At first Rosie McGee resisted talking about what she calls her "misspent youth," but when she realized that she had been involved in key cultural events, she came to accept her role as a "tribal storyteller."
McGee will tell her story through words and photographs when she presents "The Grateful Dead: Before, During and After the 'Summer of Love'" at 7 p.m. May 4 at the Ledding Cultural Forum at the Pond House in Milwaukie.
"I will show a chronological series of photos I've taken of the Dead and the San Francisco music scene from 1966 to 1985, and read short excerpts from my book, 'Dancing with the Dead — A Photographic Memoir," she said.
Afterward, she will take questions from the audience and then move to a table to meet people, sell and sign books, and sell some of her signed photographs.
"I'm grateful for the opportunity to present my photos and stories in Milwaukie, where I lived for 12 years some years ago, and the place I now live again after returning two years ago, so I could be an in-person grandma to my two little grandchildren," she said.
Meeting the band
McGee was 19 years old and working for Autumn Records in San Francisco when she first encountered the Grateful Dead.
"The company owner brought them into a recording studio to have them record a demo, to see if he wanted to sign them to the label. He didn't sign them, but I was in the studio that night and met them," she said.
A month or so later, she encountered them again at the Muir Beach "Acid Test," and that very night she and Phil Lesh, the Dead's bassist, started what would become a four-year relationship.
"A few months later, I moved in with him in Los Angeles, which meant moving in with the band as well for the next two-and-a-half years, after which Phil and I got our own place," McGee said.
After she and Lesh split up, she stayed within the Dead's inner circle as their travel agent, French interpreter, stage dancer and friend, and also continued to photograph them intermittently, she added.
Dancing with the Dead
Noting that her connection to the Dead was personal, rather than as a "Deadhead" who followed the group for their music, McGee said she did become fascinated with them, but from the inside out.
"I was one extremely lucky girl in those early days, in that I was in the wings or behind the amps onstage when the band played, and when compelled to slip through the amps to dance within that magical circle onstage among the musicians, no one stopped me," she said.
In her book, she writes about her experiences with the band, "but even my own words are insufficient to describe the depth of my connection with the music and with the band, as it grew over the years."
McGee added, "We shared so many adventures during the 10 or so years I lived, worked and traveled with them."
On April 15, the San Francisco Film Festival presented "Long Strange Trip," a four-hour documentary about the Grateful Dead featuring 32 of McGee's photos of the band.
She attended the event, noting that the film is "a comprehensive look at the 30-year history of the band, which ceased to exist under that name when Jerry Garcia died in 1995."
The documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It is slated to air on June 2 on Amazon Prime.
Martin Scorcese is an executive producer, and the director is Amir Bar-Lev.
"Several years ago, when Amir was starting to compile material for the film, he asked me to submit some of my early-days GD photos for consideration. Two or more years later, during the editing of the film, they decided on 32 of the 150 photos I had submitted," McGee said.
"It was only when I was selecting photos for my book that I took a step back and realized that my photographs, which I'd always considered documentary, were in fact intimate candid portraits," she said.
'Girl with a camera'
McGee has been fascinated with photography ever since her father loaned her his camera when she was 12.
"I became that 'girl with a camera,' who was always taking photos at events. When I joined the Grateful Dead's inner circle, I was still that girl with a camera — lucky me," she said.
McGee started shooting digital in the mid-1990s at her job as a multimedia producer for Online Education, but still used film for her private photography.
"I couldn't afford what digital cameras cost back then, and I didn't trust the medium until I'd spent a good amount of time with it," she said.
"A few years later, prices came down on the cameras, and I went digital, and gave my film gear away to a student photographer."
Now that she lives in the Portland area, McGee said she takes scenic photos, most frequently in the Columbia River Gorge.
"I also continue to take intimate candid portraits, of friends and my family — especially my two young grandchildren. I travel a lot, and have a small camera I use to document my travels, including architectural details, natural beauty and whatever moves me to bring my camera up to my eye."
Meet Rosie McGee
Rosie McGee was born in Paris, immigrated to the United States at age 5 and was raised in San Francisco. In her online bio, she says she came of age in the North Beach and Haight-Ashbury worlds of theater, music, coffee houses and art.
She spent 20 years living and working in the Bay area rock-music scene. McGee first moved to Oregon in 1991, then to Arizona and back to the Bay Area in the early 2000s; she has lived in Milwaukie since 2015.
McGee has pieced together a career working a huge variety of jobs. Her two favorite jobs were being a multimedia producer for Online Education and working in the gift store at the Grand Canyon.
The Online Education job "used all my various skills in a creative position, and I worked with a team of 15 talented, intelligent and funny people."
She loved the gift shop job, she said, "because it was creative and ever-changing, and best of all, I got to live in Grand Canyon National Park for seven years."
Her least favorite job was short-lived.
"I was hired through a temp agency to type up funeral arrangement contracts for a funeral home in San Francisco. I was young and sensitive, and my imagination of what was just down the hall — as well as the odd medicinal smell — got the better of me, and I refused to return a second day," she said.
Visit rosiemcgee.com to learn more, and to see her photographs.