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Rolling Thunder's Designer Talks Circus Curtains and Trail Maps
1975-11-17, War Memorial Coliseum, Rochester, NY
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I’d already written about today’s paid subscriber request from Jay L two years ago — because Jay requested a 1975 Rolling Thunder show, and I did a series writing about every 1975 Rolling Thunder show. (If you missed it, go here and scroll down to 1975. Here’s the entry on the Rochester show Jay requested, 47 years ago today. )
But it’s not like I was now never going to revisit Rolling Thunder, arguably Bob’s greatest-ever tour. In fact, I actually have been revisiting it recently, conducting more Rolling Thunder band member interviews for my forthcoming book (ahem). Raconteur Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; ‘76 percussionist Gary Burke; featured player and, later, Chabad duet partner Kinky Friedman… I can’t get enough Rolling Thunder, and I’m sure some of you are the same.
So, to check back in with the tour today, I chatted with a behind-the-scenes figure, Rolling Thunder designer Tom Meleck.
What does a “designer” mean in this context? Tom handled much of the tour’s visuals, the branding such as it was. He designed the posters and t-shirts. He designed the amazing Rolling Thunder curtain up top, the first thing the audience would see when they entered the venue. He even designed a cool Lewis & Clark-style trail map tracing the motley crew’s route through the States.
And he did all that while still a college student no less, working on the side for tour promoter Barry Imhoff. We talk about all that below!
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Tell me how you got involved with Rolling Thunder.
I got a call from Barry Imhoff. I was going to NYU at the time.
You were a student?
Yes. I went to NYU for theater – set design and lighting design. NYU's philosophy was that, rather than having teachers, they would have working professionals who came in and acted as teachers. You could get a job with one of these teachers who knew your work.
So I had been doing some commercials, Maxwell House and others, and also doing some rock and roll things for a company called See Factor. I designed Aerosmith's Flying A tour, Peter Frampton. I guess Barry got my name from them.
One of Imhoff's secretaries called and said, come up and see us. So I did. Barry said, “We're doing a very small tour. There won't be very many people, a very small audience. We can't tell you who it's for.” But they talked about it being a folk rock band.
If he's not telling you the musicians, what direction is he giving you?
Well, I knew how many band members there were. So I did a floor plan of where the band members would stand. The drummers and percussion would go in a certain place, the guitars went in another. That was approved and was used on the tour.
Because we were going to small houses, a whole bunch of tiny little places, I designed what we call an "olio drop" or a roll drop. So you could put it in any venue because they didn't know which venue they're going in. This roll drop could be put anywhere, on any size stage. If the stage was too big, you'd put black curtains on either side.
It was made of muslin and painted to look old fashioned, like something you'd see in the theater in the 1800s. The idea was that Bob and Joan would stand there on a small platform that matched the height of that drop. And what happens is, it rolls from the bottom up, so that they would be pretty much the first thing you would see.
[Here that is in action:]
And the imagery on the roll drop, where did that come from?
We did that several times. I did an original one, and then Bob got involved. He wanted specific images. He liked the strong man and all of that stuff, but they were some images that he changed in those circles. I think all four he changed. I remember he wanted a magician, different things. A lot of that was done in concert with Barry. I mean, I was never alone with [Dylan].
Where did this circus motif come from? Was that part of the assignment, or something that you dreamed up?
No, it wasn't specified. It came from my imagination of what a folk-art person would do. I can't honestly remember right now whether they told me who it was to begin with by that time or not.
It really fits with the overall sort of traveling-carnival vibe of the tour.
I mean, I did know the name “Rolling Thunder.” So that probably was one of the reasons that circus motif came out in the art, and the reason why it looked like the 1880s or 1890s.
Were you on the road with Rolling Thunder for any portion of it?
Only for the beginning.
To make sure it was working essentially?
Yeah. I had made the drop full size at a scenic shop in Brooklyn. Then Plymouth Massachusetts, the first show, was the first time I saw it on stage.
You also designed that cool trail map with the locations. What was that for?
It was created pretty much as a souvenir for the company. Around the circumference of the map, I put the names of all of the entertainers. We did a map for the second tour too.
And the posters you did?
Barry was the one I think who took a Polaroid of Bob, and he liked the way Bob looked, so we put Bob in the center of the posters. I think I have the original photograph. Again, that was to keep that theme of folksy art going.
When they went to Canada, we packed two steamer trunks full of drugs. Everybody had to take their drugs and put them in the steamer trunks. As I recall, they were driven across the border. Because they didn't want any of the folks on the tour to be frisked.
How did packing those trunks end up being your job?
Because I was in Imhoff's office at that time on Park Avenue.
What was your involvement in the second half of Rolling Thunder, when they played the bigger places of the South and West in 1976?
By the time the second one started, the set was pretty much done. I was doing the T-shirts and the posters, that kind of thing. It was the same thing, the same handbills, but a new map. Then I did sweatshirts, belt buckles, buttons that said Rolling Thunder Revue.
This is stuff that's for sale at the merch table?
No. Well they may have been, because I didn't go on location after that, but I was told that it was made for the cast and the crew. I think those little buttons were available [for sale].
This was all before computers. There was no Kinkos in those days. You used to have to get type like this done up. There was a process called letraset. You hand-press each letter to get the artwork started. And they made a lot of these decisions at the last possible minute. So I wound up going to the one printer in New York City open on Sundays. He was open on Sundays because the New York Times would keep this guy occupied.
When I finally met Bob, I was surprised that he was as tall and as skinny as he was. But obviously, I was a longtime admirer of his. And when we were at Madison Square Garden, Joan Baez kissed me on the lips. She was so pleased with all the work and stuff, the designs that I had done.