Roger McNamee and the Conservancy of Counterculture Community

So many roads lead the way to the community of the Grateful Dead. Like many Deadheads, Roger McNamee has his siblings to thank.

He explained, “My oldest brother is 12 years older, I have another brother 10 years older, and a sister 8 years older. I was born in 1956, so I experienced the sixties in elementary school and as a middle schooler. But because I had older siblings, I had access to at least, in a light touch way, the things they were interested in. Of course, they went to Woodstock because I grew up in upstate New York.”

Along the way, one of them gave him the book, The Great Poster Trip. “It was a small hard back volume with a bunch of the greatest hits album art and the Filmore from the ‘60’s, and I fell in love with that art and with the Grateful Dead. I had a friend in 10th grade who had a reel to reel tape deck on which he put brand new copies of Working Man’s Dead and American Beauty, and we listened to it every single day in 10th grade. I went to my first show at Watkins Glen with my oldest brother in 1973,” Roger remembered.

Later throughout college, Roger played music and was in a great band but they didn’t grow into anything commercially viable. He needed to work and found a technology research job that would change his life. He related, “It was like an academic job, but in a corporation. This was before technology was an important part of accounting. It was before it was a thing that made people rich, in those days it was a real backwater part of the economy. It turned out I was the right age, everybody was my age and what was interesting was that when you went to trade shows and conferences, instead of growing up and drinking or gambling or whatever; they used to have jam sessions. And because I paid my way through college and graduate school playing music, I knew more songs than anybody else. 

Poster by Lauren Yurkovich

Poster by Alexandra Fischer

Poster by Chris Shaw

Part of the way I got successful as an investor was that even though I was an investor, the people who ran the tech companies welcomed me because I was sort of the song list for the jam sessions. I can’t explain how important this was. Paul Allen, the cofounder of Microsoft, he was a fantastic guitar player, who was totally in love with Jimi Hendrix but he couldn’t sing, right? They all loved to play music.  If you connected with them musically, then you can become friends. The funny thing about tech in those days is it was a tiny industry of basically young people in their twenties and early thirties who had no idea what they were doing. It wasn’t business the way we think of business today. It certainly wasn’t big business. It was people who were fresh out of college who were just making it up as they went along. I fit into that really well.”

As his career lifted his opportunity, Roger was able to support things he cared about, like counterculture music and art. He co-founded the Haight Street Art Center and continues to serve on their board to provide education, programming, and exhibitions for the San Francisco poster art and artists communities. He shared, “When you look at the counterculture, you have to realize that social justice was a key component of it, not just music. Poster art is a communications form that is very inexpensive to create and absolutely compelling as a way to deliver a message. It’s one with tremendous flexibility. We have done things for pride, we have done things for the trans day of remembrance, we have done things for the lunar new year for the Asian American community. We work tightly with the United Farm Workers and we do poster printing at farmers markets in San Francisco. All of these things are about social justice. Wes Wilson, who was the original artist for the Family Dog and Bill Graham, the first commercial poster that he did was a social justice poster called, Are We Next? that showed the American flag superimposed over a swastika. He did that in 1965 and we have the original art at the art center.”

In the late 90s, Roger became acquainted with the members of the Grateful Dead and advised the organization on for a few years. The Democrats found their way back in the White House, and Bob Weir and Mickey Hart had opportunities to play political shows but couldn’t hire their band to play with them so Roger’s band the Flying Other Brothers backed them up. “It was wild, we played a show for President Clinton while he was president,” Roger recalled.

While the world was changing around him, playing music within his community remained consistent. In 2007, music producer T Bone Burnett wanted to make a series of Americana albums and decided to recruit new bands to do it. He put Roger together with Jack Casady from Jefferson Airplane, G.E. Smith from the Saturday Night Live Band, Pete Sears from Jefferson Starship, and Barry Sless, who had played in the Flying Other Brothers. John Molo joined in 2009, and they became Moonalice—though their Americana album never surfaced.

Poster by Dennis Larkins

Poster by Stanley Mouse

Poster by Chuck Sperry

“When T Bone came to us, he said I want you to create a new band.  It’s got to have a new name, got to have new music, got to have a new legend.  And when he said legend, G.E. Smith came with the name. He was thinking Jackie Gleason and to the moon, Alice, because we wanted to have a one word name that was evocative for poster art, because we had already made the decision to do a poster for every show starting from the very first one,” Roger explained. The band brought on artist Chris Shaw as art director, who confirmed Moonalice was a great name for poster art because the moon is an awesome image and Alice means you can have a woman in everything. Moonalice has more than 1400 posters to date and they’re nowhere near running out of ideas. Their dedication to the art has created a stable of extraordinary graphic artists and illustrators that they have the privilege of working with and in the spirit of community, every attendee gets a free poster at a Moonalice show. The band reconfigured in 2019, adding new vocalists Lester Chambers and his son Dylan from the Chambers Brothers and the T Sisters, Erika, Rachel and Chloe Tietjen.

Reflecting on the enduring community of Deadheads, and the days between, Roger acknowledged there were a lot of Deadheads who were left with nothing to do after Jerry left the building. “Some of them found it in the Dead, some of them found it in Further.  But beginning with Fair Thee Well, they all found it again. This is the thing I found so astonishing, because in the world of Dead tribute bands, for a long time, Phil was picking people off, from Dark Star and other tribute bands, and the tribute bands rose to this extraordinary level. Then JRad gets formed and there is a ton of East Coast and West Coast Dead tribute bands. It turned out there was something about the Grateful Dead scene that you don’t see around other bands. My point is that you have managed to create now a four-day festival of that vibe,” Roger related. Moonalice is playing on Sunday, April 23rd at Skull & Roses.

IG @moonalice

Photos by Bob Minkin, posters courtesy of Roger McNamee

Trina Calderón is an LA-based writer, proud to be a part of the sunshine daydream of the Grateful Dead.