Blanks and Postage: Bob Dylan, Totally Normal Buddy

(welcome to ‘blanks and postage’ — author jesse jarnow’s monthly column for aquarium drunkard highlighting the heady, askew…and beyond.)

Louie Kemp’s new memoir, Dylan & Me: 50 Years of Adventures (Westrose Press, $29.95), is built on a premise so far out that it almost requires the reader to posit an alternate universe. In Louie Kemp’s timeline, somehow, Bob Dylan is just a regular guy you can call on the phone or hang out with in the kitchen talking theology into the wee hours. In Dylan & Me, the songwriter is just a regular ol’ Bob who herds his family onto the Long Island Rail Road for a weekend in Montauk.

A Herzel Camp buddy of Bobby Zimmerman in the mid-1950s, Kemp made his own ‘60s fortune in the North Country fish business, and reconnected with his friend in the early ‘70s after each had established themselves at the top of their respective industries.  Kemp would help oversee the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975, and remained a pal and occasional fixer in the decades that followed. Dylan & Me is perhaps the ultimate insider Dylan book, but also so far inside that the reader doesn’t always feel let in all the way, which is perhaps as it should be. Dylan & Me is more a tell-some than tell-all.

While the 21st century mediascape has sent the publishing industry into a long spin, it’s also been a boon for self-published memoirs that serve as adjuncts to more authorized and familiar stories. Kemp can be spotted in a few scenes in Martin Scorsese’s recent Rolling Thunder: A Bob Dylan Story. In one, Dylan, Kemp, and a camera crew invade the offices of Columbia Records unannounced. In another, one of the film’s fictional characters unequivocally throws Kemp under the bus while it shows Kemp himself in full battle outside a venue.

“[Kemp] was out of his element and unprepared, and he wasn’t very well-liked on the tour,” says Jim Gianopulos, the CEO of Paramount Pictures and credited as “The Producer” in the movie but in no way associated with the actual Rolling Thunder Revue. In the messy translation of the footage from Renaldo and Clara to its current incarnation, some (such as bassist Rob Stoner, recently interviewed by Jason Woodbury) were snipped altogether. Kemp wasn’t one of them.

While “unprepared” could well be an accurate assessment of Kemp’s role on the tour, it might also be tempting to read this as Dylan’s comment on his old friend’s then-forthcoming memoir. In light of the memoir itself, though, it seems more like a wink. While there are a few juicy stories in Dylan & Me about the songwriter getting entertainingly soused, there’s no real dirt, something which Kemp would well-armed for should that be his intent. But it’s not anything of the sort. Dylan & Me is a sweet and often flattering remembrance of the pair’s friendship. Hardly a betrayal, it provides a few mostly charming additions to the canon of Dylan stories.

Described as “a heavy” in Sam Shepard’s Rolling Thunder Logbook, Kemp had “a remarkable ability to speak words without moving his mouth,” the playwright described. In Larry “Ratso” Sloman’s On the Road With Bob Dylan, Dylan’s protector was also a natural-born enemy of the frothing New York journalist. One can easily read between the lines of Dylan & Me to see Kemp in these roles. 

Described from Shepard’s mortified perspective in Rolling Thunder Logbook, there is now Kemp’s uproarious account of an utterly soused Dylan’s interruptive critique of Shepard’s play Geography of a Horse Dreamer at an advance press performance. There are tales of partying in Mexico with Harry Dean Stanton. There’s a seder with Marlon Brando, a Blood on the Tracks-era encounter with a zooted Stephen Stills, and a trout-greased friendship with promoter Bill Graham.

To the extent that Kemp was part of the music business, it was almost strictly business, coming into it well after folk had migrated from clubs to a national industry. Besides accompanying young Bobby to the infamous 1959 Buddy Holly/Richie Valens/Big Bopper Winter Dance Party a few days before the plane crash that killed those musicians, Kemp doesn’t come off as a music head, necessarily, either of the rock or folk variety, which gives the book its own flavor, too. Kemp is an outsider on the inside. 

Dylan & Me doesn’t offer any armchair analysis or penetrating insight into how Bobby Zimmerman became Bob Dylan. What it does offer are countless new scenes to be integrated into an expanding patchwork of lore, some explaining the long-held minor mysteries of Dylanology. Did you ever wonder how Dylan ended up playing recorder on a Chabad telethon with Harry Dean Stanton? Or why he duetted with Cher at a swanky private birthday party for David Geffen? Dylan & Me is the book for you. 

Where the book becomes most singular and dramatic, though, is the early 1980s, when Dylan underwent a very public conversation to Christianity — and his old Herzl Camp pal underwent a very private battle to reaffirm Bobby Zimmerman’s relationship with the tribe. While plenty of rock memoirs trade in various secrets about drug abuse or sordid affairs, the scholarly minutiae that Kemp provides for Bobographers is an index of rabbis that Dylan studied with in the ‘80s, and any number of accidental revelations. One of Kemp’s photographs, of Dylan with Rabbi Bentov and featuring a cast on Dylan’s left hand, has already led one scholar to an exploration of the otherwise undisclosed injury that Dylan wrote about in Chronicles, a plot point far more cryptic than the fabled 1966 motorcycle crash.

As Dylanology begins to merge with academia, and new crops of books appear every reading season or two, it’s impossible to discount Kemp’s first-hand stories. If Kemp looks the other way at his friend’s mercurial behavior, that’s equally valid. Just like his friend, Kemp owes nothing to the audience, and his reasons for writing the book remain his own.

Whether colored by other modern day intentions, Kemp’s memories remain valuable for anyone who also values (for example) the box set of Rolling Thunder recordings– synergistically paired with the movie’s release–or even the original cut of Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara. Like Scorsese’s film, the box set comes with its own quiet acts of erasure. Reducing the carefully plotted show to a string of Dylan’s segments, pieces of information disappear in the shuffle, scrubbed by modern mixing technology. Bob Neuwirth’s ragged vocals are all but removed from his duets on “When I Paint My Masterpiece” — perhaps better from an aesthetic point-of-view, but originally presented as a duet. It is primary source accounts like Kemp’s (and Sloman’s and Shepard’s and Stoner’s) that fill out the story and connect to the bigger arc of Dylan’s career, a story whose official narratives can rarely be trusted in full. 

Kemp’s story is his own, and–though he doesn’t acknowledge it–offers a further clue as to why Martin Scorsese might’ve decided to slight him in Rolling Thunder. The two had encountered one another before, it seems, when Kemp played a literally off-camera role in The Last Waltz. At San Francisco’s Winterland in 1976, it was Kemp’s job to make sure Scorsese’s cameras stayed off during much of Dylan’s final performance with the original Band. Wackiness did not ensue, but it provides a revealing moment between Dylan and Kemp. 

Like the book itself, it’s not labored over and there’s no psychodrama. Rather, it’s an affirmation that whatever alternate universe Dylan and Kemp shared, it’s still mainly a private one, filled with more than a half-century of their cues and codes, some probably shown accidentally. A recent Rolling Stone interview with Kemp affirms that the two aren’t as close as they once were, and adds a slightly different tint to the book.

“Nothing is revealed” is the ultimate pan of any Dylanological concern, and Dylan & Me certainly doesn’t warrant that. But its quotidian memories of prank calls and industry hangs–“nothing” in the Seinfeld-ian sense–is an altogether different literary substance. If the reader doesn’t quite get the full Dylan/Kemp experience, it’s still one of the more unusual books on the classic rock bookshelf. As breezy as a good off-brand mid-budget Netflix documentary, there’s plenty of omission in Dylan & Me, but it reveals its own Bob to go along with the sun-glassed ‘60s waif, wide-eyed ‘70s mystic, half-lost ‘80s seeker, and all the others. This one is just Bob Dylan, long-time buddy, and there’s no other book that can say that.

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Jesse Jarnow is the author of Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America (Da Capo, 2016), Wasn’t That a Time: The Weavers, the Blacklist, and the Battle for the Soul of America (Da Capo, 2018), and Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock (Gotham, 2012).