Culture & Criticism Since 2003
“As we grew from North Country boys into men, we shared a set of values and a simple outlook on life that transcended our individual success, values that had drawn us close and kept us close no matter the geographical distance. We saw one another from the inside out, not the outside in as others did…”
(Pages 209 & 210)
Over the course of the last 50 years, there have been dozens upon dozens of books about Bob Dylan. Yet, out of that barrage of biographies and insider-tell-alls, there have been but a scant few that have had something meaningful to say: Anthony Scaduto’s Dylan; Robert Shelton’s No Direction Home: The Life & Music Of Bob Dylan; Michael Gray’s Song & Dance Man; Jonathan Cott’s Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews; Greil Marcus’ Bob Dylan; Christopher Ricks’ Dylan’s Visions of Sin; Paul Williams’ Dylan – What Happened?
And as of today, Louie Kemp’s masterful just-released memoir, Dylan & Me (written with musician/writer Kinky Friedman), must also be added to this list for the way it effortlessly details the many meaningful one-on-one moments he spent with the poet over a 50-year period.
Kemp has become almost legendary in terms of Bob Dylan’s career. Some will recall seeing snaps of him dating back to the Rolling Thunder Revue, as we came to be introduced to one of the poet’s true confidants, introduced to a guy who met Dylan at grade-school age and grew into adulthood with him.
Obviously, Kemp & Dylan marks a special relationship and it offers us an authentic intimate glimpse into the mind behind Dylan’s public mask.
In Dylan & Me, Louie Kemp (a successful business man who made his mark in the fish business), does the unthinkable – he humanizes Bob Dylan in a way in which only a true friend could. Even though this comes to us a memoir, Kemp deftly conquers the ‘who really cares’ minefields of the genre by only speaking about events that shed light on the evolution of Dylan as person and artist. As such, Kemp documents his “adventurers” with the iconic poet in a sharp and well-paced narrative that further exposes Dylan’s spiritual side without ever violating the core of his privacy.
Kemp’s book starts from their bare beginnings, documenting the boyhood Bob Zimmerman and taking us through a history that spans half a century. And Kemp writes, consuming us with an easy ‘kitchen-table conversation’ prose:
“It was at summer camp in northern Wisconsin in 1953 that I first met Bobby Zimmerman from Hibbing. He was twelve years old and he had a guitar. He would go around telling everybody that he was going to be a rock-and-roll star. I was eleven and believed him.”
As the story spins forward, we see Dylan and Kemp lose sight of each other and then reconnect about the time Dylan had been cast in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid – the last of the great American westerns shot in Durango, Mexico in 1973. Subsequent to Dylan’s work on the film and its soundtrack, he prodded Kemp to come on the road with him for the famous Rolling Thunder Revue tour circa 1975 and 1976. At first Kemp balked, but eventually he relented and took the helm as producer for the boldest rock and roll tour ever to hit the road. As Dylan’s right hand during the tour, Kemp transferred his business sense to the stage and expertly navigated the show from township to township, helping to bring poetry back to the people. And Kemp writes:
“When the tour was over, Allen [the poet Allen Ginsberg] reflected on the particular magic of it.
“ ‘Rolling Thunder’ [Ginsberg said] ‘with its sense of community, is saying we should all get our act together and do it properly and well. Once you have a view of the right path, you have to travel that path. Having gone through his changes in the sixties and seventies, just like everybody else, Bob got his powers together for this show. He had all the different kinds of art he had practiced – protest, improvisation, surrealism, invention, electric rock and roll, solitary acoustic strumming, duet work with Joan and other people – all these different practices ripened and were useable in one single show…’”
From here, the book moves into the late 1970s, after Dylan had divorced from his wife Sara. At the time, Dylan was searching for answers, studying the webs of the self, looking for his reflection in the great prism of faith. This journey led the Dylan to record three brilliantly conceived Gospel-inflected ‘Christian’ records that were nonetheless misunderstood by critics and fans alike.
At this juncture, while the two were living together in California, Kemp sensed his friend was trying to write his was off an invisible island. Thus, he gently redirected Dylan back to the roots of his Judaism, trying to reconnect him with the true eye of his muse. And Kemp writes:
“Nearly every day, Bobby and I would engage in intense discussions of theology…It had become my mission to help Bobby find the spiritual fulfillment his soul was yearning for in Judaism – the religion of his ancestors…I introduced Bobby to Rabbi Moshe Feller in Saint Paul, and he went on to study the Torah and Talmud with him…”
(Pages 176; 177; and 178).
There are many things to admire about this book – the raw hue of honesty that shines off the lips of every page being foremost. However, what also must be mentioned is that Kemp wrote this book on his own terms, bringing it forward without shredding Bob Dylan’s personal life.
So many of the books on the poet that hit the shelves these days seek to expose nasty details about his private world; and frankly, this stuff is nobody’s business. Just because a guy makes music and performs with a rock and roll band does not give the public carte blanche to enter his living room and sort through his garbage can just to satisfy its morbid curiosity.
Kemp brings an intrinsic understanding to this fact. Apparently he eschewed going to one of the big New York publishing houses with the manuscript – to a forum where some editor would have certainly steered him toward divulging some BIG detail from Dylan’s family life, demanding some salacious (read: embarrassing) detail to help market a best-seller.
To the contrary, Kemp opts to tell a piece of Dylan’s story via the nuanced curves of his own life – never burning anybody, always staying true to himself and the underlying beauty that has made Dylan’s work so utterly profound.
It’s certain that readers will see Kemp’s intelligence and sensitivity shine throughout this memoir. In turn, it will be obvious why Dylan trusted Kemp enough to allow him to ride shotgun more than once.
This box set released by Columbia in June documents the famed Rolling Thunder Revue which Kemp produced and managed. It is an indispensable companion to Dylan & Me and will fill in the spaces left blank by Kemp’s narrative. Read John Aiello’s featured review here.