In his new book “Dylan & Me” Louie Kemp details his 50 years of friendship with Bob Dylan which started at a Jewish summer camp.
Featured photo courtesy of Louis Kemp via WestRose Press
By Stephen Silver, JTA
Jewish summer camp is such a crucial part of the American Jewish experience that many Jewish adults, even in their older age, likely remember the names of many of the kids in their cabins from when they were 11 years old.
One of those cabins — more than 60 years ago — contained a couple of interesting young Jewish boys.
Louie Kemp would go on to head his family’s seafood company and played a key role in introducing imitation king crab to the United States. Robert “Bobby” Zimmerman went on to become Bob Dylan.
Kemp has written a memoir called Dylan & Me: 50 Years of Adventures (WestRose Press), detailing his friendship with the iconic singer.
The author lived with Dylan for a time in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, during the period when Dylan briefly became a Christian. Kemp, who then was becoming a more observant Jew, which he remains to this day, claims credit, along with some rabbis, for bringing Dylan back into the Jewish fold a couple of years later.
Kemp’s book is full of delightful, specifically Jewish details, such as Dylan’s years of participation in Chabad telethons, the time he opened the ark on Yom Kippur while being mistaken for a homeless man and the story of how Kemp arranged for Kaddish to be said for Allen Ginsburg each year on his yahrtzeit. All that, and many, many visits to Canter’s Deli.
He writes specifically about how he believes Dylan’s Jewish background informed his later success.
“[Jews] have a passion to seek out meaning and give it new expression, morally and artistically,” Kemp wrote. “That drive — along with another Jewish trait known as chutzpah — have always been strong in Bobby, and his gifts have made his expression worthy of the ages,” Kemp told JTA.
Herzl Camp, where it all began, has taken notice of Kemp’s book.
“Part of our mission is to build lifelong Jewish friendships, so it is wonderful to see the story of a group of camp friends and how their friendship spanned decades,” Holly Guncheon, Herzl Camp’s development director, told JTA in an email. She added that Dylan sent his children to the camp.
At Herzl, like many camps, campers write their names on walls for posterity, and Guncheon said that “for many years, searching for ‘Robert Zimmerman’ written on a cabin wall was a common activity.”
The journey begins when they were preteen campers at Herzl Camp in Webster, Wisc., from 1953 through 1957. In ’54, Kemp witnessed a cabin rooftop concert that he considers the then-11-year-old Bobby’s first public performance.
Following the stories of summer camp concerts and hijinks, the book follows Dylan and Kemp’s time together as teenagers in Kemp’s hometown of Duluth, Minn., where Dylan was born, and later in Minneapolis, where Kemp attended college and Dylan briefly moved to pursue music.
Even after Dylan went to New York and became one of America’s most famous men, they continued their friendship. Kemp frequently stepped away from his lucrative business, which sold fish to the restaurant industry, to hang out with Dylan for weeks at a time in the city, Malibu, Mexico or wherever the singer was on the road. Dylan was the best man at Kemp’s wedding.
Kemp said he hadn’t always intended to write a book about his friendship with Dylan, but he had been telling the stories at parties and Shabbat dinners for years and was told frequently he should collect them.
A close friend of Kemp’s — a former television producer who was dying of cancer — made him promise to write the book, so he agreed.
Kemp produced Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, which Martin Scorsese made into an embellished documentary film.
While the two men, now both in their late 70s, have known each other for more than 60 years, the book’s subtitle is “50 years of adventures,” and it’s notably missing any stories from after 2001. Kemp admits he and Dylan have lost touch of late although he said it wasn’t due to any particular falling out, and he did send Dylan a copy of the book.
“I would think he’d enjoy it; it’s all positive, fun adventures that we had together over a 50-year time period,” Kemp said. “To me, it’s like a modern-day Jewish version of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.”