Q&A with photographer & author, Rosie McGee - photos and stories of the early-days Grateful Dead and the 60’s music scene in San Francisco.

"I would zap all people who are greedy, mean, evil, territorial, power-mad, murderous, pessimistic, bigoted, stupid, depressed, or hopeless – with a magic ray that would turn them into positive-thinking, compassionate, intelligent, loving, and productive members of the human race, so they could contribute to solving the problems that threaten all of us with extinction."

Rosie McGee: Tribal Storyteller

Rosie McGee is an American photographer, author, and self-described “tribal storyteller”, who travels widely to show her photos and share her stories of the early-days Grateful Dead and the 60’s music scene in San Francisco. Her interest in photography started at the age of 12, when she borrowed her hobbyist dad’s camera to document a school event. Her compulsion to document her life in photos was still intact when, at the age of 18, she was offered a job working for Top 40 DJ and rock concert promoter “Big Daddy” Tom Donahue, which led her to meet the Grateful Dead when they were just starting out. This led to a 10-year adventure living, working, and traveling with the Dead as an intimate member of their core family.

In her book, “Dancing with the Dead—A Photographic Memoir: My Good Old Days with the Grateful Dead & the San Francisco Music Scene 1964-1974” she tells the stories of those years, illustrated with 200 of her photos. (It’s available on Amazon as a Kindle e-book; print edition; and downloadable audiobook, with Rosie reading her own stories.) Starting with 1986’s “Playing in the Band”, dozens of books have featured Rosie’s iconic photos, including “The Grateful Dead Family Album”; “Long Strange Trip”; “The Illustrated Trip”; “Jerry on Jerry”; “This is All a Dream We Dreamed”; “Eyes of the World”; “Altamont”; and several of the Time/Life books. Films and documentaries with her photos include Amazon’s “Long Strange Trip”; Netflix’s “The Other One – Bob Weir’s Long Strange Trip”; the BBC’s series “Soundbreaking”; and the independent film “Sunshine Daydream”. In addition, magazines and newspapers that have licensed her photos include Rolling Stone; The New York Times; High Times; The Wall Street Journal; Newsweek; and many regional newspapers. And her photos have been exhibited at the California Historical Society; the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame; and Jorma and Vanessa Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch. Rosie McGee’s photo presentations have been well received at academic conferences, libraries, college lecture halls, and in nightclubs where she partners with one of many Grateful Dead tribute bands who celebrate the Dead’s music. Included have been Northwestern University; the California Historical Society; the San Francisco Public Library; Ashkenaz Music Hall in Berkeley; and Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley.

Interview by Michael Limnios                  Photos © by Rosie McGee

How has the Rock n' Roll counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

First, I’d like to separate “Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “counterculture”, because I feel they’re two separate things. The way I see it, one (rock ‘n’ roll) led to the other (the counterculture).

Rock ‘n’ roll music was largely hidden from me as I came of age in San Francisco in a sheltered environment, emerging from my strict home life with my parents into the college folk music scene when I was 16; and then embracing the folk-rock/singer-songwriter movement that followed. However, when, at the age of 18, I started working for Top 40 DJ and rock concert promoter Tom Donahue at his record label, and immediately moved out on my own, I was thrown into the ‘deep end’ of the rock music scene from the inside.

As a result, I was immersed in the non-traditional environment of rock musicians, artists, actors, and other interesting pot-smoking folks, when the San Francisco counterculture of the ‘60’s was in its formative stages. (This is not to disregard the long history of non-traditional lifestyles in the San Francisco Bay Area, including the Bohemians, Beats, etc.)

So, rock ‘n’ roll, and later, the counterculture, gradually seeped into me and became an integral part of me in my 20’s, influencing me to break free of the restrictions and prohibitions that had characterized my youth. Those pivotal times led me to live a non-traditional life, with rock and other music at the core of its soundtrack.

(Photo: Owsley “Bear” Stanley and Jerry Garcia, San Diego Airport, 1968.)

"As an earliest-days member of the Dead’s core family, especially when I danced onstage in the heart of their musical vortex, I experienced the magic of their free-flying improvisation from very close to the center of it. I regret that I cannot express in words how deeply that touched me."

How do you describe the philosophy of Rosie McGee's photos? Where does your creative drive come from?

When I was 12 years old, my father, a photography hobbyist with a darkroom in our garage, lent me his camera to take pictures of a school event. From that day on, I was compelled to document my life in photos, at first without much regard for the creativity or art of it. I loved the taking of photos for its own sake; it gave me an identity in the confusing teen years – “the girl with the camera”; and later, it gave me something interesting to do behind the scenes in the music environment, as well as privileged access. Much later, I became aware that I had a good eye for composition and for capturing candid portraits, and so, I studied photography to improve my less stellar technical skills.

Over the years, as my candid portraits of musicians and others were widely viewed and commented upon, I came to appreciate their successful capture of special moments in a subject’s face. I continue to document my life and travels through photos of just about anything I find interesting, beautiful, or compelling. And with the welcome tools of digital photography, the “digital darkroom”, and social media, I’ve been able to satisfy my creative drive to not only take photos, but to share them widely.

What was the hardest part of writing this book? What are the most important lessons you have learned from your experiences?

I never kept a journal, so I wrote these stories of 40+ years ago from memory. The hardest part wasn’t remembering the stories, which I only told if I had personally witnessed the episode. My memories are vivid and quite detailed, and the more I dug down, the more detail emerged. The hardest part was deciding what tone to take; and later, what to leave in, and what to leave out. I do have to also acknowledge that, with the technology available to me in 2012-2013,  the learning curve for self-publishing a book with 200 photos was very difficult and time-consuming.

As for the important lessons from my life experiences, I’ll try to summarize. I came to my most important lessons quite late – in my late 50’s, during the 7 years I lived at one of the most spiritual places I’ve ever been – the Grand Canyon in Arizona. I spent most of my off-work hours there communing with the Canyon, in whatever quiet location I could find on the Rim, as I was never much of a hiker. In the end, I was able to fling into the Canyon the demons of self-doubt and self-blame for how others treated me, and emerge with a positive attitude based on the ideas that my life is finite and short; that we are all worthy of love; that I have strengths and talents worth celebrating; and that I am part of a community of loving and compassionate people who defy the pessimism that could destroy us.

How important was music in your life? What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past?

I was a latecomer to music being important in my life, as my parents kept a fairly silent home, (except for recordings of Beethoven String Quartets on Sundays when my father was baking French pastries).

Until I found myself in the heart of the music scene, going all the time to concerts, recording sessions, and sitting around in living rooms and dressing rooms while musicians jammed or rehearsed, I was much more interested in theater and plays. (I went to college on a drama scholarship at 16, and participated in little theater for years.)

So, I’d say I slid in through the back door to an appreciation for music, once I started frequenting the coffee houses of North Beach and learned to love what I heard being played. For a time, music was simply the source of my social scene, until…. I guess it kind of crept up on me when I started seeing folk-rock and rock bands play live, and my oh my, I started DANCING! Then, there was no turning back!

I don’t really miss the music of the past because I still listen to it, along with a variety of current recorded music from Spanish guitar, to Middle Eastern jazz, to Celtic, to smooth jazz, to one of my favorites – silence. As throughout my life, I have a much wider appreciation for music that is played live, and I go to shows frequently in a variety of venues.

If you could change one thing in the world/people and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I would zap all people who are greedy, mean, evil, territorial, power-mad, murderous, pessimistic, bigoted, stupid, depressed, or hopeless – with a magic ray that would turn them into positive-thinking, compassionate, intelligent, loving, and productive members of the human race, so they could contribute to solving the problems that threaten all of us with extinction.

What touched (emotionally) you from Grateful Dead music? How does GD affect your mood and inspiration?

As an earliest-days member of the Dead’s core family, especially when I danced onstage in the heart of their musical vortex, I experienced the magic of their free-flying improvisation from very close to the center of it. I regret that I cannot express in words how deeply that touched me.

These days, I have to admit that whether I’m listening to recordings of the Dead from days past, or listening live to one of the many excellent Grateful Dead tribute bands, that the answer to, “How does it affect my mood and inspiration?”, is – “it depends”. Depends on the environment, who’s playing, what song is being sung, and my state of mind at the moment. Sometimes, it’s just pleasant – other times, it’s once again profound.

(Photo: Outtake from “Live/Dead” album liner photo shoot, Novato, CA, 1969.)

"I don’t really miss the music of the past because I still listen to it, along with a variety of current recorded music from Spanish guitar, to Middle Eastern jazz, to Celtic, to smooth jazz, to one of my favorites – silence. As throughout my life, I have a much wider appreciation for music that is played live, and I go to shows frequently in a variety of venues."

Why do you think that the Summer of Love and the "60s era" continues to generate such a devoted following?

Yes, the “Summer of Love” and the ‘60s era are treasured by hundreds of thousands in a way none of us could ever have predicted – and it seems to grow every year. But, I think the devoted following you speak of is more about the Grateful Dead than the “Summer of Love” and the ‘60s era on their own. If it weren’t for the Deadheads, who now span generations, and their legendary devotion to the Dead, it’s likely the ‘60’s era would be far less treasured, and by far fewer people.

My personal theory is that our modern age is dark, complicated, dizzying, and full of fears on a global scale never before experienced. It’s of course easy to understand that those of us who grew up in the ‘60s, the so-called “Love Generation”, might want to look backwards to a simpler and more optimistic time. But as I’ve traveled and met hundreds of folks when promoting my book and photos, and talk about that era, I’ve come to know that the majority of those seekers are far younger, many under 30. When I do my photo-lectures to these folks, the Q & A sessions are always lively and lengthy, with a lot of, “What was it really like?” kinds of questions. They’re quite respectful, and they really want to know.

What is the impact of music and counterculture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications?

I’m sorry, but this question is so large, it could be the basis for someone’s PhD dissertation, or the subject of a book, and far above what I’m qualified to answer.

Where would you really want to go with a time machine? What memorabilia (records, photos) would you put in?

My answer is a very personal one, in that I’d go back to Paris, (where I was born and left when I was 5), in the 1920s, with its post-WWI gaiety, fashion, art, music, and generally festive times. Of course, if we’re playing the wishing game, I’d be a woman of some wealth, so I could enjoy all that era had to offer me!

If I were to go backwards in time, I can’t see any point in bringing memorabilia with me.

Rosie McGee - Official website

(Photo: Jerry Garcia and Ken Kesey, Newport Pop Festival, Costa Mesa, CA, 1968.)

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