Electric Review

Culture & Criticism Since 2003

Shotgun Rider: 15 Minutes With Bob Dylan’s Long-Time Friend, Louie Kemp

Bob Dylan and Louie Kemp in adjoining phone booths on the road during the Rolling Thunder Tour, 1975. Photo courtesy of Louie Kemp.

Louie Kemp made his career mark in the world in the commercial fishing industry, first taking over his father’s business and later expanding it with the Louis Kemp Seafood Company, an endeavor which catapulted imitation crab to the mainstream market. But long before he became the King Of Crab, Kemp was Bobby Zimmerman’s number one running mate. He met Zimmerman (who later changed his name to Bob Dylan) back in the early 1950s during their preteen years. Both boys were from Minnesota, and they immediately fostered a friendship that spanned decades. Even though Dylan would quickly become a legend in the worlds of both music and poetry, he never lost his connection to Kemp. Eventually, Dylan asked Kemp on tour with him, making him producer for his famed 1975 traveling carnival known as the Rolling Thunder Revue. Now, after some 40 years, Kemp has finally published a memoir about his days with his famous friend. Dylan & Me (reviewed here) has just hit the shelves and it serves as a poignant series of recollections that tell a part of Bobby Zimmerman’s quest for spiritual fulfillment through the eyes of one of his most valued friends. In sum, Dylan trusted Kemp to discuss the concept of faith with him, and the reason for this is likely born in how forcefully Kemp (regarded as the “Father” of Aish Ha Torah’s Discovery Program and the founder of Chabad of Pacific Palisades, California) is able to discuss his own belief systems and his relationship with God.

The Electric Review was fortunate to be granted the opportunity to sit down with Kemp on September 3, 2019 to discuss his book and the impact his friendship with Dylan has had on his life. The interview follows.

Tell me about your background, and specifically, what it was like growing up in Minnesota.

Well, I came from a middle-class family in Duluth. We were in the fish business there. I think growing up in Minnesota was good. At least for me. I grew with Midwestern values. There are decent hard-working people there. Value-based. And that’s a good environment for a kid when he’s growing up.

So what are ‘Midwestern values?’ Can you give me an example of them and how this region differs from other regions in the country?

When we were young kids growing up in Northern Minnesota, in the North Country, people were hard working and honest. Back in Duluth in those days, you didn’t even have to lock your doors – we trusted each other, we helped each other. Doctors made house calls and teachers cared about their students. People back there were cut from a different cloth. They were doers, not complainers. And our safe zones were the ones we created in our minds and hearts. That’s where we found strength and inner peace, and we shared it with our family and our friends.

I imagine a big piece of a person’s life is shaped by the landscape and climate back there…

Yes, the winters were very cold – sometimes minus 20-30 degrees, and much colder with wind-chill. Sometimes we would have blizzards, with feet of snow piled up, but we would still go to school and to work. And when we were kids we would bundle up and go out and play. Back then, people were hardy and strong of character. I really noticed [how different we were] when I moved to LA. In LA, if it rained and the temperature got down to the low 50s, people complained. When it got that warm in Duluth ,we put down the tops on our convertibles! But believe me, complainers and sissies can’t make it back there. They have to move elsewhere…

What was your driving motivation to write Dylan & Me?

The real motivation came from a friend of mine – Tzvi Small. Tzvi was once a producer for the Grammies. And he knew a lot of my stories. He would always tell me “those stories are great you need to put them in a book!” I would say “yeah yeah yeah” but never intended to to write any book. And then Tzvi ended up with stage-four lung cancer. I used to visit him in the hospital all the time. And during one of these visits he made me promise to do the book. It was heartbreaking to see him like that, really, and I couldn’t refuse him. I made a promise to Tzvi to do it, and I kept my promise.

I note you published Dylan & Me yourself. Was this so you could retain creative control over content?

Yes, that is absolutely the reason! A big publisher wanted the manuscript. But as discussions started, I realized quickly that if I went that route I would give up content control. And I wasn’t going to do that.

In your book, you write about first meeting Dylan. Have you isolated what made the two of you first connect?

Actually, there were three of us that connected [as youngsters]. The third guy was Larry Kegan who I also write about. The three of us had so much in common. We were mavericks. Non-conformists. We were adventurous and creative spirits. All this worked together. We had lots to bond over. Plus Bob and I are from Northern Minnesota. The North Country. As I said before, it’s a different world. It’s even different from growing up in Minneapolis.

What do you think was key into turning a childhood friendship into a 50-year adult bond?

Well I think the key to what happened is that we both became very successful in our own rights. I wasn’t a hanger-on. I had my own success and my own credentials. The two of us didn’t need or want anything from the other guy. Our foundation was our childhood friendship, and things evolved from that, and not from need. Plus as I said before, we had the same value-system and developed it further as we grew into men.

Your book is compelling on a multiplicity of levels. But it really is quite admirable how you were able to reflect personally on your relationship with Dylan without embarrassing him. In this regard, you seem to remain in a protective mode. Did you see this as a part of the role you played as manager of the Rolling Thunder shows?

Yes, I was there to help make a vision Bob had [for the Revue shows] a reality. I was there to carry off Bob’s vision, and to watch his back, and I accepted that responsibility completely. I was there as a friend, not as a promoter. You see, the only reason Bob even asked me to be there was because the promoter he first approached had wanted to turn the tour into a big money thing. Bob didn’t want that. He had a specific artistic vision for those shows and I ended up helping him carry that off.

Dylan obviously had to truly trust you to let you into his world on a personal level. So what makes him trust Louie Kemp? How did he know you’d be one of the guys who wouldn’t betray him?

He knew Louie Kemp since we were 11 years old. He had a history with Louie Kemp before he ever became Bob Dylan. Bobby had many experiences with me and he’d reached a comfort level with me. We simply knew who that other person was…

Did you send the Dylan camp a copy of the memoir and have they commented?

I just sent two copies to his offices, but I haven’t received any feedback on it yet.

When you were writing, did you worry at all that Dylan might view this book as betrayal on some primal plane?

No, I didn’t. And the reason is that this is simply a letter from one friend to another friend in book form. And I have been careful to maintain the integrity of that. I really look at this book as a modern day version of Tom Sawyer. The evolution of a friendship that started with two young boys. When I started out to write this I said to myself it was going to be a true and honest portrayal of our experiences, and I promised myself that it was going to be decent. I put myself in his shoes. If I was the famous one I would want to be pleased and proud that this was published. And that’s how I approached it.

You talk a great deal about spirituality in your book. Did you always possess these strong beliefs, or did you slowly acquire them as you got older/wiser?

It was always in me. I always had those innate beliefs. But I didn’t always have the education. I hadn’t studied the Torah. But as I grew older and had career success I innately knew that life was a gift from God. I just didn’t know then how I was supposed to repay God for my good fortune. One time I approached my Rabbi and I asked him how I should do this. So I always had an awareness of the concepts, I always had a desire for spiritual knowledge.

Tell me about your life in the fishing industry.

Fishing is a unique business. At one point, I had an operation in Alaska. And you have to gear up for the different seasons – the salmon runs. The herring runs. You have to prepare for the catch. For the processing phase. You have to get employees in place – with lodging and supplies. You are also traveling to remote places. The whole thing requires a lot of faith. You are presuming the fish are going to be there [laughing]. But without the actual knowledge that they are there. You must believe. You see, cattle ranchers know the cattle are there all year around. They can see them. But fishermen don’t see the fish there all year around. So it takes faith. You just don’t see the fish until you are out there. And really, if you don’t believe in God, you are going to be at a great disadvantage. Believe me – I used to pray all the time going out there [laughing]…

Is selling fish at all like the music business? Or does the concept of business transcend medium and product?

It’s really like Bobby said when he was trying to convince me to produce the Rolling Thunder Revue – “Louie you are a successful business man. If you can sell fish [then] you can sell tickets.” And I personally believe that, too. I think if a person has business experience and expertise and is entrepreneurial, then [those traits] can be applied to different types of businesses. [When I went on the road with Bob], I was able to use my experience to negotiate successfully on Bobby’s behalf with both the Japanese and with Walter Yetnikoff at Columbia Records…

On Dylan’s 1974 record Planet Waves, there is a cut called “Something There Is About You.” The song has some references to Minnesota, to people named Danny Lopez and Ruth. Are those actual allusions to your North Country youth? Or simply instances of poetic license?

I think that’s poetic license. Bob and I never discussed it though. I think that’s part of his imagery, part of his gift in making it all work…

I understand you were in Mexico when Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid was filmed. Did you ever meet Sam Peckinpah? What about memorable exchanges with him?

I didn’t get involved with Sam at all. I saw him on set several times, but it was from a distance and there was no involvement between the two of us…

You don’t speak a lot about Dylan’s records in your book. What’s your favorite album? To which songs do you gravitate?

My relationship with Bobby has nothing to do with music. Like his relationship with me has nothing to do with fish. We bonded on some deeper level. There are thousands of books out there analyzing every word he has put down. But that’s not my interest at all…

You’ve obviously enriched your life a great deal via your relationship with Dylan. What do you think he took away from knowing Louie Kemp that’s enriched him?

Well, as you see in the book, we are close friends who gave each other a lot of advice. I think I am the person who brought him back to the old testament teachings. We’ve advised each other in many important substantial ways.

One last question. If Dylan’s sitting across from you today at your kitchen table, and he says, “Hey Louie, why’d you write this book about us man?” What’s your answer to him?

Honestly, I don’t think he would ask me that question at all. And the reason is that this is a love letter to a friend and it doesn’t need any kind of comment. Look at it close – during 99% of the book I am talking to the reader. But at the end, I talk directly to Larry in heaven [Larry Kegan died in 2001]. And then I talk to Bob personally. It’s really that simple for me…

by John Aiello


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This entry was posted on September 4, 2019 by in 2019, Artist Profiles, Features & Profiles, In the Spotlight, September 2019 and tagged , , .
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