This isn’t just a rocking chair for sale. It was, in 1974, the best seat in the house when Bob Dylan and The Band toured the United States in January and February of that year. And it belonged to Louie Kemp, Dylan’s best friend since summer camp in Wisconsin in 1953.
Keep in mind that Kemp at first had no intention of joining his pal Bobby on this trip, which marked Dylan’s first tour since his ’66 world tour back when The Band was still called The Hawks. Kemp, owner of a famous fish company that bears his name, had other concerns, like getting herring and lutefisk out of Lake Superior.
But the way Kemp tells is, in the fall of ’73, Dylan told his pal: “Meet me at the house in Malibu on the morning of January 1. We’ll leave for the tour from there.”
Which is exactly what happened. Except Dylan forgot to tell legendary concert promoter Bill Graham his oldest friend was joining the tour – “as companion and protector,” Larry “Ratso” Sloman later wrote – and that he would need a spot on the plane and a place to crash for the 40-concert, 30-date, 21-city tour that started in Chicago and ended in Los Angeles. At first, Graham was not amused.
But as Kemp wrote in his 2019 book Dylan & Me: 50 Years of Adventures, it didn’t take Graham and his aide and tour coordinator Barry Imhoff long to figure out Dylan’s best friend wasn’t going anywhere. And once he realized Kemp was there to stay, Graham gifted him with the proverbial best seat in the house, which will become someone else’s during Heritage Auction’s Entertainment & Music Memorabilia event to be held online at HA.com August 8-9.
“Actually, it wasn’t a seat at all,” Kemp wrote. “It was an ornate, extremely comfortable rocking chair that he had placed onstage before each gig, so close to Levon Helm that I could almost reach out and touch him.”
The Arkansas-born Helm, of course, was one of The Band’s lead singers, alongside Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, and its drummer. Helm – known, too, as an actor in such films as Coal Miner’s Daughter and The Right Stuff – sounded like the entirety of American music history when he sang, his country-boy twang wrapped in centuries’ worth of soul.
“Levon once told me that, as the drummer, he always had the best seat in the house, because the audience was where the real show was,” Kemp wrote. “I found out firsthand that he was right.”
Kemp sat next to Helm for the entirety of that tour, and upon its end Graham bequeathed the chair to Kemp – after affixing to it a plaque that reads, “In Memory of Lou Kemp. Bill, Barry and the F.M. Gang,” referring to Graham’s concert-promotion business in San Francisco.
“Not often do we get such a great piece of memorabilia from someone so close to Bob Dylan,” says Garry Shrum, Heritage Auctions’ Director of Entertainment & Music Memorabilia. “And the fact it was on stage for the whole 1974 tour makes it a chair that truly rocked and rolled.”
Only later did Kemp realize why his buddy Bobby had placed him next to Helm during the ’74 tour: It had served as “on-the-job training” for Dylan’s next tour, which he wanted Kemp to organize. Said Dylan, “Louis, you can sell fish, you can sell tickets.”
That tour, in 1975, became the Rolling Thunder Revue, with Kemp as producer, promoter, ringleader and taskmaster during this traveling rock-and-roll circus. It counted among its performers Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Kinky Friedman, Joni Mitchell, Ronee Blakely, T Bone Burnett, Mick Ronson, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and others who would show up for a show or a song or two.
By its end, Rolling Thunder became one of the most documented tours of all time: Sloman and playwright Sam Shepard each wrote books about their time immersed in the chaos and caterwaul, and movies were made, including Renaldo and Clara (co-written by Dylan and Shepard, as though anyone “wrote” it) and Martin Scorsese’s 2019 Netflix documentary.
Kemp held on to a few key pieces from that tour – including his infamous all-access badge, a photo of him shooting the finger at the camera. He’s selling that, too, as part of a collection of tickets, matches and badges, including one from the “Night of the Hurricane!” concert at Madison Square Garden benefitting imprisoned boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.
He’s parting, as well, with a Rolling Thunder Revue luggage tag, belt buckle and medallion given to crew members. Dylan had one of those medallions, with the eagle soaring above the sun and the crescent moon. There’s a long-sleeved, extra-large crew shirt, too, emblazoned with the tour’s logo and the names Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Jack Elliott and Bob Neuwirth.
And then there is the mother of all Rolling Thunder Revue keepsakes – a mirror given only to crew members by Barry Imhoff. It looks like a poster, but is emblazoned with the names of every single one of the tour’s participants. It’s decorated, too, with tour badges and 19 tickets from throughout the tour. Dylan, Baez and Neuwirth stare at you as your stare at them.
National Public Radio recently said of the Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan “put a mirror up to the nation, revealing its carnivalesque soul.” It seems only appropriate that someone else should now have a chance to own that very mirror.