Owsley Stanley: The King of LSD

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In 1984, Owsley appeared at Phil Lesh's house with a map of the world showing the mean temperatures at the height of the last ice age. Long before global warming became an international hot-button issue, he delivered what writer David Gans described as "a ninety-minute lecture on a thermal cataclysm that he said would begin with a six-week rainstorm and leave the entire Northern Hemisphere uninhabitable." Passing around Australian visa applications, Owsley then urged all those present to join him in the Southern Hemisphere.

Much like his theory that human beings are meant to eat only meat, Owsley's concept of climate change is at odds with most current scientific thought on global warming. In highly abridged form, what Owsley believes is that the phenomenon is real but that it comes from "the steadily increasing movement of large amounts of heat from the tropics across the temperate zones to the poles. 'Global warming: the panic,' is based exclusively on temperate-zone land measurements and ignores the fact that the planet is seventy percent ocean. The Arctic and Antarctic are soaking up the moving heat and the ice caps are melting, but the cause of the heat's movement is a buildup of energy as the prelude to a massive, planetary-scale cyclonic storm, which will build the new ice age glaciers."

Because this is a natural cycle, Owsley believes that carbon and methane emissions from human activity have little effect on the process and do not cause the greenhouse effect. "Our planet's heat balance and temperature are buffered and controlled by water and water vapor, which also washes CO2 out of the air and not minuscule fractions of a couple of gases, one of which is very soluble and the other unstable. Not a single atmospheric scientist subscribes to the concept of greenhouse gases or global warming — they all know the truth."

Owsley contends there is nothing people can do to prevent the coming of an ice age storm that he describes as "a kind of a gigantic hurricane, a cyclone thousands of miles in diameter, turning with winds of ultrasonic speeds that is one-half the planet in size." This is the Biblical 'flood of Noah,' and the entire portion of the planet underneath the storm will be blown flat and buried under water. "Based on past evidence, the sea will rise 300 meters, and life in some places will be entirely destroyed. I don't see how anyone in the Northern Hemisphere could survive the storm. But there are areas on the planet that are safe, and I hope I'm in one of them."

It is for this reason that Owsley and his wife, Sheilah, whom he first met at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley in 1985 while she was working in the ticket office for the Dead, now live in Australia forty-five minutes from anywhere on 120 acres of land he claimed by squatting on it like a pioneer. Together, they dwell in a complex of sheds, caravans, large canvas tents, modified shipping containers and corrugated-iron structures designed and built by Owsley. John Perry Barlow, who has been there, describes the enclave as "something out of Lord Jim, but the main living area is rather Victorian, handsomely carpeted, lots of books around, nice furniture and no walls." Owsley generates all his own power through a solar and wind system he built himself and collects rainwater he stores in two large tanks. There are three septic systems on the property, a hot tub, three kitchens and a large gym where he works out regularly. Once a year by invitation only, he throws a party attended by friends, family and musicians from all over Australia who play all night long. Needless to say, the party is electric.

After experiencing chest pains seven years ago, Owsley underwent surgery to correct a ninety percent blockage in an artery in his heart that dated back to his teenage years. Although he never smoked tobacco as an adult, Owsley learned in 2004 that he was suffering from stage-four throat cancer. Had it not been for Sheilah, he says, "I don't think I would have survived. We are truly soulmates after twenty-two years together, and our love is as strong today as it was in the beginning. How many people can say that?" Owsley also credits his all-meat diet for keeping him alive. "This is one of the most aggressive cancers you can get," he adds. "Normally, within six months or a year, it has metastasized throughout your body. I had it for at least three years, but it never left the left side of my neck. The reason is that I'm a total carnivore. I don't eat carbs. Cancers grow on glucose. They're extremely glucose-avid. Especially this one. In other words, this cancer was living in a desert."

Unlike his own father, Owsley has made every effort to be an active parent to his son Starfinder and daughter Redbird (whose mother is Cargill), born three weeks apart to two different mothers who remain good friends and raised their children as brother and sister. Owsley lives by selling his art through his Web site (thebear.org) and royalties from Dead recordings. Some of his other recorded works include Bear's Choice; Big Brother and the Holding Company Live at the Carousel Ballroom, June 23, 1968; The Allman Brothers Band Fillmore East, February 1970; and the acoustic Jerry Garcia bluegrass-band albums Old & in the Way, That High Lonesome Sound and Breakdown.

Night after night during the summer months, Owsley can be found stalking Bufo marinus, the species of poisonous toads (whose venom, Owsley insists, won't get you high) first introduced into Australia in 1935 in the mistaken belief that they would help control the cane beetle. Breeding so rapidly that they soon became a national nightmare, the giant toads (some of which weigh as much as two pounds and have come to be considered an environmental menace in both Hawaii and Australia) are now poisoning the baby fish in the acre-and-a-half lake Owsley created on his property. Shining an LED light on them, he sprays each one with Detsol, a liquid disinfectant much like Lysol that is highly toxic to them, throws each one into a bucket, and then dumps their corpses into the woods the next day. On a good night, Owsley will catch as many as 225 toads. During the past month, he has dispensed with 1,400 of them.

To see Owsley in action now is to understand that forty years after the Summer of Love, the man has not really changed very much at all. Wherever he goes, he carries an astonishing aluminum briefcase bedecked with wrinkled rock & roll stickers and ancient Grateful Dead backstage passes stuffed to the brim with precious scraps of platinum and gold from which he has fashioned his jewelry, a jeweler's loup so his pieces can be viewed at close range on black felt jeweler's boards, a small metric scale, a portable memory drive, numerous rolls of tape and a plethora of tiny plastic film containers. In every way, the briefcase reflects his mind.

As he cooks up the protein-rich soupy mixture that sustains him (composed, in part, of a thick gelatinous paste he makes by boiling down countless chicken legs), Owsley scrolls through digital photographs of his work on his laptop, burns a CD of his live mix of Big Brother and the Holding Company, and fills a tiny baggie with the Australian peppercorns he considers the finest in the world. Maddeningly methodical and impossible to control, he has come back to America to take care of business matters while visiting family members and old friends he has not seen in years. Believing "there is no past and no future" because "everything exists only in present time," it never occurs to him to drive five minutes out of his way to the Monterey Fairgrounds where, forty years ago, his high-powered rocket fuel helped launch the Summer of Love. For him, this is just another day on the road.

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