Did Kiss Inspire Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue Makeup?
In 1975, Bob Dylan embarked on his Rolling Thunder Revue, a raucous tour that was one part rock show, one part traveling circus.
Along for the ride were various friends, including Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, Ramblin' Jack Elliot and Mick Ronson. Designed so Dylan could perform in smaller cities and at more intimate venues, the Rolling Thunder Revue was an opportunity for the singer-songwriter to avoid the pitfalls that often accompanied large-scale tours. Most nights, Dylan appeared onstage in shocking white face paint and a broad-rimmed hat topped with flowers.
In Martin Scorsese's 2019 Netflix documentary about the tour, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, Dylan addressed his decision to wear face paint: "When somebody's wearing a mask, he's gonna tell you the truth. When he's not wearing a mask, it's highly unlikely."
Dylan claimed he'd been inspired to wear the face paint after seeing Kiss perform in Queens, New York City. He said he was taken to the show by violinist Scarlet Rivera, who performed on the Rolling Thunder Revue and was allegedly in a relationship at the time with the band's bassist and singer, Gene Simmons.
But there's a good chance none of this is true.
Watch Bob Dylan Perform 'One More Cup of Coffee' on the Rolling Thunder Revue
For starters, Dylan reportedly supposedly didn't meet Rivera until 1975, and Kiss hadn't played a show in Queens since 1973 when they performed in small club venues. The odds of Dylan having been present at one of these sets are slim. Still, it doesn't necessarily rule out the possibility that Dylan took inspiration from Kiss, who were reaching an immense level of success at the time. In September 1975, about a month before rehearsals for the Rolling Thunder Revue began, Kiss released their first live album, Alive!, which hit No. 9 on the Billboard 200 two months later. It was one of the top-selling albums of the year, even outselling Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.
It's also important to note that Dylan has a long history of exaggeration and occasional fabrication, and there are several aspects of Scorsese’s film that are completely fictionalized: A teenage Sharon Stone did not join the Rolling Thunder Revue after it came through her hometown, for example.
Dylan's face paint could also have been inspired by the 1945 French film Children of Paradise, in which a mime named Baptiste Deburau (played by Jean-Louis Barrault) dons face paint and a hat adorned with flowers similar to Dylan's. The singer-songwriter was introduced to the movie by Norman Raeben, a painter Dylan had taken classes from in 1974 and who helped inspire material on Blood on the Tracks. (Dylan used a direct line from the film in "You're a Big Girl Now:" "Love is so simple, to quote a phrase.") Dylan wanted to make a movie about the Rolling Thunder Revue, so he hired filmmaker Howard Alk and playwright Sam Shepard, reportedly asking Shepard if he'd ever seen Children of Paradise.
So, the evidence for Kiss being the inspiration for Dylan's face paint is circumstantial at best, but something about the band intrigued Dylan. The video for his 2012 single "Duquesne Whistle" features the songwriter strolling the city streets with a group of people that includes a man dressed in Simmons' demon makeup and stage costume. He also accepted an abrupt invitation to collaborate with the Kiss member in the '90s. Simmons, who'd always wanted to write with Dylan, contacted Dylan's manager in the early part of the decade. "Everybody buys lottery tickets," Simmons told For Bass Players Only in 2018. "But what are their chances of winning? Not much, but so what? There is a chance you can win, and I’m like that. Throw caution to the wind, and dive into the deep end of the pool."
Dylan surprisingly agreed to the collaboration and arrived at Simmons' house a few days later in an unmarked white van. According to Simmons, Dylan stuck around for six or so hours as the pair traded song ideas. Two numbers, "Na, Na, Na, Na" and "Everybody Wants Somebody," eventually surfaced on 2017's Gene Simmons Vault, a 10-CD box containing material from Simmons' career. Also included was a 15-minute recording of his and Dylan's songwriting session.
Listen to Gene Simmons and Bob Dylan's 'Na, Na, Na, Na'
"I remember I was wearing little shorts because it was a really hot day and my guesthouse used to be a farmhouse, so there was no air conditioning," Simmons recalled in Vault's liner notes. "I had a little tape recorder and two acoustic guitars, and we sat around and it was very matter of fact. I had never met Bob, never spoken to him before. But we connected very quickly. I was secretly awed, but obviously very thankful he would even give me the time of day, much less come to my house to write a song with me."
Simmons was particularly delighted to find that Dylan asked him questions about how Kiss' songwriting process worked: who wrote what parts and played which instruments. "He could have just as easily started strumming and ... hey ... he's Bob Dylan, I would have been happy," Simmons recalled. "But for him to be sensitive and considerate to what Kiss did went beyond."
Kiss guitarist Tommy Thayer later remembered receiving a call from Simmons that day, insisting he come to the studio to record with him and Dylan. Thayer grabbed a couple of guitars, and when he arrived, sure enough, there was Dylan. It was Simmons' attitude, though, that Thayer specifically noted. "He won’t mind me saying this," Thayer later said, "but I’ve never seen Gene be anything but ‘I’m Gene Simmons and I’m the center of the universe.’ But around Bob Dylan, he was like a kid just happy to be in the room.”
A basic track was recorded, but Dylan left before the lyrics were written. Simmons tried several times over the years to get Dylan, who referred to Simmons as "Mr. Kiss," to write some words.
"I kept badgering Bob, 'Write the lyric!' 'No, Mr. Kiss, you write the lyric!' 'Bob, you write the lyric! That’s why I called you!' Simmons told Classic Rock in 2016. "Anyway, I couldn’t get him to write the lyric, so finally, in desperation, when I had my solo record [2004's Asshole] come out, I actually finished the lyric because I couldn’t wait any longer. Bob liked it. It’s called 'Waiting for the Morning Light,' about a guy on the road, sees the picture of his love next to the telephone and here he is staying up all night, you know, waiting for the morning light."
Landing a co-writing credit with Dylan was a highlight for Simmons. "There are moments in your life that certainly stand out," he later said. "This one will stay with me as long as I live."
Listen to Gene Simmons' and Bob Dylan's 'Waiting for the Morning Light'