Louie Kemp, Bob Dylan’s childhood best friend who has maintained a close relationship with Dylan throughout their lives, will write “The Boys from the North Country: My Life with Robert Zimmerman and Bob Dylan,” for Random House, according to Publisher’s Marketplace. Author-musician Kinky Friedman, also a longtime Dylan friend and associate, will co-write the book with Kemp, who attended Jewish summer camp with Dylan, managed the 1975-76 Rolling Thunder Revue tours, provided the smoked salmon for the Thanksgiving Dinner party also known as “The Last Waltz,” and lived with Dylan in California for three years in the 1980s.
The announcement of the book deal promises “numerous personal stories and never-before-seen photos from the author’s personal archive.” Among these stories are attending an influential Buddy Holly concert with Dylan as teenagers, an event that Dylan himself has written about in near-spiritual terms.
If Kemp is given free reign, the book has the potential to open up a window on Dylan’s notoriously private personal life like never before. Given the nature of their shared history, it could also fill in the blanks of Dylan’s life vis-à-vis his connection to Judaism.
Summers from 1954 to 1958, Kemp and Dylan attended Camp Herzl in Webster, Wisc., where they forged their lifelong friendship. The camp, which shared both a religious and Zionist orientation, drew Jewish teens from all over the greater region. By all accounts, Bobby Zimmerman thrived in this environment. It was at Herzl, with guitar always at hand, that Bobby Zimmerman began his journey toward becoming Bob Dylan – a transition to which Louie Kemp had a front-row seat.
Camp Herzl is also where Dylan’s longstanding friendships with Howard Rutman and Larry Kegan began. These connections, which built upon those he already had with the Duluth Jewish community through his extended family (Dylan was born in Duluth), served Bobby Zimmerman well over the the next few years. Rutman (a cousin) and Kegan lived in St. Paul, and Bobby would visit them frequently while still in high school, traveling by Greyhound bus – a national business founded in Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minn., to transport residents from the new Hibbing to the iron mines in the original Hibbing.
With Kegan and Rutman, Zimmerman formed what was perhaps his very first musical group. Calling themselves the Jokers, they performed mostly a cappella versions of the teen hits of the day. They would get together in St. Paul and perform for high school dances and TV talent shows. They even cut a do-it-yourself 78 rpm record on which Bobby sang and played piano.
Having made his mark in business through his independent fisheries in Duluth and Alaska – the legacy of which is the Louis Kemp brand of frozen fish, now owned by Sysco — Louie Kemp would go on to manage several of Bob Dylan’s tours in the 1970s, along the way supplying the smoked salmon from his Alaska fishery for the Band’s Thanksgiving Day 1976 farewell concert, the Last Waltz.
In his later years, like Larry Kegan before him, Kemp took upon himself the rigors of Orthodox Judaism, allying himself with the Chabad Lubavitch sect of Hasidism – a group with which Dylan would also have significant contact throughout the 1980s and 1990s into the 21st century. Presumably Kemp’s memoir will illuminate this critical and neglected chapter of Dylan’s spiritual life, recounting the role that he and Kegan played in steering Dylan back to the faith of his ancestors after his dabbling with Christianity in the late 1970s.
Kinky Friedman’s role as co-writer could also somewhat determine the direction of the memoir. In the late-1980s and early-1990s, Dylan appeared on Chabad Telethons out of Los Angeles three times. In September 1991, Dylan urged the TV audience to “give plenty of money to Chabad. It’s my favorite organization in the whole world, really. They do nothing but good things with all the money, and the more you can give, the more it’s going to help everybody.” Later on in the show, Dylan backed Friedman on guitar as the latter performed his song, “Sold American.”
Friedman was featured in the second leg of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue that Kemp organized in 1976. Best known for his work with his band, the Texas Jewboys, which featured tongue-in-cheek performances of songs like “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” “Ride ‘Em Jewboy,” and “Asshole from El Paso” – his answer song to the late Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” – Friedman has also enjoyed considerable success as the author of detective novels.
A contributing editor to the Forward, Seth Rogovoy is the author of “Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet” (Scribner, 2009), a full-length exploration of Dylan’s life and work from a Jewish perspective.