Blair’s Golden Road Blog - 'Dancing with the Dead' Captures the Early Scene in Stories and Photos
By Blair Jackson
If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve read your share of books about the Dead—from general histories, to band and crew memoirs, to picture-filled coffee-table books. But even if you think you know it all and have seen all you need to see, you owe it yourself to check out Rosie McGee’s remarkable new e-book, Dancing with the Dead - A Photographic Memoir. It really is both those things: a collection of about 200 photos, most never published before; and a fascinating memoir of life around the Grateful Dead and the San Francisco scene from 1964 to 1974.
As Phil Lesh’s girlfriend for four years, beginning in late 1965, Florence Nathan (she became “Rosie McGee” later, as she explains in the book) had a ringside seat during the Dead’s formative years and witnessed so many key events in the group’s history—Acid Tests, the Olompali spring of ’66, the move to 710 Ashbury, the Human Be-In, Monterey Pop, early recording sessions, the Marin County diaspora, Altamont, the Chateau D’Herouville weekend, Europe ’72, and on and on. It’s an insider’s view, but not in a showy way. Though her approach to conveying her story is deeply personal — it’s always clearly her perspective, not that of some objective historian — her writing also has a wonderful you-are-there quality that really seems to capture the flavor of each episode she describes.
It’s not just about the Dead, either. Rosie’s riveting tale starts at the beginning of her life as the daughter of French Jews living in Paris and emigrating to San Francisco in the early ’50s. She writes about growing up in a conservative but loving family environment that was, like the culture as a whole, quite restrictive. Hearing her descriptions of her teenage life, probably similar to many others in the late ’50s and early ’60s, it’s easy to understand why when “the ’60s” arrived, with pot and psychedelics and rock ’n’ roll, she rebelled against the stifling conformity and let her freak flag fly!
Before she hooked up with the Dead, Rosie already had one foot planted firmly in the emerging counterculture, which was evolving from the Beat period. Hanging out in Bohemian enclaves in North Beach and Sausalito “were an antidote to the straight and humorless life with my parents,” she writes, and it wasn’t long before she’d met people like Howard Hesseman, of the comedy troupe The Committee, and “Big Daddy” Tom Donahue, already a radio legend in San Francisco before he helped launch freeform FM radio a couple of years down the road. She got a job with Donahue’s Autumn Records label (which famously turned down The Warlocks, who cut a demo for the label as The Emergency Crew in 1965), and worked on some of Donahue’s big concert productions. Her candid photos of David Crosby (of The Byrds), singer Bobby Freeman (“The Swim”) and Autumn Records producer Sylvester Stewart (Sly Stone) before a rock ’n’ roll cavalcade at the Cow Palace are priceless! From this pre-Dead period, Rosie serves up rich anecdotes about encounters with Marty Balin, Phil Spector and Lenny Bruce, among others. In late ’65 she takes her first acid trip with Gary Duncan, whose band, Quicksilver Messenger Service, is just getting going at that time.
Throughout the book there are stories and vignettes involving a fascinating parade of people outside the Dead world—Julie Christie, Timothy Leary, the Youngbloods’ Jesse Colin Young and just about everyone in the San Francisco music scene. And one of the longest and most colorful chapters is about her experiences on the Medicine Ball Caravan traveling rock fest, which the Dead were originally slated to play, but which they backed out of at the last second. Wait till you see Rosie’s photos of the gorgeous tie-dye teepees the crew set up at each stop on that unique and very odd tour.
But, of course, the Dead and the “family” surrounding the band, is the heart of the book, and Rosie writes in depth—and affectionately, for the most part—about the whole cast of characters, from the earliest days through the early ’70s. (OK, her portrait of the power-tripping Owsley during this period is not so fond.) This is the first Dead memoir to be written by a woman (Jerilyn Brandelius’ fine Grateful Dead Family Album was more scrapbook than autobiography), and it’s illuminating to read her take on the role of the girlfriends (“old ladies” in the parlance of the band) in the developing Dead ecosystem. It will probably not surprise anyone to learn that the women were largely responsible for fulfilling traditional female roles—cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry, child-rearing; so much for the “liberated” ’60s!
Except that they were liberated in many ways. Rosie writes frankly about the importance of sex and drugs in the scene, which were definitely not just “guy” pursuits. As the story goes on, we watch Rosie blossom and become more confident and independent. It takes her a while and many adventures to get to that place, but by book’s end (in 1974), we feel as though she has arrived in a good place—living with the fine man who would become her husband and join her for a new life in Taos, New Mexico.
Pig relaxes at Olompali, 1966. Photo: Rosie McGee © 2012
I won’t spoil any of her stories here; they should be read in the flow of the book and accompanied by the spectacular photos spread throughout. There’s never been a collection of offstage pictures of the Dead, crew and family (as well as other SF groups) quite like this one. There’s Pigpen hanging out by the pool at Olompali; Phil and Rosie frolicking on a San Francisco hillside; Jerry and Kesey backstage at the Newport Pop Festival in ’68; the whole band on an afternoon horseback ride near Mickey’s Marin ranch; Jerry and Bob at the Eiffel Tower in ’71; Owsley backstage at Santa Barbara in ’73. Just scads of great shots—and also many excellent performance photos, too. The digital images are sharp as can be.
Never read an e-book before? I hadn’t, and I liked it just fine. (Would I prefer a conventional paper book? Yes! But I am so 20th century.) This digital book can be downloaded and read on many different devices, including computers (PC or Mac; I read it on my PC), tablets, e-readers and Android devices. A “buy” link on http://www.rosiemcgee.com takes you to the various purchase options—just click on the format for your device. It’s easier than it sounds!
I got together with Rosie recently to talk a bit about writing the book and a few of the issues it deals with.
Your book is such a window into that time. I was really interested in your take on the intra-band and “family” dynamics in the era you cover, and how it reflected what was going on socially in the culture at large.
I think it’s important to note that my book covers 1964 to 1974, which is the first decade of the three-decade Grateful Dead, and over that span there was certainly an evolution. The comments that I can make about the inner family in that first decade are going to be really different from people who were in that position in the ’80s or the ’90s. I’m not really in a position to talk about what happened after I left.
Even though there were certain roles that everyone filled in the early days, it seems as if there was also a certain equality among the band and crew and close family.
At the very beginning it was egalitarian, just because nobody was thinking about who was doing what; we were just doing it.
There was no master plan.
There was no master plan and we were a group of friends. We lived communally at first, pretty much for financial reasons, and because it just evolved that way. We all liked each other. But you’ve got to remember that we came from all these different families and backgrounds and upbringings; then suddenly we were together. It’s amazing it worked as well as it did. But when people talk about about the Grateful Dead in the same sentence with “commune,” that’s not it at all. We were never truly a commune, as that word is generally used.
Phil looks happy to be playing a free gig in NY's Central Park, 1968. Photo: Rosie McGee © 2012
As far as the women’s roles, and I talk about that in the book quite a bit, at the time I never thought about it in terms of “women’s lib” or “we’re doing all the women’s work and the guys are having all the fun.” We were all having all the fun. [Laughs] We were this great group of friends where every person did what they did for the communal good. In that time, particularly, it was more natural for women to do the cooking and the cleaning. I’m sure there are some women who will beat me over the head for saying that, but in that era, coming out of the ’50s and early ’60s, that’s the way it was. Even today, women tend to keep the home fires burning, because they’re the ones who have the children, and generally they’re the ones who raise the children in the home, if they’re around.
But we never felt put-upon. There was never a division over it. One of the reviews I got on my book on Amazon, a woman wrote: “Thank you for telling the woman’s side; it reminds me of my experience”—though she didn’t say she was with a group of musicians. But she says, “I remember the way it was, where we were doing the cooking and cleaning and this and that and the other. And the guys were sitting around smoking dope and playing guitar and playing around.” And that so-called “free love” was a lot more complicated than it seems to outsiders who weren’t there. That’s an important point.
As time went on and we split up into different households, it became much more clear that even as we were in the middle of this insane Grateful Dead scene, there was a lot of traditional stuff going on. Especially when the band became a regular hardworking road band. Then it became the traditional rock ’n’ roll world, which is the women get left behind and there are groupies on the road and blah-blah-blah.
You were aware of all that sort of stuff happening at the time.
Of course. The more well-known they became, the more temptations there were, and they were also gone for a longer time. I’m sure to this day, when you’re talking about any band—or baseball players or football players on the road—there’s a kind of boys’ club, honor-among-thieves mentality: Whatever happens on the road stays on the road, and that’s the way it is. The difference for me was, at the time I was with Phil, I really didn’t have a lot going on, on my own. I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence. I was starting to recognize my skill as a photographer and I was writing a little bit, but mostly I was just kind of going along, being me. As I talk about in the book, my upbringing did not lead me to a place of confidence.
To be a woman whose man has a passion that is outside of her and that is so strong and so all-encompassing and all-consuming, unless she’s got a lot happening on her own, it can be devastating. You don’t have anything to shore yourself up: “Well, he’s got this going on, but I’ve got my own stuff going on.” I didn’t have that.
There were so many different scenes around the Haight in ’66-’67. The Diggers had their own world and their own agenda. There were political groups. Was there pressure on the Dead to latch onto whatever was happening? I would think that people would’ve hit them up all the time for everything.
They did, of course. The word that came to mind when you asked me that was “maelstrom.” The Haight in ’66 and early ’67 was a maelstrom of all these different scenes. I remember making a comment to Sue Swanson [one of the band’s original fans and an GD employee forever] when I was in the middle of writing my book. I said, “I sort of feel guilty, or funny, that there was all this serious anti-war and political stuff and the Diggers and all that, and I just didn’t participate." I can’t say none of us; but most of us didn’t. She just laughed and said, “You’ve got to remember that we were all about the band.” We were in our own bubble within the community.
Whether we were involved in the political scene or not, it was up to the individual. I remember Jerry said many times: “Hey, man, we’re a dance band. We don’t get involved in politics. We don’t make political statements.” And he held true to that most of his life. “We’re a band. Let us be a band. We don’t represent anything.” As a group, we were just having fun and doing our thing, trying to advance the band.
Jerry at Mickey's ranch in Marin, 1969. Photo: Rosie McGee © 2012
Which in its way was sort of a political statement: “This is who we are and this is how we live.”
“This is who we are and leave us alone.” [Laughs] But at one point when I was writing the book I started to feel bad because it felt like I had been socially unconscious.
Did you feel like the San Francisco scene and the San Francisco sound were transferable to other places?
I’m not sure there was a San Francisco sound. There was a San Francisco scene and a San Francisco vibe. But you can’t take the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver and Big Brother and all of those guys and say that’s the sound. What is it? Psychedelic space-out some of the time, maybe. But they really weren’t all that similar musically. I guess that idea helped to promote the individual bands over time, but it also led to things like the Summer of Love, which was a disaster.
Did it feel that way at the time?
It started to, yeah. It was too many people and too much chaos, too many people with no place to go and being taken advantage of. The streets got really, really dirty. It was just insane.
Jerry talked about the “drag energy” in the scene. People who wanted things but didn’t put anything positive back into the community.
That’s a good way to put it. People came into the community looking to take. As I say in the book, the real Summer of Love was the year before , when it was just this giant group of friends who loved each other and got along and helped each other and played music for free in the park. We had big dinners at each other’s houses. I blame Timothy Leary for some of it, with his whole thing [at the Human Be-In] in January ’67 with “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” The media got a hold of it and started writing about it—“Oh, the San Francisco scene is so great. Come here and wear flowers in your hair!”
How did you determine what you would write about and what you wouldn’t write about in your book. Robert Hunter once said something to the effect that he wouldn’t write a memoir as long as the people he would be writing about were still alive, because he wanted to be honest, but he didn’t want to hurt people. I guess he knows too much.
We all know too much. [Laughs]
Somebody asked me, why did you wait so long to write this book? There were a number of reasons, but one of them actually was I waited until both my parents had passed. My second parent died in ’93, and then I really started thinking about it. I was driven to it by people saying, “You’ve gotta write a book, you’ve gotta write a book!” I always wanted to do a book of the photos, but I honestly didn’t think my story would be of interest to people, and it turned out I was wrong.
When I started writing, I did what I call “brain dumps.” I knew it was going to be a series of stories—I have a really good memory—so I’d go one story at a time. I’d think of a story or an anecdote and I’d go to the computer and just spit it out with no editing or censoring of myself. Just my best recollection of what actually happened. After a while, I had 20 stories, then I had 30, and I started to see a shape.
But then I had to quit playing around and I realized I had to really think about it: Do I really want to do this and, like you said, what about all these people who are still alive? What do you want to reveal? And I’m still alive—what do I want to reveal about Rosie? How intimate do I want to go?
There are passages in there that I ultimately left in that I rewrote a bunch of times and almost threw out. Another writer gave me a really smart piece of advice: “Don’t hedge your bets. Tell the truth. Readers have incredible radar for bullshit. Don’t be afraid of the depth of it. If you’re authentic and you reveal the depth of it—good and bad, stuff that makes you cry as well as stuff that makes you laugh—your readers will follow you anywhere. But if you BS them, they’ll abandon you. Because once you get that idea that the writer is BSing, then it calls the whole book into question.”
Sound engineer Betty Cantor outside the Chateau D'Herouville, France, 1971. Photo: Rosie McGee © 2012
The other thing I had to grapple with was the obvious—the drugs and the sex. I mean, I had a lot of drugs and I had a lot of sex. How am I going to talk about that? I can’t leave it out, because it’s at the heart of what that period was like. And I came to an understanding with myself that I had to write about it the way it was at the time, which was totally matter-of-fact. It was like, “Yeah, we dropped acid every weekend. Yeah, I had sex with these people. So what. It was 40 years ago; does anybody really care?”
Obviously there are stories I didn’t tell, because telling those truths would have made me uncomfortable, or they were about people I didn’t need to reveal that about to anybody, because its nobody’s business.
People do bad things, people do ugly things, people do stupid things.
But not everything has to wind up in a book.
That’s right. So I had to pick and choose things that I could tell the truth about.
One of the things I liked about your approach is that it always feels as though you’re in the time you’re writing about and that the stories are not colored by what might have happened after 1974—how this person changed later, or how events put into motion in the late ’60s and early ’70s might have played out one or two decades down the line.
I take that as a high compliment, because one of the other pieces of advice I got—and both of these came from Sam Cutler [GD road manager in the early ’70s and author of his own memoir, You Can’t Always Get What You Want]—was: “When you’re writing about the past, especially the distant past, it’s going to be best if you put yourself into that mind space and emotional space of who you were then, and write from that place, rather than who you are now looking back to that place.” At first, I vacillated between those two mindsets as I wrote the stories: “I remember this and this and this,” but my writing had no deep flavor until I internalized that piece of advice. That’s also when it became fun: “I can immerse myself and tell the story with that mindset.” So that’s what I did.
Looking forward to reading it. A hard copy would be a grate addition to my collection!
Thanks for a great article and interview. I too am in the chorus of people singing for release of this book in a hardcover format.
The photos are amazing, and the window on what it all felt like at the time is a real boon.
Like Blair, I hope it makes it to print eventually, but having it in digital form is pretty great too.