From Bob Dylan’s first hard-driving blues number at summer camp to the rollicking Rolling Thunder Revue concert tour, the legendary musician’s childhood best friend had a front-row seat to the action.
Now Louie Kemp has released a backstage pass of sorts into the mythology of Dylan, in the form of a memoir released this week, dishing on everything from the folk hero’s Passover Seder meal with Marlon Brando to his own food fight at a Chinese restaurant with singer-songwriter Joan Baez.
The duo first met in northern Wisconsin in 1953, when Dylan was still Bobby Zimmerman, 12 years old, his guitar already attached as if a limb.
As rambunctious pre-teens at a Jewish camp in the north woods of the Midwestern state – Dylan grew up just over the border in the blue-collar mining town of Hibbing, Minnesota – the friends got in their fair share of trouble, notably for a shaving cream prank on their peers that saw them steal a car.
But despite his antics, Dylan was confident in his fate. “He always told me and the other kids that he was gonna be a rock and roll star,” Kemp revealed. “He said it so many times that finally I believed him.
“He just had a natural musical talent that was combined with an unbelievable drive,” he added.
The rest, of course, is history – but Kemp, now 77, felt compelled to write down his unique perspective in the book entitled Dylan & Me: 50 Years of Adventures, having known the legend throughout the evolution of his illustrious career.
“It would be selfish for me to take all these stories and adventures to my grave,” he added. “He felt comfortable with me because he knew I didn’t have an agenda. He trusted me just like I trusted him – but in his case, it was more important.
“Once you become famous it’s hard to make new friends that you can really feel trustworthy with. In our case those roots went back so far, that wasn’t a concern,” Kemp said.
He goes on to describe how his friend Bobby Zimmerman became Bob Dylan on the University of Minnesota campus in the northern state’s Twin Cities, hitchhiking through Wisconsin’s capital city Madison, then Chicago, before finally reaching New York’s bohemian-minded Greenwich Village.
Dylan quickly rose to fame as a regular in the Village’s burgeoning folk scene, propelled to celebrity after Baez began inviting him to play at her concerts.
“The first song that I heard of his was ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and I said, ‘Oh my God, he wrote that? How the hell did he do that?’” Kemp recalls. “That blew everybody away, including me.”
“And they just kept coming out of him, like water out of a faucet.”
It was not long before Dylan called on his childhood friend to visit him out East.
He later invited Kemp on a movie set in Mexico – Dylan was scoring the film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which included the classic “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” – and to join his high-profile comeback “Tour ’74.”
The superstar then asked Kemp to produce his Rolling Thunder Revue – the concert tour featured in a recent pseudo-documentary by Martin Scorsese – that saw Dylan sweep into smaller towns with a cast of fellow musicians, including Joni Mitchell to play for those priced out of his larger concerts.
“He doesn’t have the ego that goes with most people in entertainment,” Kemp said of his old pal, who is now 78. “He never changed in that respect. He was always down-to-earth,” he said. “I gotta give him credit – the fame never got to him.”
Kemp also illustrates a number of amusing anecdotes, including one night when the revered actor Brando turned “chartreuse” after eating too much horseradish at a Jewish ceremonial dinner.
He also recounts Dylan’s role as best man in Kemp’s 1983 wedding, where the icon delighted guests with an impromptu performance.
“Our relationship was like any two friends – one just happens to be Bob Dylan,” Kemp said. “To me, he’s always been Bobby Zimmerman.”