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The Astonishingly Menschy Side Of Bob Dylan

Dylan & Me: 50 Years of Adventures

By Louie Kemp, with a foreword by Kinky Friedman

West Rose Press

240 pages

It’s a story familiar to anyone who ever attended summer camp.

You hit it off with another kid, mostly over a shared sense of humor and mutual feelings of being slightly different than the rest of the crowd. You trade stories and dreams, play a few pranks, and maybe even enjoy some memorably absurd escapades together. You see each other the next year at camp, and then the next, and your friendship deepens to the point where you occasionally even hang out during the school year. When college and other responsibilities come along, you drift apart and lose touch. But your bond remains solid enough that, when you finally meet up again a decade later, the two of you immediately start riffing and laughing like no time at all has passed.

That’s the basic premise of Louie Kemp’s “Dylan & Me: 50 Years of Adventures” — only, in this case, the twist is that one of the kids grows up to become America’s most iconic and influential singer-songwriter.

Raised 80 miles apart from each other in Minnesota, Louie Kemp and Bobby Zimmerman meet in the early 1950s while attending the Herzl Camp in northern Wisconsin. Kemp, the camp boxing champ, has been raised by his father (a former Golden Gloves fighter) to stick up for the underdog, and he certainly finds one in young Zimmerman, whose disruptive sense of humor and overwhelming confidence in his own musical abilities (even at the tender age of twelve) don’t sit particularly well with their counselors or many of their fellow campers.

With the help of a third shit-stirrer named Larry Kegan, Kemp and Zimmerman get up to some typical camp shenanigans, like covering a “rival” bunk of sleeping campers with shaving cream (Kemp describes Zimmerman as “the natural-born Van Gogh of Barbasol), and some atypical ones, like stealing a counselor’s car for a nocturnal joyride. The trio continue to raise good-natured hell together well into their teens, until their lives pull them in separate directions. Kegan is permanently paralyzed in a diving accident; Kemp takes over his father’s fish business; Zimmerman changes his name to Bob Dylan, and thumbs his way to New York City and worldwide acclaim.

The first forty or so pages of Kemp’s book cover this early period of their friendship in an amiable — if not particularly detailed or gripping — manner. Essentially, we all knew a kid in high school similar to the pre-Dylan Zimmerman that Kemp describes here: Smart, sarcastic, slightly too hip for the room, but still friendly and well-mannered enough to charm your parents whenever you brought him over to the house. That this particular kid winds up writing “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Mr. Tambourine Man” and hundreds of other brilliant songs only testifies to the fact that anyone can be cool, but a Dylan-level combination of genius, drive and focus is a rare thing, indeed.

Bob Dylan and Louie Kemp

Bob Dylan as Louie Kemp’s best man at Kemp’s wedding. Image by Courtesy of Louie Kemp

“Dylan & Me” really finds its groove about fifty pages in, when Kemp and Dylan are reunited in 1972 after a decade apart. Preoccupied with the seafood trade, Kemp has stayed only vaguely abreast of his old friend’s success, or of the many changes and incarnations — folk stardom, going electric, the motorcycle accident, the Woodstock exile — he’s gone through since they last saw each other. Now back living in the West Village with his wife and kids, Dylan catches Kemp up to speed with a tour of his old and current haunts (even pointing out the garbage cans behind his building where A.J. Weberman and other Dylan obsessives dig for “clues”), then prank-calls Kemp’s girlfriend and invites him along on a family trip to the Hamptons, clearly delighting in being able to goof around again with someone who still sees him as Bobby Zimmerman instead of “The Voice of a Generation.”

Dylan invites Kemp to join him in Mexico for the shooting of “Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid,” which leads to Kemp tagging along on Dylan and the Band’s blockbuster ’74 Tour, which in turn leads to Dylan appointing Kemp — a man with no prior music business experience — to produce what will become the Rolling Thunder Revue tour of 1975-76. “Louis,” Dylan reassures a reluctant Kemp, “You can sell fish; you can sell tickets.”

The release of Kemp’s book is especially welcome, coming as it does on the heels of “Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese,” a frustrating film which mixes riveting Dylan performances from that now-legendary tour with an intentionally obfuscatory jumble of documentary-style interviews and newsreel footage of America circa 1974-76. While Dylan uses the film to (once again) play cat-and-mouse with his fans’ expectations and interpretations, Kemp’s book offers a grounded look at the chaos and camaraderie of the Rolling Thunder Revue that — like the rest of his book — is refreshingly free of myth-making or historical embroidery. At one point, Kemp even suggests that the fabulously funky tour may not have actually been inspired by anything as romantic as the gypsy caravans or commedia dell’arte troupes alluded to in “Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Revue,” but rather a none-more-showbiz birthday party in Beverly Hills that Dylan and Cher teamed up to throw for music mogul David Geffen, which included appearances by sword-swallowers, sumo wrestlers and mimes, as well as a performance by Dylan and the Band.

Curiously, Kemp himself makes only a handful of brief appearances in “Conjuring the Rolling Thunder Revue,” and is never actually mentioned in the film by name. Paramount Pictures CEO Jim Gianopulos, who poses in the film as one of the tour’s promoters, mentions that Rolling Thunder’s main promoter was “a longtime friend of Bob’s and a fish-monger… he was out of his element and under-prepared, and he wasn’t very well-liked on the tour.” Given the tartly comic repartee between Dylan and Kemp that fills much of “Dylan & Me,” Gianopulos’ unflattering description of Kemp is, in all likelihood, another prank played by Dylan on his old pal.

Dylan and Me, by Louie Kemp

Dylan and Me, by Louie Kemp Image by Courtesy of Louie Kemp

Indeed, humor plays a significant role in Kemp’s book. If you’re looking for scandalous revelations about Dylan’s personal life, or new insight into his lyrics, “Dylan & Me” isn’t going to tell you anything you don’t already know. (Dylan’s divorce from his wife Sara, and its impact on his “Blood on the Tracks” album, goes all but unmentioned.) But it’s worth reading just for Kemp’s celebration of Dylan’s playful (and too often overlooked) sense of humor, and his voluminous supply of hilarious anecdotes, which include a food fight with Joan Baez, a wasted Stephen Stills plaintively asking Dylan “Why did you write that song about me?” after hearing “Idiot Wind” for the first time, and a shabbily-dressed Dylan being mistaken for a homeless man during a Yom Kippur service at the Chabad House in Santa Monica.

The one place where “Dylan & Me” proves especially revelatory is on the subject of religion. In the early Eighties, Kemp and Dylan room together at an apartment in Brentwood; Dylan is at the height of his “born again” period, while Kemp has recently become more observant in his Judaism, leading to some intense late-night theological discussions. “I was now a practicing, observant Jew,” Kemp writes, “while Bob was deeply involved in studying the New Testament. He had come to believe that Jesus truly was the son of God, who had come to Earth to receive our sins and die for them. He understood Jesus as part of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Ghost. I saw Jesus as a rabbi, teacher, and another Jewish boy who’d made good.” Kemp makes it his mission to “bring Bobby home” spiritually, and enlists several orthodox Rabbis (including Manis Friedman and Moshe Feller) for help in his cause. For many fans and critics, Dylan’s subsequent return to Judaism marked a major (and most welcome) turning point in his career, and it’s fascinating to finally read an eyewitness account of how it actually came about.

Countless books have been written about Bob Dylan, beginning with Anthony Scaduto’s “Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography” in 1971, and untold gallons of ink have been spilled analyzing the various phases of his life and career. Even so, “Dylan & Me” manages to show us sides of Dylan that have never really been explored in book form. We see Dylan the devoted dad, taking teenage son Jakob to the Super Bowl; Dylan the good-time dude, enjoying a tranquil beach vacation with good pals and a bottle of tequila; Dylan the empathetic human being, who feels terrible after he accidentally disses David Geffen on the final night of the ’74 Tour, and who hauls ass from Dallas to Austin because he doesn’t want to disappoint Joni Mitchell by missing another of her concerts. Best of all, we see a guy who remains deeply devoted to two friends he made at summer camp, who celebrates that bond by (among other things) inviting a wheelchair-bound Larry Kegan onstage during his 1981 tour to sing Chuck Berry songs.

Bob Dylan as a true mensch? Dylan himself might protest that “It Ain’t Me, Babe.” But as Louie Kemp’s amusing and entertaining book makes abundantly clear, there’s a warm and loving heart beating beneath the Mighty Zimm’s many layers of defense and disguise.

Dan Epstein is the Forward’s contributing music critic.

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