Brady Lea (brady) Tue 19 Nov 13 12:04
Let's welcome Rosie McGee to the WELL and to Inkwell. Author-Photographer Rosie McGee came to San Francisco in 1951 as a 5-year- old French immigrant who spoke no English. By the time she became Phil Leshâs girlfriend in 1965, sheâd been photographing her life for years â the Grateful Dead were next in line. After she and Phil parted, she stayed within the core family as the bandâs travel agent, French interpreter and onstage dancing girl. In her book, âDancing with the DeadâA Photographic Memoirâ, Rosie tells ten years of stories, illustrated with 200 of her photos, of her time living, traveling and working with the Dead during their first decade as a band. The book is available in print and as an e-book, with an audiobook soon to come. Rosie has some writings and pictures up at <http://www.rosiemcgee.com> (Follow links on that site to order digital or print copies of the book.) Interviewing Rosie is longtime WELL member <jera> aka Gary Burnett. Gary Burnett is a Professor at the School of Library and Information Studies at Florida State University, where he does work related to online communities and the multiple social contexts in which information is sought, exchanged, and used. He has been a member of the WELL since 1990, and is a long-term Deadhead who went to his first show at Winterland in November, 1973. His writings include a "Meditation on Music, Meaning, and Memory" related to the Grateful Dead, which was published in the Oxford University Press Grateful Dead Reader edited by David Dodd and Diana Spaulding, and which can also be found at <http://mailer.fsu.edu/~gburnett/writing/grateful.html>. He tends to spend a lot of his limited spare time playing his guitar and banjo and hanging out with his grandchildren. Thank you both for joining us here in Inkwell!
Rosie McGee (rosiemcg) Tue 19 Nov 13 13:33
Thanks for inviting me! I look forward to a lively interview and conversation with the folks here.
Gary Burnett (jera) Tue 19 Nov 13 14:07
I'm very happy to be here, am enjoying the book greatly, and am very much looking forward to our conversation, Rosie! I'd like to kick things off by asking about some of the focus of the book before either Dancing or the Dead make their first appearances. In the first couple of chapters, you refer a number of times to the general arts scene in the San Francisco area: Sausalito's Gate Theatre in particular, but also open mike performances, The Committee, an unnamed poet, etc. It's always seemed very likely to me that the openness to adventurous and experimental work that was so much a hallmark of the SF arts scene was an important -- even indispensable -- prerequisite for the music scene (including the Dead) that emerged a little bit later. The most obvious connection between the music and the other arts was, clearly, the Ken Kesey scene down the peninsula, but what was going on in the City also seems to be important. (Disclaimer: my own connection to that world was always through the poets, people like Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan, and David Meltzer.) Could you expand on that a bit? The book does a delightful job of situating your own personal story in that milieu, but do you have any thoughts about the larger world of the arts scene at that time? It seems to have been such a ferment, with so much going on all at once.
David Gans (tnf) Tue 19 Nov 13 16:26
Rosie McGee (rosiemcg) Tue 19 Nov 13 17:20
Thanks, Gary and David. My affinity for and connection to the general arts scene was centered around the performing arts, then and now. I was a theater major in school, went to college on a drama scholarship and was introduced to the "bohemian" scenes of Sausalito and North Beach by way of appearing in little theater productions in both those places. As a young, naive and adventurous refugee from a very straight home life with my parents, I absorbed the experiences like a sponge. In Sausalito, there was the Gate Theatre and, down the street, the Sausalito Little Theatre - both putting on plays every weekend. At the other end of town, there were the houseboats and former ferryboats at "the Gates", where there was a constant "ferment" of artists, musicians, actors and poets putting on art shows, concerts, parties and summer barbeques. In North Beach, already a creative center for many years, there were the bars and coffee houses, City Lights Books, Enrico's - well, lots of places to congregate and share ideas. That early in my life, (I was 17 and 18 at the time), I already knew all kinds of creative folks, and they would call a party at the drop of a hat. Or someone would come into the Coffee Gallery and say, "Hey, come see the painting I just finished!" Off we'd go to the artist's upstairs flat to view the latest masterpiece, staying long enough to party for a while. The open mic nights at the coffee houses were standard fare, and they always had their regulars, both onstage and in the audience. City Lights had book readings, or so I heard. Art galleries had openings, or so I heard. I think you get the picture - I mostly hung out with actors in the little theaters, and musicians in the coffee houses. I DID have one painter friend, who was quite good but couldn't make a living at it, so he paid his bills by drawing caricatures for the tourists at Fisherman's Wharf.
Gary Burnett (jera) Thu 21 Nov 13 05:53
It sounds like both an adventurous and nurturing situation. But there were also elements of that scene -- both then and later on -- about which you were more ambivalent, in particular the group of pranksters surrounding Kesey. I had the same feeling reading those parts of your book that I had watching the wonderful documentary "The Magic Trip," about the infamous prankster bus trip -- it was a group of brilliant people, but with an intensity that verged on the dangerous and even cruel at times (while it's fascinating to watch, I know that I couldn't have lasted more than about 5 minutes with them). What was your relationship with that crowd like?
Rosie McGee (rosiemcg) Thu 21 Nov 13 08:39
Mostly, I stayed away from intimate and/or sustained contact with them, as I found them to have, as you wrote, "an intensity that verged on the dangerous". That may sound weird, coming from someone who willingly took psychedelics with the Dead in a no-holds-barred environment like the Acid Tests. But I always took my adventure with a splash of caution. My focus in those early days was entirely on being with and getting to know Phil - and to a lesser degree, the other members of the band and family. The Pranksters' intensity went both ways - they had their fun with as much intensity as their insistence on each person being responsible for their own actions and the ramifications of those actions. Yes, I had a lot of fun with them in the mix; but one-on-one, I was mystified and intimidated by Cassady, Kesey, Paul Foster and others. When one of them, (Zonker), cornered me after one of the Acid Tests in L.A. and tried to convince me to (literally) get on the bus with him and leave Phil behind, that was the final piece of that puzzle. Sure, Zonker was a handsome and charming fellow, but his cavalier request showed no respect for either me or Phil - and whether he was actually asking me to do that, or just pushing my buttons to see what I'd do (most likely) I found it distasteful. P.S. You say you couldn't have lasted more than about 5 minutes with them? My time limit would have been about 5 minutes less than that.
Gary Burnett (jera) Thu 21 Nov 13 13:29
That question of intensity is an interesting one to me as I make my way through the book, though "intensity" may not be the right word. There's no question that the life you describe (or, to be more accurate, the life you lived in those years) is intense in so many ways -- the psychedelics, the sex, the music, the relationships -- and very sharply focused on being present and fully engaged at every level. And yet, at the same time, there seems to be to be a real movement back and forth between the sheer intensity of a centrifugal force that threatens to tear everything apart (the "dangerous" aspect of the Pranksters, for instance) and an attempt to make things more stable, less self-centered, and more family oriented and manageable in the long run. Perhaps I'm reading too much into what you write. But I just finished reading the section on the dreadful day that was Altamont, and it occurred to me as I was reading that it is the moment when the dangerous kind of intensity just becomes TOO MUCH, partly because of how you were dosed, and, partly because of the ugliness of the whole situation, but also because something that was already latent in the scene simply exploded on that day. And I find it interesting that that was the day you said goodbye, to a great extent, to psychedelic investigations. (Full disclosure: I was also at Altamont, as a naive 14-year-old, though thankfully not dosed and thankfully not anywhere close to the stage. I also have another peripheral connection to that day -- when my son and daughter-in-law lived in Oakland a few years ago, the day care for my grandson was provided by Meredith Hunter's sister.)
Rosie McGee (rosiemcg) Thu 21 Nov 13 14:01
It's my hope that each reader of my book will extrapolate at will, based on their individual histories and mindset. I've done my best to simply tell my stories, nearly all of which are only that which I personally witnessed, and that which I personally felt, and let each reader draw their own conclusions. I also included as much historical detail as I thought would be necessary to anchor the reader and give them a framework in which to consider my stories and photos. Yes, Altamont was a watershed in the history of our scene, but there were dozens of small explosions throughout that period and afterward. I always considered the "do your own thing" ethic of those years, (another version of the Pranksters' insistence on personal responsibility), to be a double-edges sword and maybe, laziness on the part of all of us. If someone was super-weird, or publicly misbehaving, or outrageous, and their behavior resulted in (bad) unintended consequences for that person, it wasn't a given that the scene would gather 'round and help them out. Many times, yes, we did. But not always. I found those lapses confusing and sad.
Gary Burnett (jera) Thu 21 Nov 13 14:18
The personal aspect comes through wonderfully, and really does give a human (warts and all) edge to the Dead scene that is new to me as a long-term outsider. I'm thinking in particular of two passages I read today involving Jerry -- the one having to do with his "raised-eyebrow look" of "serious disapproval" over the sexually open aspects of your relationship with Phil, and the other having to do with his terror of horses, resulting in a cracked rib. It's a look at these guys that I don't think we've ever really had before in the same sort of way.
Rosie McGee (rosiemcg) Thu 21 Nov 13 19:14
Thank you, Gary. It's gratifying to hear that my writing goals hit their mark, at least with you, and at least so far.
Paula Span (pspan) Thu 21 Nov 13 19:57
I love the title, Rosie.
Rosie McGee (rosiemcg) Thu 21 Nov 13 21:28
Thanks, Paula. Don't know if you've seen the cover, but it's a photo of me dancing onstage behind Garcia. And in a larger sense, I danced the dance of life with them, and still do.
Peter Richardson (richardsonpete) Fri 22 Nov 13 08:04
Rosie, can you talk a bit about your book's photographs? There's an amazing amount of information here, much of which I'd never seen before. It helped me visualize Rancho Olompali, Mickey Hart's ranch, and several others key sites in the Dead story.
jelly fish challenged (reet) Fri 22 Nov 13 10:54
If you look at the stage in the picture of the band at Central Park in 1968, you might be able to pick me out, crouched in front of an amp just in front of my tall blond friend, Nancy.
Gary Burnett (jera) Fri 22 Nov 13 11:18
Thanks for the question about the photographs, Peter -- that was where I was going to go next! Also, those of you who are reading this but are not members of the WELL, we'd love to get questions and comments from you -- you can send them to me at email@example.com, and I'll post them here on your behalf.
David Dodd (ddodd) Fri 22 Nov 13 11:19
Hi Rosie! Glad you're hear doing this Inkwell interview. It's fun to read so far.
Rosie McGee (rosiemcg) Fri 22 Nov 13 12:37
"Talk a bit about the book's photographs".... now, there's a wide and deep topic, Peter and Gary. Can you narrow it down a little to what aspect of the (200) photographs you'd like me to discuss? I'll be happy to go on at length about it!
Gary Burnett (jera) Fri 22 Nov 13 13:31
Well, how about this as a starting point: How did you view yourself as a photographer when photographing the band (and before that, as well, when you snapped people like David Crosby and Sly Stone) -- were you taking the shots for your own uses, or did you see it as a larger more documentary effort with a wider audience? They are invaluable records, particularly of those early years; when did you first begin to realize their worth for people other than yourself?
Rosie McGee (rosiemcg) Fri 22 Nov 13 15:09
Great questions, Gary. My dad was a hobbyist photographer, with a darkroom in the garage, and he took a lot of family photos of us on vacations, etc., as well as some scenics here and there.When I was 11 or 12, he lent me his camera to document my friends at a school graduation, and apparently, I found something about that compelling. I started to take pictures of events in my life whenever I could. I took hundreds of uninteresting and technically substandard photos, but back then, it was the act of taking them that was the draw, more than having them turn out well. But I admit I also liked to look back and reflect by viewing the photos years later. So, by the time I was working for Tom Donahue backstage at his Cow Palace shows, being 'that girl with the camera' was second nature for me, although I didn't always own a camera. It will seem strange that I really didn't have any sense of historical importance, even as I was taking pictures of already-well-known folks like Crosby, McGuinn, Sly Stone, etc. I was merely documenting my environment, and enjoying being behind the camera as one way of moving within that environment. I'll tell you, if I'd HAD any real idea of the future importance of those photos, I would have taken far more photos! I certainly had a rare access, but I didn't appreciate it at the time. As for the Dead, pretty much same thing, at first. And again - I wish I had taken far more photos, given the incredible access that I had. But it is what it is, and I'm happy that they are being recognized for their historical as well as artistic merit so many years later. But I should say that, once the prime time of my photographing the Dead, (1966-1973) had passed, I recognized their importance enough to take good care of them and drag them around for 40+ years, despite moving dozens of times through three states and having them be a bit of an albatross! Nearly 30 years ago, starting in 1985 with David Gans' and Peter Simon's book, 'Playing in the Band', I started getting requests from publishers for GD photos, which caused me to start cataloging them and preserving them more seriously. Since then, my photos of the Dead have appeared in many books, films, TV shows, calendars, etc., and some of those are in "Dancing with the Dead--A Photographic Memoir". I wanted for a long time to compile the best of those and others into a photo book, and by the time I got around to it, I was prevailed upon to also write down the stories that went with those photos. A bit of a roundabout answer, but I hope it covers what you wanted to know.
Gary Burnett (jera) Fri 22 Nov 13 17:01
I had intended to follow with another photography question (and will definitely get to it), but the mention of Tom Donahue pushes me in a different direction: When my family moved from Montana to the Bay Area (Vallejo) in 1966, one of the first things I discovered was the VOICE of Tom Donahue on KYA, and he was in many ways my entry point into everything else that has so defined my life subsequently -- I was an obsessive listener to KMPX and KSAN for years, and have very vivid memories of the music he introduced me to ... all through the radio. I don't think I've ever met anybody who actually knew him. But his radio presence has always been with me, and was always warm and welcoming, seeming somehow to point the way to adventure (at least musical adventure, which is still important to me today). The stories of your various encounters and work with him during those years are, thus, one of the things that I find so compelling about your book. So, this may be an off-the-wall question, but do you have anything to add about how his radio persona meshed (or not) with the actual man?
Gary Burnett (jera) Sat 23 Nov 13 06:42
And now that I've gotten my moment of Tom Donahue fan-boy enthusiasm out of the way, here's a follow-up question about your photography: Many of the photos are candids, recording a specific time and place, but there are also some more formal pictures -- those delightful portraits of the Dead, and the series from which the Live-Dead centerfold was taken. Are the two entirely different, or does the experience with candids feed into how you approached the portraits and other "staged" photos? Is it safe to say that you're more comfortable with the more open-ended candid approach?
John Rottet (unkljohn) Sat 23 Nov 13 07:17
I just wanted to pop in briefly in between questions, Rosie, and say thank you for writing this book. Being a photographer myself, of course I love all of your photos, many of which I had never seen before. But even more importantly, it is so refreshing to see an inside look of the whole scene from a woman's perspective. It adds so much to the story.
Rosie McGee (rosiemcg) Sat 23 Nov 13 09:31
First, a quick thank-you to John Rottet for your comment about the woman's perspective. It's true that, for whatever reason, the women of the scene have not come forward with their stories - with a very few exceptions. That's a shame, and I hope that changes. Okay - Tom Donahue in person vs. on the radio. Hmmmm. Well, I won't pretend to say I knew Tom all that well or intimately, despite visiting him at KYA, KMPX and at home a number of times. I'd say that his radio personality was just a little more 'dramatic' and his radio voice just a bit more studied than his everyday demeanor and conversation. But even in his living room, he was a commanding presence, and not just because of his size. He was one of the sharpest people I've ever met, with an encyclopedic memory - especially when it came to the history of music. He was funny as hell, with a giant helping of sarcasm that could sometimes be quite cruel. He was a huge fan of Lenny Bruce and before him, Lord Buckley - whose monologues he could deliver verbatim. I guess the short answer is that Tom never missed a beat, on the air or off. Larger than life even in his living room. As for candids vs. portraits. The Live/Dead photo shoot was a one-off event that I describe in my book - Warners needed a group photo for the imminent release of the album, and they waited until the eleventh hour to ask for it. I was at the rehearsal hall with a camera, and staged and photographed the band within about 45 minutes, just before the light faded and I could turn the film in to the lab in time. I always liked taking the stealth shots - the candids - because they were a pure photographic challenge of composition, exposure and catching that moment - without the added layer of dealing with another human being other than as a subject. It was, and still is, a thrill when I know at the moment of capture that I've got something special. The portraits I took on Mickey's ranch were difficult for me, as it was the first time I'd ever added that element of interacting with someone who is (probably) not all that comfortable being in my camera cross-hairs. It was strongly mitigated by the fact that each of these guys was a good friend and empathetic to my discomfort, so they each did what they could to make it happen. It's no accident that the portraits of Phil are, in my opinion, more intimate and personal than the others. Over the years, I've done 'staged' portraits once in a while, and in the last few years, I've come to enjoy it as I got more comfortable with myself and the process. I'm particularly fond of black and white for portraits, and honestly, I think some of my recent portraits are among the best photos I've ever taken. That's speaking to me a lot, and I have ideas for a couple of projects involving portraits that I might do when I have the time.
Gary Burnett (jera) Sat 23 Nov 13 12:03
Other than Phil because of the "intimate and personal" connection, who was your favorite photographic subject? Anyone you thought was particularly photogenic or "alive" in the photos?
Rosie McGee (rosiemcg) Sat 23 Nov 13 17:30
Keeping in mind we're talking about late sixties, I'd say in the band Pigpen and Billy. Mickey is very photogenic, but I didn't take all that many photos of him - great face! I also liked Ram Rod's intensity and who couldn't enjoy photographing Rex? After listing just the guys, I have to laugh, remembering someone saying my book looked like a a compendium of "good-looking guys I have known and photographed". Some truth to that, in hindsight. :-)
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