74, I don't want to do that." He said, "I want to do just a fun tour. A tour for the people, and for the fans, and a tour that the entertainers will have fun on too."

And they said, "No, you're too big for that."

When he was in New York recording Desire, in that summer, June, July of '75, these people that approached him and they tried to talk him out of it, he said, "We'll do a musical caravan, carnavale style. Go town to town unannounced, and really have a fun experience."

They said, "No, that's crazy. You're too big for that."

He said, "No, I'm not. That's what I want to do." But none of them took him seriously.

So when I came back from Alaska that summer, for my fishery there where I go every summer, I got back to Duluth, and he called me the next day and said, "Come down to the farm, I want to talk to you about some stuff." So I went down to the farm and stayed with him four or five days. After a day or two, he told me about this idea for his tour.

And we brainstormed. "Yeah, we'll just hand out flyers, two or three days ahead of time. We won't tell anybody — even the people on the tour — where we're going," which is what we did. The entertainers had no idea where the next stop was — we'd tell them a stop or two ahead — but nobody got an itinerary.

When we booked these halls, these little halls, we wouldn't tell the people who the principal [headliner] was; we said, "This is the Rolling Thunder Revue."

They said, "What's the Rolling Thunder Revue?"

We said, "It's a group of entertainers."

"Who are they?"

"We can't tell you. We didn't tell them either." The whole thing was like a mystery tour.

That's the kind of thing that would be hard to pull off now in the age of social media, for the next town over to not know that this is the thing that Bob Dylan is doing.

Well, once we did the first concerts — we did the first two shows in Plymouth, Mass. Can you imagine opening a national tour with the biggest entertainers of the day in Plymouth, Massachusetts? Memorial Auditorium, 1,600 people? But I thought it was a good idea, and he liked it. He said, "It's the place where the pilgrims landed, and so it's a good starting place." We did it for Halloween weekend.

So I said, "It'll be a combination of the pilgrims and the goblins together." And he liked that. We just did a lot of fun stuff.

In the documentary, Dylan says, "There's nothing left of that tour. What is there of that tour?" It must have felt that way for a while, but now all this documentary evidence is coming out: the movie, the Bootleg Series set.

That obviously is part of his prankster side. We shot, I don't know how many hundred hours of footage for that tour, which is what Marty worked off. And we recorded many of the shows. Audio as well. So this tour was well-preserved, and is now being shared with the world.

Is that gratifying now, to see a new generation discover that art?

Yes. It pleases me, because I want, not just a new generation...many of the original fans who could not go to a Rolling Thunder tour because there were just a handful of them in certain locations. There are many people who I hear say today, "I wish I could have been able to go to the Rolling Thunder," as well as the new generations who are now being turned on to it.

You just mentioned the farm, Bob Dylan's property in Minnesota, earlier. One of the interesting things to me about reading your book, is it's about Bob Dylan's connection to you, but then more broadly, it's about his continuing connection with Minnesota, and Duluth.

We're both northern Minnesota boys. You can take the boys out of Minnesota; you can't take Minnesota out of the boys. Our values, and our experiences growing up formed who we are, and are a big part of who we are today. We both have a strong affinity for Minnesota.

And he's spent a good deal of time here over the years.

Louie Kemp, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan relax.
Louie Kemp (upper left), Joan Baez (center), and Bob Dylan (right) relax at Spirit Mountain in 1975. (courtesy Louie Kemp)

Yeah, he comes back here all the time.

One of the most amazing stories in your book is that chapter about the ski trip to Spirit Mountain. Between the two legs of the Rolling Thunder Revue, he was back here with Joan Baez and Roger McGuinn.

I'll tell you what happened. When the tour was over in New York, after we had done the benefit concert, "The Night of the Hurricane," at Madison Square Garden, for "Hurricane" Carter. I stuck around for a couple more days, we did a few things around town. We went to Sam Shepherd's play, which is in a chapter in the book, and a few others. And then it was time to go home for me. I started packing, and people said, "Where are you going?"

I said, "I'm going to Duluth, that's where I'm from. And I have a fish season going on, I have to get back there." The lutefisk season was going on; we were big packers of lutefisk. The largest, as a matter of fact. And we had a Lake Superior herring season going on. So I said, "I got to get back."

And they said, "We don't want this tour to end!"

I said, "I'll tell you what. In Duluth, there's a great ski place called Spirit Mountain. Why don't you guys come back with me, and we can extend it, and we can all go skiing in Spirit Mountain?"

And Bob said, "That's a good idea, let's do it." And Joan Baez said yes, and Roger and a bunch of other people. So we got on the phone and called Spirit Mountain, and we booked a whole bunch of their bungalows, and we went to Duluth. It was great. We skied all day, and hung out in the chalet at night. I took them to Chinese Lantern for dinner one night. In that story, I talk about the food fight that Joan Baez and I had in the middle of the Chinese Lantern.

A lot of people probably have a hard time imagining Bob Dylan skiing, but you said he kept his skills from growing up?

Oh yeah, he's from the North Country.

Another thing that you talk a lot about in the book and that I'm interested in is your relationship, and Bob Dylan's relationship, with Judaism. People write and talk a lot about his born-again Christian period — there are whole books written on that — but there is less discussion about his relationship to Judaism.

That's because most people don't know anything about it. They just knew about the Christian period because he wrote some albums about that, and there was some press about it.

Bob and I were actually living together in a house that he rented in Brentwood, California, during that period, so I wouldn't have to drive him from Malibu when he wanted to be in the city. He said, "I have plenty of room." He said, "Why don't you move in with me?" So I did. We lived there for three years together.

He was going through that Christian period at that time. It was very interesting. He'd be studying the New Testament in his room. I had to come back to Minnesota during that period to visit my mother, and I actually met a rabbi from St. Paul, Rabbi Manis Friedman. To make a long story short, I studied with him for about three weeks, and I had made the decision to become observant Jewish — Orthodox. I was conservative before that, but I decided after studying with him that I was going to keep the sabbath, Shabbat, kosher, all the things that you do.

It was pretty interesting, when I got back to the house in Brentwood, Bob is studying the New Testament, I'm studying the Old Testament, in rooms right across from each other in the same house. And then we'd meet in the kitchen, and we'd try to persuade each other about what we read. I made up my mind that I was going to do my best to bring him back to the religion of his ancestors and his heritage.

The first thing I did is, after about two of these sessions where I felt I was outgunned — he had some really deep questions I couldn't answer about Judaism, because I had just started to study it. I went into the other room and called Rabbi Friedman. Without telling him who my friend was, I said, "Rabbi, I have a friend who is studying the New Testament, Jewish friend, and I'm not able to counter a lot of the things he tells me. If I get you a ticket, will you come out and meet with him?" And he never knew who the friend was.

He said, "Sure, whatever you want."

I said, "Okay, let me get back to you." So I went into the other room, and I said, "Bob, my rabbi is coming next week. Will you meet with him?"

He said, "Sure, I'd be happy to." So I went back, arranged the ticket, and I brought him to the house, and they got along great. And that was the beginning of him starting to study Judaism in a deep way, that neither of us had ever done as children.

And you ended up bringing Bob Dylan and Marlon Brando together, at probably one of the more unusual sacred dinners in Jewish history.

Yes. That was a great experience. A mutual friend of mine had introduced me to Marlon. Because Marlon had told her, "Do you know any real people that own business outside of California? I want to get my son Christian out of L.A., he's hanging out with the wrong people, I'm afraid he's going to get in trouble. He's been with all of the fast Hollywood kids, whose parents are in the industry." And Marlon could see that that wasn't going to work out for the kid. "And I don't want him around here at all until he gets his feet on the ground."

She said, "Well I know this one guy who owns a fish business in Alaska."

Marlon said, "That's perfect! Let's send him to Alaska." She said Marlon got all excited: "That's exactly what I'm looking for!"

She said, "Yeah, this guy's a real guy, he's not Hollywood. Don't worry."

He said, "I want to meet him."

So she called me and told me what happened. She lived in a compound, you go down the driveway on the right side and there's Jack Nicholson's house, and on the left side was Marlon's house. They shared the same driveway, but it was all gated and it was just the two of their houses there. She lived in the guest house for Jack — she had been in Five Easy Pieces, and they became good friends — she managed his property stuff.

She called me back and said, "Come up to Jack's house at such and such time tomorrow, and you'll meet Marlon." I had been to Jack's house quite a few times with her. Jack was a partier and they used to have some fun parties up there, and we used to hang out. So I knew Jack that way. I went up to the house, and I was sitting on Jack's couch with Helena [Kallianiotes].

After about five minutes, in walked Marlon. This was just a few years after The Godfather. He walks up to me...I was sitting on the couch, and he took a chair right across from me and sat down. He said something like, "I understand you have a fishery in Alaska."

And I said, "Yes."

He said, "I have a son. I want you to hire him and take him to Alaska."

I said, "Okay. That's something I can do for you, Marlon. You can get him the job, but only he can keep the job. Because it's hard work up there, and he's going to be working with a lot of college kids that go up there for the summer to make enough money to support themselves through the year, and everybody is expected to pull their weight. So if he is able and willing to work hard, he can keep the job. If he's not, they're going to send him home. All I can do is hire him, and send him up there, but the foremans are going to make the decision if he stays or not, and that's up to him."

He said, "Don't worry. I guarantee you he'll work hard. You won't be disappointed."

I said, "Okay, he's got the job." I took his information, gave it to my people, they contacted him, got him a ticket, boom.

He went up there. And he was a great kid. His name was Christian. Unfortunately he had tragedy in his life. He went through a lot, he died young. We all liked him. They put through the wringer up there, once they figured out who he was. They figured that I knew his dad, that's how he got the job — because they knew I knew Bob. So they made him prove himself. They gave him all the worst, toughest, s--ttiest jobs, just to prove himself. He was great. It got to the point where everybody loved him, and they all called him Brando after they accepted him. To this day, if I ran into one of them, they would say, "Brando was a great kid."

So then you had that relationship with Marlon Brando.

And that carried on for the rest of his life.

And then that ended up bringing him and Bob Dylan together at this dinner.

Yeah. So when I would come to L.A. after that, Marlon and I would get together. Marlon was not a Hollywood person at all; he liked to be with real people. He wasn't into hanging out with Hollywood people. So he and I got along good.

He knew I was in town on that particular trip, and he called me at the hotel where I was staying, and invited me out to dinner. I said, "Marlon, I can't. Tonight Passover starts, and I'm going to a Seder."

And he just lit up. He said, "A Seder! I've always wanted to go to a Seder! Can I come with?"

I said, "Are you sure?"

He said, "Yes, I'm sure, I want to come."

So I said, "Okay. Be at the hotel." I gave him the time to be there. And he said, "No problem. I'll be there." And he was excited. Then he calls me back about an hour later, and said, "Can I bring a friend?" Well, okay, who turns down Marlon Brando? He wants to bring a friend. I didn't ask who it was, I said okay.

And then a couple hours later Bob called me and said, "What are you doing tonight?"

I said, "Well, Bob, it's the first night of Passover. I'm going to a Seder."

He said, "Tonight's Passover? I forgot! I want to come too!" So that's how the whole thing happened.

You mentioned that your helping to reconnect Bob Dylan with Judaism showed up in some of his songs from the '80s and afterwards. You write a lot about what it's like to be friends with Bob Dylan as a person, but what do you think people could appreciate more about his music, or what sort of insights might you have to offer people who know his music well?

I want to clarify one thing. My friend isn't Bob Dylan. It's Bobby Zimmerman. That's who my friend is. To this day. By the time we met, I met Bobby Zimmerman, and that's who my friend is. Bob Dylan and Bobby Zimmerman are two different people. The same physical being, but they wear two different hats.

Bob Dylan is his professional persona. He's the guy who performs and writes those songs, and wins the Nobel Prize in Literature, and all those wonderful things. Bob Zimmerman is just the regular guy. And that's who my friend is.

When Louie Kemp was married in 1983, Bob Dylan was his best man.
When Louie Kemp was married in Duluth in 1983, Bob Dylan was his best man. (courtesy Louie Kemp)

I don't get involved in critiquing his music. That's been critiqued thousands of times by professionals. That's not our relationship.

Has it been emotional for you to revisit all these years for this book?

It was. Searching the vacuums of my memory; and I didn't have any notes or anything. Thank God I still have a hundred percent memory, and I was able to recall all these little details going back to when we were kids.

It was a good therapeutic experience. Not only with Bob, it brought me to focus on all of the people who I had been in contact with all those years — people who had helped me in all different stages of my life who were meaningful to me, many of whom you lose contact with. When you write a book like this, you mentally reconnect with all of that. And that was very nice.

It seems like you reconnected on not just a mental level, but you spoke with Scarlet Rivera as part of your research. Were there other people who you called up like, "Do you remember this?"

Scarlet and I stayed friends. I stayed friends with Joni Mitchell. And Scarlet and Joni are friends. So when Joni has a birthday party, and she usually has New Year's parties too, I always go, and Scarlet is usually there, so we see each other. I told Scarlet I was writing this book, and I asked her to share some of her recollections of Rolling Thunder and how she met Bob, so she gave me that and I put it in.

I appreciate you taking a few minutes to talk with me.

It's good to be in Minnesota.

Transcribed by Colleen Cowie


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