The Ventura Raceway
—A Special Venue for Our Tribe

By Rosie McGee

By the time I flew to LA to attend my first Ventura Grateful Dead shows the weekend of July 13-14, 1985, the Raceway was already well-known as a favorite venue for both the band and the audiences. I was excited, anticipating stellar shows and a ton of fun, and admittedly curious about Ventura’s vaunted allure.

The night before the first show, Dan Healy approached me at the hotel and asked me to go to the venue with him early the next morning, and to bring my camera. He’d been working on an educational presentation he hoped to deliver at universities, and he was missing some key photos of the P.A. and its setup. While Dan’s project didn’t come to fruition, I did that day have the privilege of unfettered access to take photos during the early-morning load-in and setup.

Being somewhat of a technology geek myself, I enjoyed getting up close and personal with the gear that morning without having to endure “that look” from members of the crew.

Front of stage monitor amp rack

Back of monitor console and amp rack

Monitor mixer Harry Popick

Once the show started, I reverted to shooting the kinds of photos for which I later became best known – candid and intimate portraits.

And then, it happened.

I was standing just offstage, looking out at the audience as the band played on, and I GOT IT. Or more precisely, the allure of Ventura got through to me!

I’d been standing in the warm sun, feeling the ocean breeze that rustled the palm trees, and watching the sea of dancers kicking up the dirt together in blissful unison. I couldn’t see anyone that wasn’t smiling. I turned my head to look over at the band, and with a sharp intake of breath, felt myself tumbling back to identical moments in the Panhandle, in Golden Gate Park, at the Frost, or at the Greek, some or many years earlier.

In that moment, I was compelled to put the camera away and join the dance, as I had done so many times in the past.

The Ventura Raceway was, and still is, one of those treasured small outdoor venues where our tribal traditions exist outside of time; where we can experience the feelings of true freedom, seek the transcendence of formless dance, and openly treat our neighbors with kindness and love; and where the bands – the Grateful Dead and those who came after – can soar.

We’re a vast tribe, widespread far beyond the numbers the Raceway can hold. But here in Ventura, we can represent the whole of it by providing its color, its whimsy, its soul, and our joy of gathering to celebrate our music, our community, and our ideals.

It’s always been my pleasure to capture the details that show whose freak flags are flying high. I can’t wait to do it again at Skull & Roses V!

Photos from My Grateful Dead Photos and How I Came To Take Them: 1966-1991, TIOLI Press & Bytes 2022; © Rosie McGee, All Rights Reserved

Info on Rosie’s books and photo prints/licensing:

In 1980 Cynthia Johnston was NORML’s Marin County coordinator for the California Marijuana Initiative. She needed help producing a concert and met Steve Brown, the new NORML production guy and a former staff member of Grateful Dead Records. They hit it off and for many music-filled years—especially Grateful Dead—co-produced shows at Pacifica Community Television in Pacifica, California. She was an active member of BAWIM—Bay Area Women in Music. Her first Skull and Roses Festival was 2018, and she’s stayed hooked. “It was like the beginning of the whole hippie thing when there was room to dance freely and take pictures of the band close-up. And the music blew my mind! What had been lost was now found. I needed a miracle and this was it.” She began blogging before even hearing the word “blog” and currently has a website, My Way IS the High Way