Bob Dylan on tour in 1978 in Europe Photo: Louie Kemp collection/AFP

When Bob was Bobby: Memoir offers insider's look at enigmatic Dylan


From Bob Dylan's first hard-driving blues number at summer camp to the rollicking Rolling Thunder Revue concert tour, the legendary musician's childhood best friend had a front row seat to the action.

Now Louie Kemp has released a backstage pass of sorts into the mythology of Dylan, in the form of a memoir released this week, dishing on everything from the folk hero's Passover Seder meal with Marlon Brando to his own food fight at a Chinese restaurant with Joan Baez.

The duo first met in northern Wisconsin in 1953, when Dylan was still Bobby Zimmerman, 12 years old, his guitar already attached as if a limb.

As rambunctious pre-teens at a Jewish camp in the northwoods of the Midwestern state -- Dylan grew up just over the border in the blue-collar mining town of Hibbing, Minnesota -- the friends got in their fair share of trouble, notably for a shaving cream prank on their peers that saw them steal a car.

But despite his antics Dylan was confident in his fate: "He always told me and the other kids that he was gonna be a rock and roll star," Kemp told AFP. "He said it so many times that finally I believed him."

"He just had a natural musical talent that was combined with an unbelievable drive."

The rest, of course, is history -- but Kemp, now 77, felt compelled to write down his unique perspective in the book entitled "Dylan & Me: 50 Years of Adventures," having known the legend throughout the evolution of his illustrious career.

"It would be selfish for me to take all these stories and adventures to my grave," he said. "He felt comfortable with me because he knew I didn't have an agenda. He trusted me just like I trusted him -- but in his case it was more important."

"Once you become famous it's hard to make new friends that you can really feel trustworthy with. In our case those roots went back so far, that wasn't a concern."

Kemp goes on to describe how his friend Bobby Zimmerman became Bob Dylan on the University of Minnesota campus in the northern state's Twin Cities, hitchhiking through Wisconsin's capital city Madison, then Chicago, before finally reaching New York's bohemian-minded Greenwich Village.

Dylan quickly rose to fame as a regular in the Village's burgeoning folk scene, propelled to celebrity after Baez began inviting him to play at her concerts.

"The first song that I heard of his was 'Blowin' in the Wind' and I said, 'Oh my God, he wrote that? How the hell did he do that?'" Kemp recalls. "That blew everybody away, including me. And they just kept coming out of him, like water out of a faucet."

It wasn't long before Dylan called on his childhood friend to visit him out East.

He later invited Kemp on a movie set in Mexico -- Dylan was scoring the film "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," which included the classic "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" -- and to join his high-profile comeback "Tour '74."

The superstar then asked Kemp to produce his "Rolling Thunder Revue" -- the concert tour featured in a recent pseudo-documentary by Martin Scorsese -- that saw Dylan sweep into smaller towns with a cast of fellow musicians including Joni Mitchell to play for those priced out of his larger concerts.

"He doesn't have the ego that goes with most people in entertainment," Kemp said of his old pal, who is now 78. "He never changed in that respect. He was always down-to-earth."

"I gotta give him credit -- the fame never got to him."

Kemp illustrates a number of amusing anecdotes, including one night when the revered actor Brando turned "chartreuse" after eating too much horseradish at a Jewish ceremonial dinner.

He also recounts Dylan's role as best man in Kemp's 1983 wedding, where the icon delighted guests with an impromptu performance.

"Our relationship was like any two friends -- one just happens to be Bob Dylan," Kemp said. "To me he's always been Bobby Zimmerman."

© 2019 AFP

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

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Dylan's always been such a semi-mythical beast to people of my generation who've idolized him from when we were young, so it should be interesting to get a more personal perspective on the guy. As long as Kemp, as a self-declared best friend, doesn't dish any dirt or disrespect. That's the job of an objective biographer, not a pal.

And if there are any Dylan fans out there who still haven't read it, Dylan's "Chronicles" is fascinating on his early years and on making "Oh Mercy."

4 ( +4 / -0 )

And if there are any Dylan fans out there who still haven't read it, Dylan's "Chronicles" is fascinating on his early years and on making "Oh Mercy."

Great read. And for me, Oh Mercy is his last great LP. I couldn't really get into anything he did after that.

The recent Scorsese doc is so michievous, though. That gets a thumbs up, for sure.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Oh Mercy is great. But then again, I even think Knocked Out Loaded is alright.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

These days I usually play the 1960's/70's recordings but there isn't an album I don't like (except maybe the Christmas one, Christmas in the Heart. But praise be, Dylan donated all the profits.

Feeding America received Dylan's royalties from sales in the USA, while two further charities, the United Nations'World Food Programme and Crisis in the UK, received royalties from overseas sales.

Dylan said: 

"That the problem of hunger is ultimately solvable means we must each do what we can to help feed those who are suffering and support efforts to find long-term solutions. I'm honoured to partner with the World Food Programme and Crisis in their fight against hunger and homelessness."

Have them all except the last one, Triplicate

3 ( +3 / -0 )

And for me, Oh Mercy is his last great LP.

I agree Oh Mercy was his last real classic but I quite like what comes after it, especially Time Out of Mind. That's the one with the track Highlands on it, with the off-the-wall digression in the middle involving a waitress, a sketch and some hard-boiled eggs.

Yup, he's one out of the box. Gotta serve somebody.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Saw him live in Tokyo a few years ago when he played a lot of his later stuff. My piano-playing wife thought he was good but he should have stayed off the bloody keyboard on the side of the stage.

Dylan wrote Love Minus Zero/No Limit. One of the most beautiful things. Just gorgeous.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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