Jewish summer camp is a crucial part of the American Jewish experience. Many Jewish adults, even in their later years, often remember the names of kids in their cabins from when they were 11 years old.
More than six decades ago, one of those cabins contained a couple of interesting young Jewish boys. Louie Kemp would eventually head his family’s seafood company and played a key role in introducing imitation king crab to America.
Robert “Bobby” Zimmerman went on to become Bob Dylan.
Kemp has now written a memoir called “Dylan & Me: 50 Years of Adventures” (WestRose Press), detailing his long friendship with the iconic singer-songwriter, who will perform at the UMBC Events Center on Nov. 12.
The journey begins when they were preteen campers at the Jewish Herzl Camp in Webster, Wisc., from 1953 through 1957. In 1954, Kemp witnessed a cabin rooftop concert that he considers Dylan’s first public performance.
Following the stories of summer camp concerts and hijinks, the book chronicles Dylan and Kemp’s time together as teenagers in Kemp’s hometown of Duluth, Minn., where Dylan was born, and later in Minneapolis, where both attended college.
Even after Dylan went to New York and became one of America’s most famous individuals, they continued their friendship. Kemp frequently stepped away from his lucrative business 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 even the best man at Kemp’s wedding.
Rolling Thunder Revelry
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.
“After a while, it dawned on me — these were special stories,” Kemp said.
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 didn’t want to break the promise once the friend passed away.
Kemp produced Dylan’s famous Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975 and 1976. His memories of that fabled tour — the non-traditional lineups and promotional structure, and concerts featuring several famous guest musicians — take up much of the book’s middle section.
The tour was the subject of a slightly faux-documentary, “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story” by Martin Scorsese, which debuted on Netflix earlier this year.
Kemp appears a few times in vintage footage in the film. A talking head describes him as “a longtime friend of Bob’s and a fishmonger” before declaring that Kemp was “out of his element, unprepared and wasn’t too well-liked on the tour.”
However, the person who says that, Jim Gianopulos, playing the part of “The Promoter,” wasn’t actually involved with the tour — he was one of several fictional characters Scorsese invented for the movie.
Kemp said he enjoyed the documentary, especially the live footage of the musical performances, which feature what he described as “Bob in his prime.” But like a lot of people, he noticed, “Bobby and Marty decided to spice it up a little bit and be tricksters. So they put in four bogus talking heads. When I saw it, [he wondered], ‘Who are these people? They weren’t on the tour!’”
He also challenged the film’s implication that the Rolling Thunder Revue tour was a money-losing endeavor.
Brando, Canter’s and Huck Finn
Kemp lived with Dylan for a time in Los Angeles in the early 1980s during the period in which Dylan briefly became a fundamentalist Christian. Kemp, who at the time was beginning to become 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.
The book is full of delightful, specifically Jewish details, such as the time Kemp and Dylan attended a seder at a Los Angeles synagogue with Marlon Brando. There were also 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 recited for Allen Ginsburg each year on his yahrtzeit.
All that, and many, many visits to Canter’s Deli in L.A.
In the book, Kemp talks specifically about how he believes Dylan’s Jewish background informed his success and worldview.
“[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.”
“Growing up in a Jewish household kind of instills in you a tendency to be pro-underdog because for so many years we were suppressed,” Kemp said.
While the two men, now 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 as 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.”
Stephen Silver is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He wrote this article for the JTA global news source.