Interview: Louie Kemp, Rolling Thunder Producer and Bob Dylan's Childhood Friend
1975-12-04, Forum, Montreal, Quebec
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Update October 2022: This interview will be included along with 50+ others in my forthcoming book ‘Pledging My Time: Conversations with Bob Dylan Band Members.’ Preorder and more info available now at Indiegogo!
As I mentioned in the last newsletter, we’re going to conclude our look back at Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue with a trio of interviews. Today, we kick it off with the man who had more to do with keeping Rolling Thunder rolling than just about anyone: Louie Kemp.
Kemp was credited as the producer of the Rolling Thunder Revue, but that title didn’t begin to encompass his job description. He oversaw just about everything behind-the-scenes, from organizing the tour route to running the day-to-day activities on the road. He came to this role with exactly zero experience in the music business. He was, as he puts it, “a fish guy,” founding the extremely successful Louis Kemp company (which continues today after he sold it a few years back).
Dylan hired him not in spite of his lack of music-biz experience, but because of it. Bob knew he could trust his childhood friend to always have his back. As Louie puts it at one point in our interview, “I could play as hardball as I wanted because, [after Rolling Thunder], I was going back to the fish business.” Here’s my conversation with Louie Kemp:
Before we get to Rolling Thunder, I read in your book that you saw maybe the first ever Bob Dylan concert, of a sort: Talent Night at Herzl Camp in Minnesota, 1954. What can you tell me about that Bobby Zimmerman performance?
Talent Night is where any of the campers that wanted could exhibit whatever talent they had. Kids would dance, sing Jewish songs, all kinds of stuff. Bobby did a rock and roll exhibition that night. He covered the singers of the day who had an effect on him. Chubby Checker. Little Richard. Jerry Lee Lewis.
You just listed a couple of pianists. Was that his main instrument then?
We had a piano at Herzl Camp in the recreation room and he would go there and pound on it and sing Jerry Lee Lewis a lot, but he also had his guitar. He carried that with him and he would play that as well.
One other very early show you mention is him playing guitar on top of a building for the entire day.
That was about three years later, in '57, our last year there. Traditionally they have a day at the camp where the campers would trade places with counselors to give the campers a chance to exhibit some responsibility. Bobby chose to be the music director of the camp. He spent the whole day on top of the roof of the Activity Hall. He was up there with his guitar and he sang the whole time. Campers and counselors would walk by and listen to him. Our friend Larry Kegan and I spent a lot of time cheering him on and bringing him water. He was the original Fiddler on the Roof.
Jumping way forward, you lost touch for a while until the 1974 tour with The Band. Tell me how you got involved in that.
In '72, his mother had run into me downtown and said, "Bobby would like to see you if you ever get to New York.” She gave me his number and I called him; that's how we got back together. I went to Durango, hung out with him when he was shooting the movie and writing the music, including “Knockin' On Heaven's Door,” which he played for me one-on-one before it ever came out.
We were hanging out in the latter part of '73 in LA, and he said, "I'm going to do this tour. If you want to come with me, you're more than welcome." I did and I spent the whole tour with him in '74.
Did you have an official role like you would the next year ,or were you just along as a friend?
I was strictly there as Bobby's friend. Once Bill Graham figured that out, he put a rocking chair onstage right next to Levon Helm, where I watched every concert. Best seat in the house.
In fact, the phenomena of people lighting the lighters after [the band] went off stage, I might have been one of the closest people who could see it, sitting in my rocking chair prior to the encore. It was on the album cover of that tour.
What was the backstage vibe of the '74 tour? I feel like a lot of the Rolling Thunder story is that, in '74, it was these big generic arenas and greatest hits and he was dissatisfied. Did you feel that at the time?
No, it was such an amazing happening. As I recall, they had so many requests for tickets, they had to run a lottery to see who got the tickets. Off the top of my head, 12 million people sent their money to buy tickets for 600,000 seats. Both he and the band were into the music and the crowds responded amazingly. The whole thing was electrifying.
But it was a lot different than Rolling Thunder. We didn't have contact with the people on a personal basis. It was all limousines and jet airplanes. We fly into a city, go to a nice hotel, eat, and go to the concert hall via limousine, come back. The contact was strictly via the music, it wasn't personal. You could tell from the next concert tour, which was Rolling Thunder, Bob wanted to do it differently.
Let’s dive into Rolling Thunder then. You didn't have any concert production experience. Do you know why Bob asked you to produce this tour?
When I was with him out on his farm outside of Minneapolis, after he had come back from cutting Desire in New York, he said he had this idea for a different sort of tour. He had mentioned it to one or two concert producers in New York. They all poo-pooed it. They said, "You're too big for that. You got to do a tour like you did last time with big arenas, jets and limousines.” He said, "No, no, I did that. I don't want to do that again. I don't want to fly around; I want to drive from city to city so I can get a taste for all these places. I want it to be like an old-fashioned carnival musical revue. We’ll have all kinds of people on the bill. Make it a real happening.”
He said all that to me and asked, "What do you think?" I said, "I like it." We went back and forth and brainstormed. We came up with the idea that we won't tell anybody more than a few days ahead of time where the tour's going to be. Bobby yelled, "Yes, not even the people on the tour! They won't even know where it's going to be. It’ll surprise everybody."
We were like a couple of kids in a candy store, just bouncing this stuff off each other. “We won't take out any ads! We'll just send our advance person with handbills and break the shows like that.” As it turns out, that's what we did. We never spent a penny on advertising. All this is unheard of, of course.
After we went through that whole process, he said, "Okay, Louie, I want you to produce it." I said, "What? I'm a fish guy, not a music guy." He says, "No, no, no. You were on Tour '74 with me, you saw everything from behind the scenes. You're a successful businessman; you can do it." Then he threw a line at me: "If you can sell fish, you can sell tickets." I laughed. He was determined to get me to do it, and I obviously appreciated his confidence in me.
What was your role in the weeks leading up to the first date?
The first thing I did once I left Bobby's farm was I picked up the phone and called Barry Imhoff, Bill Graham's ex-partner. He and Bill were the people who did Tour '74. I got to know both of them very well on that tour. I thought, let me give Barry a call, bounce this idea off him. If he's enthusiastic, maybe I'll hire him. I knew that he had the type of experience I needed for a tour director.
I called Barry and I told him the idea. He was blown away with it. He said, "That's amazing. It’s gonna be a huge success." I said, "You want to be the tour director?" He says yes. I said, "Okay. There's some conditions: I have the final say on everything. I'll give you directions on where we want to go, what we want to do, how we want to do it. You go and execute, but everything has to be run by me on a point by point basis. Who we hire, who will we take, everything." He said, "No problem. I'll do all that."
Then he said to me, "What are you going to call this tour?" I said, "That's a good question. I'll get back to you." I called Bobby and said, "Bobby, what do you want to call this?" He paused for a few seconds, hmm-ed, and he says, "Let's call it the Rolling Thunder Revue."
I called Barry back and said, "Book everything under the name Rolling Thunder Revue. If they ask you who the principals are, tell them you can't tell and, if they don't like it, you'll go to another venue." He said, "How can you book the venue without telling people who the principals are?" I go, "Just use your power of persuasion. Tell them they'll be very happy when they find out who it is."
I love you talking to Barry and telling him what was what. Was that how you saw your role, protecting Bob's vision from the music business?
Yes, absolutely. That's why I was there and that's why I agreed to do it. It was my role to make sure it was actualized the way Bob wanted it, not the way a typical music promoter or industry person would envision it. It was my role to protect his interests, protect his vision, and protect him.
Another great story in the book is about you getting Columbia to cough up some money. Where was the money going to come from if they hadn't? Was Bob going to have to fund it himself?
Well, Bob did fund the startup of the thing until we started selling tickets. He agreed to do that, but I wanted to take some pressure off him financially. I said, "Bobby, you're fronting all the money, but Columbia's going to sell a shitload of your catalog in all these places we're going to. They should be contributing financially." He said, "I don't think they'll do it." I said, "I'm going to go see the president of Columbia."
You know, I'm a fish guy from Duluth. I didn't know who the president of Columbia Records was. I called the gal who ran [Dylan’s] office, Naomi. She laughed at me. She said, "You're not going to get any money from Columbia. I tried before. They said they don't do that sort of thing. You'd just be wasting your time."
I said, "Well, I'll tell you what, Naomi, it's my time, I'm going to waste it. Just give me his name and number and I'll see what I can do." She gave it to me. It was Walter Yetnikoff. So I called the number and his assistant answers the phone. I said, "This is Louie Kemp. I'm a friend of Bob Dylan, producing a new tour that he's going to be doing. I'd like to come up and see Walter about coordinating activity between Columbia and the tour." Half hour later she calls me back. She says, "Mr. Yetnikoff would be very pleased to meet with you." I said, "Tell him I'll be there tomorrow."
Walter was very outgoing and so excited. He’d heard that Bob had a new record that was just fabulous. "Now he's going on this great tour! This is great. It's going to be wonderful for his record sales. We're going to get way behind promoting this at every record store, all the disc jockeys, in all the markets. We're going to need the itinerary of the tour and we're going to need to have tickets for every concert that we can give to the record stores and DJs."
Then I say, "Well, Walter, you got to know this isn't an ordinary tour." I explain to him how this tour is different. He was smiling, like, "Wow. You guys are going to really do that?" You could tell it went against the grain of everything he's used to. He wanted to be respectful, but he was amazed that someone of Bob Dylan’s stature would be, using a fish phrase, swimming upstream against the current.
After I told him everything, I said, "Walter, you have to understand that, because there’s no promoters involved paying like an ordinary tour, everything's coming out of Bob’s pocket. We need Columbia to put up some money to help with the tour." Before that, he was smiling and happy. The smile went off his face. He said, "Oh, we can't do that. If we do that for Bob, we have to do that for everybody."
Then I said, "Well, that's too bad, Walter, because if you're not going to be a partner with Bob on this, then I can't cooperate with you. I'm not going to give you an itinerary. I'm not going to give you any tickets. You can just be out there like everybody else on your own."
He just went wild. He said, "You can't do that! You can't do that to us. We're his label. We'll be a laughing stock.” I said, "I can and I will. Maybe you can score some tickets on the street.”
I turned and I start walking towards the door. He screams out, "Stop, come back!" I turned around, and he said, "Okay, we'll give you a hundred thousand." I said, "Good. I want a check delivered to Bob's office tomorrow morning." He says, "It'll be there." It was.
On the one hand it seems surprising that Bob hired you to do this, but it also makes sense, because someone who was in the record industry would be worried about pissing off Walter Yetnikoff. You were going back to your fish business after, so you didn't care. Did that let you protect Bob more than a music industry guy might have?
That's exactly it. I had no conflicts of interest. I didn't have five or ten other clients that needed the blessings of Walter Yetnikoff and Columbia down the road. I could play as hardball as I wanted, because I was going back to the fish business. Bob knew that and I knew that, and that's why I could play a strong hand. Walter knew that, too. It wasn't lost on him.
I used to sell millions of pounds of salmon and herring to Japan. The Japanese were tough to deal with, so I had honed my negotiation skills with the Japanese quite successfully. I used the same skills I had developed there on Walter, and it worked. If you got what they want, they'll pay your price.
Now let's get on the road. In the Scorsese movie last year, one of the high points for me was that performance at the mahjong tournament with the old ladies. Do you remember how that weird little performance happened?
We were looking for a place outside New York City to do the final rehearsals before we opened in Plymouth. I said to Barry, "Find a place up in the Cape area where we can get away from the city and not have those distractions." He comes back and says he found us this resort. He said, "They're out of season, so we can rent the whole resort at a good price. There's only one thing, though. They booked a mahjong tournament for that week we're going to be up there, and they said they can't cancel it. We'll have 90% of the resort, but the mahjong ladies will be there.” It was really a good deal, so I said, "Okay, we can live with that."
In the room next to the rehearsal space, there was a room where all these older Jewish ladies were doing their mahjong. They were very animated, doing their thing. We got the idea that it might be fun if we did something with the mahjong ladies, because we had this camera crew that was always looking for non-concert type footage. We came up with the idea that we would send Allen Ginsberg and Bob in there. We got a hold of the guy who runs the resort. We said, "We wanted to have two of our people go in and entertain the ladies a little bit." "Oh, okay." He didn't even know what was going on.
He goes in there and he says, "We have a treat for you ladies today. We've arranged for a couple entertainers to entertain." The ladies look up from their mahjong. He says, "We have a poet here, Allen Ginsburg, who's going to read you some of his poetry. We have a singer. He's going to sing you a song or two." I can't remember what he called him. We didn't use his real name.
It’s hard to tell in the footage if they even recognized him.
We didn't identify that it was Bob Dylan, so I don't think they did. Some of them got into it, and others were just polite.
What do you remember about opening night the next day?
There was a lot of excitement. It was the Plymouth Memorial Auditorium. It had 1,700 people. I mean, we’re talking the middle of nowhere. Plymouth is a really small town. The people came from all over the area.
There was different press from New York City who came out. Rolling Stone sent Ratso up there, The Village Voice had their guy out there. Some types like that came up from the city, and then it was the locals. By the time it was over, people were blown away.
You mentioned The Village Voice and Ratso - was part of your job protecting Bob from the press? In Ratso's book, you're practically a main character, you and him constantly getting into it.
Yes, that was one of my roles. I had told Barry, I'm going to be in charge of the press. I'll decide who [Bob] will talk to and who he won't. And not only him, but the rest of the people too. I don't want the press hounding Bob and the entertainers. I don't want any press staying at the same hotels. I want the entertainers to be totally relaxed and totally protected.
Did you and Ratso have a friendly rivalry, or did you consider him more of a pain in your ass?
Well, it was a friendly rivalry, but he was a pain in the ass. At some point, and I saw in the piece that you wrote about him that he repeats it, I said, "Ratso, you're a nice guy, but you're totally out of control.” And he was. He was like a wild man. New York on steroids. I just couldn't allow him the access that he wanted. I was all for him being able to go to the concerts and write reviews, but I didn't want him to be popping around the corner on the entertainers, so I told my people, "No press at the hotel, no press backstage, that has to be enforced."
Was there anyone in the band that you got along with particularly well?
I had a cordial relationship with almost everybody. I got along with McGuinn well, I got along with Baez well, I got along with Steven Soles. Neuwirth, when he was sober.
My impression from talking to a few people was that Neuwirth was kind of a divisive figure.
Well, he was drinking a lot, so sometimes when he'd get juiced up, he would be a little bit out of control. But he was a good guy.
What was a typical show day like for you?
You get up in the morning and, every day, you'd get Chris [O’Dell’s] newsletter under your door. They were pretty cool. She made it funny and put a lot of anecdotes in there. Some of it was factual and some of it was not. It got kind of far out.
I knew all the information [in it], but the other people didn't. I would tell them where the concert was at, what hall, when to be downstairs, you have meals at such and such a time. That's how the people on the tour knew what was going on. Barry and I put that together. We had a traveling office with the tour, three or four people. Chris was one. We'd meet with them every day and go over everything.
What were you typically doing during the shows themselves?
I'd be backstage, or on stage off to the side, but I would work the crowd too. I'd go into the crowd and take the temperature of people, get their reactions to see how everything was from the floor. I would pretend to be a random person and talk to people. I never let anybody know who I was.
Bob had a beagle puppy on the tour. What do you remember about Peggy the beagle?
She was a cutie. The problem with Peggy was she wasn't housebroken, so we had the security guys taking care of her. They had their hands full because she was shitting all over the place. They’d bring her, hand her to [Bob] every once in a while, but they pretty well took care of her. It was kind of a joke, where's Peggy going to shit next?
Moving towards the end of the tour, it wraps up at the big Madison Square Garden benefit, Night of the Hurricane. What jumps out at you so many years later about that grand finale?
It was Rolling Thunder supercharged. First, it was in New York City at Madison Square Garden, so the crowd was just totally energized. Then, being that that was a benefit for Rubin, we had Rubin on the phone at one point during the concert. People thought it was amazing. Everybody wanted the show to be a big tribute to him and to raise money for his cause, which it did. Everybody was super charged up.
Looking forward a little bit, Rolling Thunder part two, I've always been a big fan of the music, but everyone I talk to says the feeling wasn't the same. Was that your sense as well in '76?
Well, we were in a totally different part of the country. We started off down in Florida and worked our way west; Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, and then north up into Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado. It was a totally different vibe.
Bob was very serious and he was totally into it. You can see in some of those concerts - the footage from the Hard Rain concert in Colorado, I think is amazing footage, just amazing. I think that tour, the performances were in some cases more intense than they were relaxed. It was a different atmosphere, but the shows were great.
What did you think of the Scorsese movie?
I think that the fact that he introduced fiction in with the actual tour footage wasn't a plus. That took away from the opportunity to make it a totally pure and true documentary, which I think Rolling Thunder deserved. Putting in people who weren't there was just totally confusing to many millions of people who didn't understand that those people weren't legitimate, at least until they read about it later in the press. It diluted the ability to give the full extent of what really happened back then, which was amazing. There was plenty more footage that could have been included and wasn't because of that.
The factual truth of what happened was much more interesting than the BS that those people put out. It wasn't true, it didn't make any sense, and it wasn't interesting.
Marty's a trickster, and we know Bobby has that in him too. They thought, "Oh, wow, this would be fun,” but from my point of view, it didn't do justice to Rolling Thunder.
Last question, not related to Rolling Thunder but something you mention briefly in your book that I wanted to know more about. What can you tell me about Bob sitting in on your Louis Kemp company fish meeting around that time?
We're in New York, staying at this place on MacDougal Street. I had scheduled a meeting with Aaron Gilman, the president and owner of Vita Foods, which was the largest smoked fish and pickled herring company in the United States. We used to sell them raw material, whitefish from Lake Superior, salmon from Alaska. I said, "Bobby, I'm going over to see a client of mine today." He said, "Can I come with?"
I'd sat in on all his stuff, so he wanted to sit in on my stuff. It didn't make any difference that he was Bob Dylan to the rest of the world. This was Louie Kemp and Bobby Zimmerman, just in each other's lives like you would with any of your friends. If you got a friend that was in a particular business, he would talk to you about that business, and you talked to him about yours. That's what friends do.
I said, "Sure, if you want to come." [Gilman] had an office in one of the big buildings in Manhattan. We walked in. "Louie Kemp to see Aaron Gilman." "Oh, yes, Mr. Kemp, he's expecting you."
Now, Bobby's just tailing behind me. We get into the office and I said to Aaron, "This is my friend, Bobby." “Oh, fine.” We sit down, and we were there for about an hour. When the meeting was over, Aaron thanked me for coming. As we left the building and were walking down the street, Bobby said, "That guy is really sharp. It’d be worth it for me to hire him just to make sure everything gets taken care of." Well, this guy you couldn't hire, this guy was a multimillionaire, but that's what Bobby got out of him. He picked up on that right away, that it would be good to have somebody like that on his team looking after his interests.
I went to a fish convention some months later, and I run into Aaron. He says to me, "Louie, why didn't you tell me who your friend was?" I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "After you left, all the young people came rushing into my office and said, ‘Do you know who that was you were meeting with?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure. That was Louie Kemp.’ They said, ‘No, the other guy was Bob Dylan!’”
Aaron was like, "Bob Dylan? That was Bob Dylan?" He knew the name because everybody knows Bob Dylan's name, but he didn't recognize him. I find that to be one of the funniest stories in the whole book.
Thanks to Louie Kemp for taking the time to talk! We only scratched the surface of Louie’s decades of great Dylan stories. For many more, pick up his book ‘Dylan & Me: 50 Years of Adventures’.
Update October 2022:
Rolling Thunder XXIII: Montreal
Another giant arena, seating somewhere in the neighborhood of 18,000. I didn't realize it at the time, but the last smallish place the Revue played was in Bangor, Maine a week ago. After that it was big arenas only.
New songs? No. But who cares when one of the most iconic visuals of the tour happened? That's right: Tonight is the first night Joan Baez dressed up as Bob, whiteface and all! She'd repeat the trick in New York for the finale.
For you Joni Mitchell fans, you can hear how "Coyote" is progressing as she writes it on the road, about the road. "I came to this tour in New Haven and I just hitched along for the rest of the distance," she says in her intro tonight. "It's kind of like running away from home to join the circus. I've got this tune that has been growing. It started off with two verses and a couple of nights later I added another one. Last night I got a fourth one. I think it's finished, but I don't know, maybe there's a couple more chapters to go."
Good news: Leonard Cohen was there! Bad news: No one could convince him to get onstage. Don't think they didn't try either; in Ratso's book, he records Bob, Sara, Joni Mitchell, and others each separately trying to talk Leonard into singing. He demurs every time. Joan Baez sang "Suzanne" during her set, at least.
The following night, Leonard hosted Joni and Roger McGuinn at his house for a night of barbecue ribs and soda. He even recites some of his new songs for them, "Iodine" and "The Smokey Life."
Leonard and Bob would have more extended interactions a decade later, when Bob was one of the first to recognize the genius of "Hallelujah" after Leonard's recording of it flopped. I wrote more about that here, and even more - ahem - in my new book. Did I mention it makes a great Christmas gift?
"Dylan waltzed through the whole family scene, sometimes conveying gestures of offhand intimacy with his troupe, other times seeming wrapped obliviously within himself. Everyone watched his moves. When not singing, he ambled about - appearing to almost tip over in a drug fog one moment, and at another, stepping with the grace of Astaire." - Juan Rodriguez, Montreal Gazette
"The show opened with a long set by Dylan's backup group and several other performers, including Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Before the set was over there were cries of 'Dylan' from the audience. Finally, Dylan joined the group on stage to be greeted by thunderous applause and a short-lived fireworks display." - Richard Garlick, Winnipeg Free Press
"It is the start of the second set, the house lights dim, the spotlights focus on the Rolling Thunder curtain. Guitars are heard, then voices in harmony. The curtain rises slowly - Dylan and Baez, both playing guitar, singing face to face into a single mike, 'Blowing in the Wind' [sic]. A magical moment - the audience is silent, then breaks into applause. Baez grins, Dylan does not appear to hear a thing. The walls of his intensity do not crack one iota. The imploring voice rasps on." - Ian Anderson, Montreal Journal
“What a set. The band is blistering, Dylan has regained the momentum that began to sag during Quebec, and every song is like a sledgehammer pounding away at the overflow crowd that has filled every seat, nook, cranny, corner, penalty box, and aisle of the cavernous Forum.” - Larry "Ratso" Sloman, On the Road with Bob Dylan
Also, it's not contemporary, but probably worth noting that Dylan scholar Clinton Heylin has called this one of the best shows of Bob's entire career. And when the box set came out last year, I saw more talk about this show than any other.
What'd they do before the show?
There had been some talk before the tour began of taking the train to every show. That didn't happen - they used buses instead - with one exception: This trip from Toronto to Montreal. The whole Revue hopped on board the train. Naturally, they filmed a bunch of stuff, though nothing that made it into the movie was altogether memorable.
Renaldo & Clara footage
Where to begin? More songs in Renaldo and Clara were filmed at this Montreal show than any other. Ditto the Scorsese movie last year. Between both movies, we're talking a lot of the classics too: "Isis," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," "One More Cup of Coffee," "Romance in Durango," "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine," "The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll," "Never Let Me Go," and "Sara." When you picture the look of Rolling Thunder, there's a good chance you're picturing this show. Both of the songs Netflix posted on YouTube last year to promote the Scorsese film come from this show:
What's on the tape?
Almost everything. The Dylan set was of course released in last year's box set (so no download of that below), and we've also got killer soundboard quality of the entire pre-Dylan portion. The best-sounding Guam set so far. All that's missing are Baez and McGuinn's mid-show sets.
I've seen reports this was the longest show of the tour, though that's hard to verify without a complete recording. I'm skeptical given that both Toronto and New York had so many special guests added in (Toronto #2 went to four hours, twenty minutes). Then again, for this final "regular" show, they supersized the Guam set. All the band members that usually alternated between two different songs for their nightly showcase - T-Bone Burnett, Rob Stoner, Steven Soles - did both of 'em for the first time tonight. If Baez and McGuinn's sets were supersized too, it's possible this was indeed the longest show.
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*** More info on the book here… ***