The life and times of Bob Dylan’s longtime confidant, Louie Kemp

“Bob’s work always had a sharp spiritual ingredient to it – for example, Highway 61 with its story right out of the Torah about the sacrifice of Isaac."

 TO LOUIE KEMP, Dylan will always be Bobby Zimmerman. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
TO LOUIE KEMP, Dylan will always be Bobby Zimmerman.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

To most of the world, Bob Dylan is an enigma.

His lifetime of work is an astounding collection of enduring songs that express ideas and sentiments in ways in which the rest of us are unable to fathom. He brought a voice to those who couldn’t speak for themselves and his work and name will live on like Mozart and Shakespeare.

But as much as his songs expanded the scope of the human condition, his public persona has been the polar opposite. Whether in his concerts, which have recently resumed in his 80th year following a COVID-induced break, or the sporadic interviews he’s granted over the decades, Dylan often comes off like a stone wall: mysterious, cryptic, sullen.

But to Louie Kemp, Dylan will always be Bobby Zimmerman, the prank-loving curly-haired kid at Jewish summer camp in Minnesota, the at-ease family man and father, the smart aleck buddy and the concerned and caring friend.

Whether it be in the role of confidant, friend, muscle man, fixer or tour producer, Kemp was someone Dylan could trust, one of the few who knew him as Bobby Zimmerman without the façade of a rock star and world renowned poet.

 KEMP’S SECOND wedding in 1983, in which Dylan was best man. (credit: Courtesy)
KEMP’S SECOND wedding in 1983, in which Dylan was best man. (credit: Courtesy)

As colorfully related in his 2019 book Dylan & Me – written with longtime friend and fellow Jewish raconteur Kinky Friedman – Kemp unrolls shaggy dog stories about being a mere mortal entering the world of rock royalty: hanging out with Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell; getting into a shoving match over Dylan with legendary promoter Bill Graham on the side of the stage at the iconic Last Waltz concert by The Band; and spending a Los Angeles Seder with Dylan on one side of him and Marlon Brando on the other.

 WITH DYLAN and Baez onstage. (credit: Courtesy)
WITH DYLAN and Baez onstage. (credit: Courtesy)
 WATCHING DYLAN and The Band from the side of the stage, 1974.  (credit: LOUIE KEMP)
WATCHING DYLAN and The Band from the side of the stage, 1974. (credit: LOUIE KEMP)

The 79-year-old Kemp is in the middle of a two-month stay in Jerusalem, where his youngest son, age 20, (you do the math) is studying in an Old City yeshiva.

“I’ve been trying to get to Israel for 14 months, this is my son’s second year studying. I had to change my reservation five times, but I finally made it, and it’s been great,” Kemp told The Jerusalem Post last week, adding that his five older children have spent time here, and one daughter made aliyah.

“My whole plan was to bring them to Israel when they were young and make that connection for them, and it worked. I’ve got six kids and seven grandchildren, and they’re all observant Jews.”

The twice-divorced Kemp looks like he couldn’t be from anywhere but LA. A mix of Hollywood hip and Jerusalem Chabad with fashionable black clothes, a big Magen David chain, black kippah, stylish shades, tzitzit hanging out and a long thatch of accentuated dark hair.

When his buddy Bobby Zimmerman left their native Minnesota, changed his name to Dylan and set out to become a famous folk singer, Kemp left college shortly before graduating after his father died to take over the successful family fish business and soon turned it mega-successful, expanding to Alaska and becoming a smoked fish empire.

Kemp never accompanied Dylan on his various tours that brought him to Israel. But even though he was in charge of a massive business, whenever Dylan called and asked Kemp to accompany him for a particular project – whether it be his historic 1974 comeback tour with The Band, Dylan’s 1978 tour of Japan, which resulted in Live at Budokan, or the iconic Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975 and 1976 – Kemp was there, in whatever capacity Dylan requested. Sometimes it was just the role of a friend so Dylan could have someone to talk to, and sometimes, like with the Rolling Thunder Revue, it was producing the whole thing.

Kemp became an insider, because he was an insider from the beginning. He was integrally involved with Dylan’s family, and at the bard’s request, set up his daughter Maria Dylan with Peter Himmelman, a young, religiously observant singer/songwriter who has carved his own place in the pantheon of Jewish rockers.

“Louie did me a solid. As an amateur shadchan he played a pivotal role in my life. I’m grateful to him,” Himmelman said.

Judaism – and Christianity – ended up playing a significant role in Kemp and Dylan’s relationship. One of the pivotal periods that Kemp was integrally involved in Dylan’s life was in the early 1980s, when the two were sharing a rented house in Brentwood, California, and both of them had spiritual awakenings: Kemp as an observant Jew and Dylan as a practicing Christian.

“Growing up, neither of us knew anything about Judaism really. I went to cheder, a fiasco as far as learning goes, and I had a tutor who taught me Hebrew for my bar mitzvah so I could get the fountain pen and the money, but neither of us went on for more. We just did the superficial stuff,” said Kemp.

“Bob’s work always had a sharp spiritual ingredient to it – for example, Highway 61 with its story right out of the Torah about the sacrifice of Isaac. He always had that spiritual element, but at some point, I think every person has a special moment when they seek more, a deeper spiritual connection.

“Bob and I were in that situation. We had made the money, we had the possessions, but something was still missing. The difference between Bob and me is that I met a Chabad rabbi and he met a woman who was studying the New Testament.”

The rabbi in question was Manis Friedman, who not only introduced Kemp to Orthodox Judaism but eventually met with Dylan and nudged him away from Christianity and back toward the Jewish fold.

“Rabbi Friedman has the ability to talk to non-religious Jews in a way that was non-judgmental,” said Kemp, adding that he felt somewhat responsible for Dylan’s interest in Christianity.

He had re-introduced Dylan to an actress who had been in the 1973 film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid with him named Mary Alice Artes. “She was a devout Christian and was studying the New Testament at a seminary.

“She invited Bob one today to join her at one of the classes. Bob is like a sponge, he’ll check anything out once, but it seemed to connect with him and began filling a spiritual need for him.

“At the same time, I was starting to get my needs fulfilled from Judaism. So we’re hanging out together in this house he rented, he had been studying for six months and I was still a newbie to Judaism. And Bob can be very persuasive, telling me how I should know about this and that and being very specific. I knew it wasn’t right for me, but I didn’t have the knowledge or counterweight to his arguments.

“I called Rabbi Friedman and said ‘you have to come out to Los Angeles and talk to my friend who is involved with Christianity. I didn’t tell him who it was. They eventually had some deep discussion, and over time I introduced Bob to some other ‘cool’ Jewish guys he could relate to. And it worked. It was a process but he eventually started studying Torah.”

Dylan also looked out for his friend, according to Kemp. When Kemp brought his future second wife, Ann, to meet Dylan in the late 1980s, the singer donned a protective fraternal side and doggedly grilled her about her intentions and accused her of being a gold digger. She professed her love for Kemp and broke out crying as she stormed out of the room.

“You know, I think she really does love you. It’s going to be good,” said Dylan, as recounted in the book.

Today, Kemp says he felt terrible for her but defends Dylan as doing something a true friend would do.

“He didn’t know who she was, and I had already amassed a fortune by then and he was afraid she was there for the money. He was very direct, and it was a side of him few people have seen.”

Kemp said that while nobody would ever mistake Dylan as an observant Jew, over the years while on tour on holidays, he would always search out a local synagogue to attend.

As his commitment to a Torah way of life strengthened, Kemp has over the years become a generous benefactor for both Chabad and Aish Hatorah in Los Angeles.

“I’m very grateful to God and to Chabad for finding me in Minnesota and putting in effort to teach me about the heritage of my people so I could become a knowledgeable, practicing Jew. I felt an obligation to pay something back. It’s because of them I have observant grandchildren. Chabad and Aish deal with outreach and I’m inclined to help out organizations that do that in order to reach Jews like they did with me,” he said.

AS HEAVY a subject as Judaism and conversions can be, Kemp’s manner both in speaking and in his prose, is folksy, straightforward and non-judgmental. All the more so when he gets to lighter matters like life on the road.

One of the most entertaining sections of Dylan & Me was Kemp’s recounting of the famed Last Waltz farewell concert by The Band in San Francisco on Thanksgiving in 1976, which featured a slew of superstars, including Dylan.

 HE WROTE his 2019 book with longtime friend and fellow Jewish raconteur Kinky Friedman. (credit: LOUIE KEMP)
HE WROTE his 2019 book with longtime friend and fellow Jewish raconteur Kinky Friedman. (credit: LOUIE KEMP)

As per his reticent character, Dylan only allowed filmmaker Martin Scorsese and promoter Bill Graham to fill specific songs from his set. But when Dylan improvised and introduced a different song that wasn’t on the record or not record list, a gray area opened up. Scorsese told the cameramen to film, Kemp told them no, Graham tried to block Kemp and a Jewish shoving match ensued (no punches thrown).

“Bill and I were friends and we had a good relationship, and interestingly enough we remained friends after that. He was a Holocaust survivor and a good guy.

“He was a big fan of my smoked salmon and we had worked out a deal long before that I would send him iced fish and he would provide me with concert tickets. I guess he liked the fish so much, he didn’t want to burn that bridge,” said Kemp with a chuckle.

The book is bursting with more anecdotes involving the famous people who came into Dylan’s orbit, but Kemp is well aware that the only reason people wanted to be around Dylan was because of his immense talent. Many of them were in awe.

One reason why Dylan wanted Kemp close by, Kemp recounted in the book, was because he could act like himself, Bobby Zimmerman, and stop being Bob Dylan for a while. As such, Kemp was careful to behave as a friend. He said that he never asked Dylan about the specific content of his songs or the intent of certain lyrics. Even a song as blatantly literal as his manifesto for Israel’s existence “Neighborhood Bully” was deemed off limits.

“Just the fact that he wrote that song, knowing about Israel’s situation with its neighbors required insight and interest on his part. But I never asked him about it, or about any other song.

“That’s what his fans and writers do, not his friends. Anyway, my friend wasn’t Dylan, he was Bobby Zimmerman. That’s how we related to each other – Bobby and Louie. Once you start to go in a different direction, you become a fan.”

 WITH JONI MITCHELL (right) during the Rolling Thunder tour. (credit: LOUIE KEMP)
WITH JONI MITCHELL (right) during the Rolling Thunder tour. (credit: LOUIE KEMP)

Kemp never intended to collect all the colorful stories about his days with Dylan into a book. A friend’s dying wish made him change his mind. Tzvi Small, a Los Angeles TV producer involved with the Grammys and America’s Got Talent developed lung cancer and died in 2016 at age 58.

“We were good friends. Around 10 years before he died, he moved to Zichron Ya’acov, but when he returned to LA to work, he stayed with me. Whenever people would come over, I’d be telling my stories about my time with Bob, and he shared his stories. He had some good ones too.

“Well, he always told me that I was being selfish by not sharing my stories. Nobody’s seen this side of Dylan, it makes him look good, why wouldn’t you want to write them down, he would ask me.

“I told him that I don’t know how to write a book, and he said ‘you must know someone that does know how.’ So I said that Kinky Friedman does. He made me call him on the spot and when I told him about the idea, Kinky said, ‘absolutely, you have to write the book.’

“Six months later, Tzvi died, and Kinky and I started to work on the book.”

 WITH JOAN BAEZ in Plymouth, Massachusetts at the beginning of the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, 1975.  (credit: LOUIE KEMP)
WITH JOAN BAEZ in Plymouth, Massachusetts at the beginning of the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, 1975. (credit: LOUIE KEMP)

Despite the brotherhood Kemp shared with Dylan over the years, they eventually drifted apart – Kemp back to his own fish plants and raising his children, and Dylan on his never-ending tour that has been ongoing for some 30 years. They haven’t been in touch in over 10 years.

Kemp said he hasn’t received any reaction from the Dylan camp, although he sent an advance copy to Dylan’s manager to pass along.

“No news is good news. Believe me, if he didn’t like it, I would have heard about it. I can say that it’s a positive book and all true. Peter [Himmelman] told me he really liked it.”

Rather being perplexed or hurt about the chasm in their relationship, Kemp takes it in stride as just part of being in a lifelong relationship with someone with as many demands on him as Dylan.

“We didn’t have any fights or a falling out. I don’t really have an answer why we’re not in touch. The best I can say is that it’s not easy being Bob Dylan. The whole world is chasing you. What he had to do as Bob Dylan was to build walls around walls to insulate and protect himself. At some point, he stopped contact with people from his past. And you know what? God bless him. If that’s what he has to do to get by, then so be it.

“We’re still friends, we don’t have to talk. Anyway, if I don’t see him here, I’ll see him up there in the end.”

But, he is asked, you could just pick up your phone and call him, couldn’t you?

“Sure, I have his number right here,” he said pointing to his phone. “It’s under BD, in case anyone ever stole my phone, they wouldn’t know who it is. But I wouldn’t use the number. I’m not the type of person who pursues somebody. If he wants to talk, he knows how to reach me.”

 BILL GRAHAM, Marlon Brando and Kemp, 1975. (credit: LOUIE KEMP)
BILL GRAHAM, Marlon Brando and Kemp, 1975. (credit: LOUIE KEMP)

Reflecting on the long journey of his boyhood friend who used to ambush bunk mates with shaving cream pranks and then stay up for hours laughing about it, only to become the most famous and influential songwriter of the last 60 years, Kemp expressed only admiration.

“Is there anyone who would be prepared for what happened to him? I think he handled it damn well. He’s still alive, he’s still writing great songs and he’s still performing. He’s healthy and he’s sane. I think he handled fame better than anyone else from that generation.

“He took the gift that God gave him and ran with him. He didn’t drug himself out, he didn’t become lazy. Instead, he took that gift and disseminated it to the world, which was his responsibility. Bobby was chosen from billions of people to bring to this world amazing songs... he has lived up to his potential and not been sidetracked or destroyed by all the pitfalls that exist here and he has done it with humility and a vengeance.

“I did once ask Bob how he was able to write songs like he does, and he told me they just come to him. ‘God puts them in my head and I write them down. The credit doesn’t go to me,’ he told me.

“That clarity and the humble way he has transmitted his gift is the core of his legacy.”

Spoken like a true friend.