Part II of an ongoing series celebrating our favorite books about Bob Dylan. As any Dylan fans knows who is also a book lover, there are libraries of books all dedicated to this one songwriter. It’s evidence of how powerful an impact a songwriter can make even in modern times. And among songwriters, few in our lifetimes has ever been as influential as Dylan. Though Pete Seeger rightly said, “All songwriters are links in a chain,” without his link, songwriting as it evolved would have been entirelu different. Though he said, “somebody else would have done it,” he was the guy. The instigator. To show, as Robbie Robertson said, in songs “anything goes.”
Of all the Dylan books, with the exception of Dylan’s own memoir, Chonicles, which is an amazing book, and incomparable journey into the Dylan mind, this book – by his oldest pal Louie Kemp – is my favorite. There’s simply never been a book about Bob Dylan like this one. Because there’s never been a friend as close to Bob Dylan and for so long except for Louie. There was one other friend – Larry Kegan – who could have done it. But Larry – who figures into Louie’s book prominently – is already gone. So it was up to Louie to write this book.
Those who know all things Dylan already knew the name – Louie Kemp – who has been Dylan’s closest pal since they met at the age of 11 at Camp Herzl, a Jewish summer camp in upstate Wisconsin.
Because it was Louie at the helm, this is one of the best books ever about Dylan. About the man himself. Because although he changed the arc of songwriting with his work, and though he bent and expanded our minds for decades with successive miraculous epics of pure Dylan brilliance, and though he infuriated or bewildered or impacted us in all sorts of ways, the truth remains he’s a human. Which does make his work even more remarkable. It came out of one of us.
But though few considered Dylan to be one of us, Louie always has. He grew up knowing the family, especially Bob’s beloved mom Beatie. Bob was the best man at his wedding, and came to his son’s bar mitzvah. He knew him long before he even was Bob Dylan. He was still Bobby Zimmerman, a funny, ambitious, smart kid who cared much more about then about Buddy Holly than Woody Guthrie. Bobby didn’t start writing his own songs until after he lift Minnesota. But he sang and played songs all the time, rock and roll mostly, with one of his first performances being u[ on a roof at camp, singing down to the other campers.
And because of their early origins in the Iron Range of Minnesota, Louie remained a trusted figure in his life and so has a perspective on Dylan that we’ve never received before.
As mentioned, there were three of them always. Bob, Louie and Larry Kegan. But Larry had an awful diving accident, which left him a paraplegic. Louie relates how crushed Bob was upon hearing this news. He seemed absolutely destroyed by this tragedy befalling his close pal. Larry, in a wheelchair from then on, went on to transcend his paralysis and live an accomplished life. Like Louie he was invited along on many of Dylan’s journeys.
Though they lost touch for those first few years of Dylan’s emergence in New York, Louie and Bobby reunited soon thereafter, so that Louie became a trusted insider for decades, and a key figure in many of the most compelling chapters of Dylan’s life. These include the Rolling Thunder Tour, the filming of The Last Waltz, and even Dylan’s immersion into Christianity.
Louie inherited his father’s successful smoked fish company in Duluth, and even expanded his empire by adding Alaskan salmon (providing an enormous bounty of salmon for The Last Waltz). His wealth gave him the lucky liberty of being able to say yes pretty much anytime Bob asked him along on an adventure – which he did frequently. He was one of the very few people Dylan could trust, to the extent that he was trusted with jobs he was not prepared to do, such as producing the Rolling Thunder Revue, or being called on to intercede on Bob’s behalf during the filming of The Last Waltz.
Louie remains one of the few figures in the Dylan realm who never bought into the Dylan mythos, and started treating him like some poet-king. Quite the opposite; Louie would respond as he did when they were kids. Such as the time Larry wanted Bob to sing a song, and Bob ignored the request. Louie didn’t put up with this, and like they were still kids at Camp Herzl, he leapt on Dylan, saying “Hey Bobby Zimmerman, don’t give me any of that Bob Dylan shit!” Who else could ever say that to Bob Dylan?
One of the funniest and most revealing chapters of the book, in terms of shining light onto both Dylan’s shifting spiritualities and his friendship with Louie is during Bob’s Christian phase. They shared a house in Brentwood then so that Bob could be close to town than his Malibu home, at a time which happened to coincide with a religious period in Louie’s life as well. But rather than turning away from the faith of their fathers, Louie became much more devout in his in his Judaism, studying with a Rabbi and expanding his ideas about faith to become a serious observant Jew.
During this period, in a wonderfully related chapter of the book, Louie and Bob would engage in late night theological debates. Bob, who was entranced with the literature of Christ, maybe more so than the belief system, read all he could get, and so would be able to out-argue Louie. But rather than accept defeat, Louie invited his rabbi to come and talk sense to Bob. The rabbi accepted the mission, which was to bring Bob home. And it worked. After several discussions, Dylan agreed with the Rabbi, and returned to his faith.
Countless previously unknown stories of Dylan, many of which are hilarious, are spun through this eminently readable book. It’s a close-up documentary about Dylan unlike any we’ve seen.
Asked if Bob had any response to this book, Louie said no, and added, “which is a good thing.”
Virtual Event: Louie Kemp, “Dylan and Me”
Wednesday, June 17, 2020; 6 to 8 pm PST.
Moderated by American Songwriter’s Paul Zollo
Because of the pandemic, Louie and other authors have been unable to do book tours as planned. But next Wednesday, June 17, Louie will be doing a virtual event about his book, presented by the California Capital Film Office from 6 to 8 pm PST, moderated by this writer. Happily. Few things are more fun than asking Louie for more Dylan details. He’s got them. Through the decades.
Click here for an autographed copy of the book and a special Rolling Thunder bookmark.
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