Rosie McGee’s ‘Dancing with the Dead’
By NICOLE ZIMMERMAN / Cotati and Rohnert Park Correspondent
Rosie McGee, author of “Dancing With the Dead, A Photographic Memoir,” lived and traveled with the Grateful Dead during their first decade.
The former girlfriend of bass player Phil Lesh says she was considered part of the Dead’s “core family.” McGee danced on stage, acted as French interpreter and travel agent, and later worked for Alembic, the band’s sound crew.
That period of her life ended in 1974, but her behind-the-scenes photographs have endured the ensuing years. They have been published in more than a dozen books and magazines, including a gallery of 12 featured on Rolling Stone’s website. Her most widely sold image shows Jerry Garcia playing in Central Park in 1968, “a gorgeous day and a gorgeous gig,” she says.
Now 66, McGee lives in Cotati and on her Facebook page describes her long-haired counterculture son who lives in Eugene, Oregon. “There was no need for him to rebel,” she adds. Surrounded by bookshelves at The Sitting Room, she talked about her e-book, the memoir-writing process and her decision to go digital.
Why do you call your book a photographic memoir?
It isn’t just a picture book with captions. It has around 350 pages of text, an intimate memoir. The years 1964-1974, my rock ‘n’ roll years, are the meat of it.
But the book isn’t just about The Grateful Dead as a band. It’s about the ‘60s in San Francisco and a young woman coming of age in this amazing time of optimism, all told through my 19- to 29-year-old eyes.
How did you get involved with the Grateful Dead?
I met Phil Lesh in 1965 while I was working for Autumn Records. The Dead came to the studio to cut a demo for an audition. About a month later, I went to the Muir Beach acid test and ended up running into Phil. We met and embraced without saying a word, and the rest is history.
Four years later they were all still living together, and by extrapolation I was living with them. Throughout the years, I danced on stage because I was allowed to and compelled to. It led to the title, but it’s also the life dance that I did with them.
What inspired you to create the book?
I had these unique photographs, really different from most pictures of the Grateful Dead, mostly informal portraits at home on the ranches or on the road. Many photos had never been seen, and the rest were scattered.
I had always intended to compile them. I’ve always been a storyteller, and over time people convinced me that I should put the stories into a book for posterity.
To see Rolling Stone’s gallery of Rosie McGee’s Grateful Dead photos, click here.
How long did it take?
About five years ago I got more serious about the book. In December 2010, I pre-paid for an apartment in New Mexico for four months. It was just a tiny apartment with no TV. I locked myself up and just wrote; I made myself do it. It was a gift having that solitude.
Before moving to Cotati, I lived in Petaluma and spent six months, three times a week, finishing the book at Aqus Café, where I had a regular seat.
What was the writing process like?
I started thinking about my parents reading it and wondered, “How do I address the drugs and sex?” I had sort of led a double life. When I visited them, I had told highly abridged versions of my activities. In hindsight, I waited for both of my parents to pass on.
Once I committed to writing down the stories, it took me a while to come to a method of shaping the memoir. How do you be honest and not unnecessarily salacious? You know what, sex and drugs were matter-of-fact at the time, so I decided to write about it in a matter-of-fact way that’s honest.
Several of the reviews say reading my book is “like sitting across the kitchen table from Rosie telling these stories.” That’s exactly what I wanted.
Why choose an e-book format instead of print?
I did send a proposal to two agents I was introduced to. They said they loved the photos and the concept, and the writing was excellent, but it’s an expensive project by an unknown author.
So I came to a crossroads: Do I publish an e-book or no book? I realized “no book” was not an option.
Are you satisfied with the outcome?
My goal was to have a free-flowing, chronological set of stories, with the photos accompanying the stories they illustrate. As an artist I had to be satisfied with how it looked. In order to fit into the format, the photos are fairly low resolution, but I think that’s pretty darn good quality.
Do you think you’ll ever see your book in print?
There’s obviously a huge market, and people are begging me for it. Nobody wants it in print more than I do. With many of the 200 photos in color, it’s too expensive without cutting it down to 30-40 pictures, which I won’t do. At least the e-book will never go out of print.“Dancing With the Dead, A Photographic Memoir” is available for $9.95-$11.95 from online retailers or can be downloaded on any computer using a free Kindle e-reader app from Amazon.com. For more information or a signed print, go to rosiemcgee.com or facebook.com/rosiemcgeephotographer.