Art of the Backstage Pass:
A Profile of Spring ’90 Artist Tony Reonegro
By Blair Jackson
The Grateful Dead have been credited with all sorts of innovations through the years, from numerous big and small developments in sound equipment and musical instruments, to the first live 16-track recording (Live Dead), to pioneering the rock T-shirt business. The Grateful Dead is also responsible for turning the backstage pass into an art form.
It happened over many years. Long ago, a backstage pass might just be the band’s name stamped on a sticky label. Then, for several years, the Dead’s passes typically were printed with the date, the venue and a picture of their most current album cover—Shakedown Street during ’78-’79, Go to Heaven in ’80, Reckoning or Dead Set in ’81 and ’82. There were also passes that utilized more generic Dead iconography—especially “Stealies.” However, the tide turned in 1984, beginning with a series of license plate images used for the spring Marin Vets shows, and then on the East Coast tour that followed, a whole bunch of colorful photographic images of hot rods and classic cars that had been altered to include Dead stickers on them, or perhaps a skeleton driver. Besides being fun for the wearer, the difference in passes made it easier for security personnel to make sure that people were wearing the correct pass for each show.
Later, there was a slew of Rick Griffin designs that made it onto different passes, and also earlier ones (like the cars) that turned up on different tours. A few were clearly designed for specific shows—the giant lobster for Maine ’86, the Stealie over a cheery Christmas wreath for the December ’89 shows—but mostly they were a mixed bag of very different designs—surprises that revealed themselves when they were picked up at “Will Call.”
However, beginning with the Spring ’90 tour—hence the tie-in with the new box set—the backstage passes started to be dominated by original designs of a single artist—Tony Reonegro. Over the following years, Tony’s work would appear on a whopping 170 passes—some light and funny, others dark and menacing; a few just strange. It was quite a run for an artist who had barely heard of the Grateful Dead before he started providing art to them.
“I was kind of a late bloomer when it came to art,” the Staten Island, NY, native explains by phone. “When I was a kid, I worked construction with my dad and I really wasn’t cut out for college. One day he said, ‘Do you want to go to college, or do you want to keep working construction?’ I said, ‘You know what, Dad, I think I know how to draw.” So I put together a portfolio and I went to art college—the Pratt Institute [in Brooklyn], where I studied with this incredible teacher, David Passalacqua, who basically gave me the tools to be a versatile artist, illustrator and photographer. I studied with him until he died about 10 years ago.”
Tony Reonegro at work on a painting.
Reonegro’s connection to the Dead came through his girlfriend, now his wife, whose father occasionally did some tech work for the band when they were in the New York area. “When I met my wife,” Reonegro recalls, “she said, ‘Would you like to go see the Grateful Dead?’ I was like, ‘OK, sure.’ She was friends with [road crew members] Kidd Candelario and Robbie Taylor, so we got backstage passes. [This is in 1989.]
“I had just graduated from college and one night Kidd asked what I did, so I told him I was an artist. He said, ‘Oh yeah? You wanna do some work for us? Listen, next time you’re in town show me some sketches.’ I knew of the Dead, but I wasn’t a huge fan at that point, and I didn’t know how much they toured. A few months later, the Dead were back in town and when I got there, the first words out of Kidd’s mouth were, ‘You have any sketches for me?’ I said, ‘I do. I have them at my home.’ He said, ‘OK, bring them tomorrow night to the hotel.’
“So I went back to my home that night after the concert and stayed up all night and did a bunch of sketches,” he continues with a laugh. “The next day, we met Kidd at the hotel and I gave him a bunch of designs and that was it for a while. Then, around the holidays, I got a call from the Dead office saying they wanted to use one of my designs. It was a snake design I had done for Chinese New Year—year of the serpent. So I started doing T-shirt designs for them.
“When I first started doing the backstage passes, which came a little later [spring ’90], Robbie really handled it, and he said just come up with some ideas. I went to the Museum of Natural History and I went to the Pacific Island exhibit and did a whole bunch of sketches. There were a bunch of skulls and masks; all this great stuff.” Taylor liked the rough-hewn quality of Tony’s sketches and encouraged him to stay with that look, rather than making them tremendously detailed (which, as an accomplished draftsman, he was certainly capable of).
Two of Tony’s South Seas images turned up on the passes for the Hartford ’90 shows, and those were also the first Dead passes on which the designs on more than one pass could be put together to form a single image. Similarly, the passes for the 3/26 Knickerbocker show (a whale tail) and the one for 3/30 Nassau show (the rest of the whale), connected to form a picture. “They let me run wild and do whatever I wanted,” he says. “Being a young artist at the time, it was great experience to work that way.” And, naturally, the more shows he attended, the more he got into the band.
Tony Reonegro's artwork for a Nassau Coliseum backstage pass.
Later that year, he supplied a different image for every backstage pass on the European tour, each one themed to the cities the Dead played. So the two Berlin shows depicted skeletons breaking down the Berlin Wall, while the two Paris shows had an Eiffel Tower made of bones for one night, and a skeleton Quasimodo ringing one of Notre Dame’s bells for the next. At the close of 1990, he drew skeleton Santas for the December Denver shows, and snowmobiling skeletons for the Oakland New Year’s run.
Over the next few years, Tony created dozens more cool passes, ranging from the “Boney Express” triptych for Cal Expo ’92 to a skeleton Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara in a parody of the classic poster for Gone With the Wind for a trio of Atlanta shows, also in ’92. He drew realistic fish and also a Dancing Bear sharing a shower with a young lady. There were, of course, many, many shows he did not design passes for—for instance, there was a long tour that used photo stills from various classic horror and science fiction films, and most of 1995's passes depicted Marvel Comics heroes and villains. But his works, old and new, kept turning up through the winter of ’95. Along the way, too, he also managed to snag work from the Allman Bros., Joan Jett, Blues Traveler and other groups.
By the end of the ’90s, Tony had hooked up with a longtime artist friend named Tom Lynch to form HAVOC Media Design in Staten Island. Together they’ve forged a successful business creating designs for everything from book covers for Signet Classics and other publishers, to murals that draw on inspirations such as Thomas Hart Benton and Diego Rivera, to company logos, promo materials for large corporations, and numerous posters for the Staten Island Film Festival. He also is a photographer, and teaches photography at Wagner College in Staten Island.
“We don’t have a specific style we work in,” Tony offers. “We were trained as fine artists and that’s our passion, so we often try to bring fine art into the commercial art area. But we’re willing to try almost anything; whatever solves the problem. We’ll do woodcuts, charcoal. We go on location a lot. We’ll go to the Ford Motor Company and bring pastels, ink, crayon—anything that makes a mark, we bring.”
As for the renewed interest in his Grateful Dead artwork, he notes, “It’s a lot of fun. I have a lot of good memories. It was a great time and I was lucky to have the opportunity to do so much with them.”
You can find several of Tony Reonegro’s backstage pass designs at his Havoc Media website, and, with a little more effort, many more (as well as hundreds of other passes, laminates and tickets) at the invaluable site, Psilo.com.
Thanks Blair, interesting as
Charlotte NC 1991 I think
come to think of it it did