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Owsley Stanley: The King of LSD

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On January 30th, 1970, after a Dead show in New Orleans, police walked into the band's Bourbon Street hotel with search warrants and busted the Dead, along with Owsley. The headline in the New Orleans Times-Picayune the next day read "Rock Musicians, 'King of Acid,' Arrested." Although all charges were eventually dropped, "a fucking judge who wanted to make sure I did time" revoked Owsley's bail on the 1967 LSD bust after he was arrested again in Oakland. Owsley was sent to Terminal Island Federal Prison, a medium-security lockup in San Pedro where Charles Manson had also done time.

In prison, Owsley got himself assigned to the kitchen. "I worked my way up to the top job," he recalls, "which was as a line backer for the steam tables, and I traded my two cartons of cigarettes a week for a steak a day from the butcher, and I got all the meat and eggs I needed, and I cooked my own food and had a great time." Transferred to Lompoc, where his job was to wax the dining-room floor, Owsley soon moved on to the maintenance shop, where he used the tools to begin doing exquisitely detailed carvings in wood and stone.

By the time Owsley returned to the Dead in August 1972, Dennis McNally says, "It was a different world. Bear wanted to be the sound man, and he was not the sound man, and he just never got it, because he had a single vision. That was his strength and his flaw. And the band had a bunch of macho cowboys as a crew who were snorting blow and drinking a whole lot of beer, and Bear was offended by their language and by their beer."

After being thrown across the room by one of the roadies during an argument, Owsley asked the band to give him the power to hire and fire the crew so they would know they were working for him. When the Dead declined to do so, Owsley found himself in what McNally calls "limbo." Shifting his focus to what he knew best, the science of sound, Owsley began working on a revolutionary new system that would deliver crystal-clear audio in the big hockey arenas and indoor stadiums the Dead were now selling out. "Phil Lesh and I would talk about this," Owsley says. "We would liken it to alchemy. 'As above, so below.' We called it the microcosm and the macrocosm. If what happens onstage is perfect, you put it out there to the audience."

After two years of planning and problem-solving, the "wall of sound" made its debut on March 23rd, 1974, at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Forty-feet high, it was composed of 604 speakers using 26,400 watts of power supplied by 55 McIntosh 2300s. With nine independent channels, the system was so powerful that the amps only needed to be turned up to two. Because the Dead controlled everything from onstage, no one had to mix from the house. Lesh likened the experience of playing through the system to "piloting a flying saucer. Or riding your own sound wave." He also noted that the music made during the forty-odd shows when the system was used is still "regarded by Deadheads as the pinnacle of live performance."

"When I build a sound system," Owsley says, "I do it in a single cluster, because everything in the hall must come from one spot in the room. The sound turns into something you've never heard before. It's absolutely clear. It is loud without being loud. It is articulate. Every single note is separately placed in space as well as in time. Once the system's set, you can walk away from the board. Musicians can adjust it. It all comes from what the musicians do, and that was my goal from the beginning." The problem was that the system was so huge and required so much setup time that the Dead had to use two separate stages and two crews so the next show could be put up while the last was still being taken down. At a time when the Dead were trying to keep ticket prices down, the wall cost about $350,000. "It was brilliant and it worked," McNally says. "But they had to double the size of the crew and, in the process, the crew took over the band." Because the Dead were unwilling to fire any members of their large and sometimes dysfunctional family, the band decided in 1974 to instead take a break from touring, not going on the road again until the summer of 1976.

By then, most of the money Owsley had amassed during his days as the world's reigning acid chemist was gone. Living in Marin County, he supported himself doing sound for Jefferson Starship and Phil Lesh and selling his jewelry backstage, in arena parking lots and in hotel bars after shows whenever the Grateful Dead toured. He also grew weed in a garden outside his house. "It was the most dangerous, underpaid job I ever had in my life," he says."I was never a real grower. I did it because I was into breeding, and I had some strains that were absolutely unbelievable. All in all, I was making about a dollar fifty an hour." His agricultural career came to an abrupt end when some local junkies intent on ripping off his crop put a pistol under his chin and pointed a .22-caliber rifle at his chest. Two nights later, the junkies returned only to discover that Owsley had "fortified the place, hired some people and armed ourselves to the teeth." A running gun battle ensued, with one of the junkies taking a bullet through his arm. Incredibly, no one called the cops. "I later learned who every one of them was," Owsley says, "but I did not feel I could do anything about it. A year after that, I moved to Australia."

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