inkwell.vue.471 : Rosie McGee: Dancing with the Dead - A Photographic Memoir
permalink #0 of 110: 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
Lesh’s girlfriend in 1965, she’d been photographing her life for years
– the Grateful Dead were next in line. After she and Phil parted, she
stayed within the core family as the band’s travel agent, French
interpreter and onstage dancing girl. In her book, “Dancing with the
Dead—A Photographic Memoir”, 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!
  
inkwell.vue.471 : Rosie McGee: Dancing with the Dead - A Photographic Memoir
permalink #1 of 110: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.471 : Rosie McGee: Dancing with the Dead - A Photographic Memoir
permalink #2 of 110: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.471 : Rosie McGee: Dancing with the Dead - A Photographic Memoir
permalink #3 of 110: David Gans (tnf) Tue 19 Nov 13 16:26
    
Welcome, Rosie!
  
inkwell.vue.471 : Rosie McGee: Dancing with the Dead - A Photographic Memoir
permalink #4 of 110: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.471 : Rosie McGee: Dancing with the Dead - A Photographic Memoir
permalink #5 of 110: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.471 : Rosie McGee: Dancing with the Dead - A Photographic Memoir
permalink #6 of 110: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.471 : Rosie McGee: Dancing with the Dead - A Photographic Memoir
permalink #7 of 110: 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.)
  
inkwell.vue.471 : Rosie McGee: Dancing with the Dead - A Photographic Memoir
permalink #8 of 110: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.471 : Rosie McGee: Dancing with the Dead - A Photographic Memoir
permalink #9 of 110: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.471 : Rosie McGee: Dancing with the Dead - A Photographic Memoir
permalink #10 of 110: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.471 : Rosie McGee: Dancing with the Dead - A Photographic Memoir
permalink #11 of 110: Paula Span (pspan) Thu 21 Nov 13 19:57
    
I love the title, Rosie.
  
inkwell.vue.471 : Rosie McGee: Dancing with the Dead - A Photographic Memoir
permalink #12 of 110: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.471 : Rosie McGee: Dancing with the Dead - A Photographic Memoir
permalink #13 of 110: 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.  
  
inkwell.vue.471 : Rosie McGee: Dancing with the Dead - A Photographic Memoir
permalink #14 of 110: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.471 : Rosie McGee: Dancing with the Dead - A Photographic Memoir
permalink #15 of 110: 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 gburnett@fsu.edu, and I'll post them here on your behalf.
  
inkwell.vue.471 : Rosie McGee: Dancing with the Dead - A Photographic Memoir
permalink #16 of 110: 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. 
  
inkwell.vue.471 : Rosie McGee: Dancing with the Dead - A Photographic Memoir
permalink #17 of 110: 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!
  
inkwell.vue.471 : Rosie McGee: Dancing with the Dead - A Photographic Memoir
permalink #18 of 110: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.471 : Rosie McGee: Dancing with the Dead - A Photographic Memoir
permalink #19 of 110: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.471 : Rosie McGee: Dancing with the Dead - A Photographic Memoir
permalink #20 of 110: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.471 : Rosie McGee: Dancing with the Dead - A Photographic Memoir
permalink #21 of 110: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.471 : Rosie McGee: Dancing with the Dead - A Photographic Memoir
permalink #22 of 110: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.471 : Rosie McGee: Dancing with the Dead - A Photographic Memoir
permalink #23 of 110: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.471 : Rosie McGee: Dancing with the Dead - A Photographic Memoir
permalink #24 of 110: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.471 : Rosie McGee: Dancing with the Dead - A Photographic Memoir
permalink #25 of 110: 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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