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Owsley Stanley: The King of LSD

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When Owsley asked Lesh what he could do for the band, the bass player said they had no manager and offered him the job. Owsley declined. When Lesh said they also had no sound man, Owsley figured that, based on his audio-engineering experience in radio and television, this was something he could handle.

At the time, live sound at rock concerts was extremely primitive. Musicians plugged their instruments into amplifiers connected to single-channel speakers. There were no onstage monitors, so musicians couldn't hear one another. Owsley wanted the Dead not only to be clearly heard but also in stereo, a concept so far ahead of its time that it would be ten years before such systems were installed in movie theaters. Thanks to Owsley, the Dead were soon playing through four immense Altec Voice of the Theatre A7 speakers powered by four McIntosh 240 stereo tube amplifiers as delicate as they were huge.

In February 1966, Owsley and the Dead moved to Los Angeles for another series of Acid Tests. Owsley rented a pink stucco house in Watts, next door to a brothel, where they all lived together. For the Dead, the good news was that they now had nothing to do all day but jam. The bad news was that since Owsley was paying the rent, he expected them to adhere to his unconventional ideas and beliefs. He was convinced that human beings were natural carnivores, not meant to eat vegetables or fiber. "Roughage is the worst thing you can put through your body," he says. "Letting vegetable matter go through a carnivorous intestine scratches it up and scars it and causes mucus that interferes with nutrition."

For the next six weeks, the Grateful Dead and their girlfriends ate meat and milk for breakfast, lunch and dinner. "I'll never forget that when you'd open the refrigerator, there were big slabs of beef in there," Rosie McGee, Phil Lesh's girlfriend at the time, later told Garcia biographer Jackson. "The shelves weren't even in there — just these big hunks of meat. So of course behind his back, people were sneaking candy bars in. There were no greens or anything — he called it 'rabbit food.' "

Nor was there any point in trying to argue with Owsley about it. As Dead rhythm guitarist Bob Weir says, "Back then, if you got involved in a discussion with him, you kind of had to pack a lunch." Years later, Jerry Garcia would recall, "We'd met Owsley at the Acid Test and he got fixated on us. 'With this rock band, I can rule the world!' So we ended up living with Owsley while he was tabbing up the acid in the place we lived. We had enough acid to blow the world apart. And we were just musicians in this house, and we were guinea-pigging more or less continually. Tripping frequently if not constantly. That got good and weird."

By the time the Dead returned to San Francisco in April, Owsley had already made it plain to the band that as far as he was concerned, there was only one way to do everything: his way. "He was magnanimous about it," remembers former Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. "If you wanted to be an idiot and do something any way but his, that was your decision. And he was not surprised you would choose to be an idiot. Because you were. And he was probably right." Years later, Lesh would write that Garcia once told him, "There's nothing wrong with Bear that a few billion less brain cells wouldn't cure."

The band's impatience with how long it took Owsley to set up its equipment and then take it back down again soon led to a parting of the ways. Even though Owsley had already put about $50,000 into the band and would no longer be working for them, he told the Dead to pick out new equipment and send him the bill. After selling his Voice of the Theatre speakers and McIntosh amps to Bill Graham, who installed them in the Fillmore, Owsley donated most of the band's other gear to the Straight Theater, a hippie venue on Haight Street. Concerning Owsley's legacy to the Dead from this period, Dennis McNally, the band's biographer, says, "Bear gave them a vision of quality that quite frankly influenced them for the next thirty years. And that alone gives him credibility for that scene."

By the time lsd became illegal in California on October 6th, 1966, Owsley had become a mythic figure. He lived in a picturesque Berkeley cottage filled with high-end stereo equipment where he kept an owl to which he fed live mice. An article in The Los Angeles Times described him rolling up to a Sunset Strip bank on a red motorcycle with crumpled bills stashed in his helmet, pockets and boots. "The money flow was very embarrassing," he recalls. "I did not feel it was mine, since what I was doing was in my mind a service to my community. I did not buy expensive things. I generally was not much of a consumer."

Concerning much of what has been attributed to him during this period, Owsley says, "The only thing I haven't been associated with is walking on the moon, for Christ's sake." Owsley did not parachute in to the Human Be-In in January 1967, as was widely reported, but he did provide 300,000 hits of acid called "White Lightning" for the event. Five months later at Monterey Pop, Owsley passed out his "Monterey Purple" backstage to Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend and the Stones' Brian Jones, not to mention much of the festival's staff and crew. Owsley also sent a photographer back to England with a telephoto lens packed with tabs of purple acid on the condition that he share them with the Beatles. "The thing about Owsley," Townshend said, "is that when he gave you something, he would take it too. Just to show you. He must have had the most extraordinary liver."

During this period, the Dead wrote "Alice D. Millionaire," a play on words from a headline about Owsley in The San Francisco Chronicle that read, "LSD Millionaire Arrested." In concert, the band regularly dedicated "The Other One" to him from the stage. At the end of Hendrix's live version of the Beatles' "Day Tripper," recorded at the BBC studios in 1967, he can be heard calling out, "Oh, Owsley, can you hear me now?" In 1976, Steely Dan burnished Owsley's myth by recording "Kid Charlemagne": "While the music played/You worked by candlelight/ Those San Francisco nights/You were the best in town. . . ."

Though Owsley seemed to be living the life of a counterculture superstar, Cargill remembers their time together back then as not so much an adventure as "constantly looking over your shoulder." The feeling was more than just paranoia. A year earlier in Los Angeles, narcotics agents had begun picking through their garbage. Owsley, who would only ever deal with one person at a time to distribute his product, had already gone through three or four intermediaries, dropping them as soon as he felt they were getting hot.

Although people speculated for years about how Owsley managed to conceal his stash, no one ever figured it out. He says his method was simple. He kept the LSD in an inexpensive footlocker that traveled constantly on Greyhound buses between Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco. "I could leave it for up to thirty days in the bus station and I would go to it wherever it was, take out whatever I needed, take it back in, and send it to myself in the next city. It was always in a safe place, and nobody had a clue, because I never told anyone I did that."

Despite his precautions, thirteen agents broke into a house in the East Bay that Owsley had rented for the express purpose of making tabs. On December 20th, 1967, the agents seized nearly 100 grams of crystalline LSD as well as a quantity of STP, a very powerful long-acting hallucinogen that caused many bad trips in the Haight. Owsley had gotten the recipe for STP from a former Dow chemist named Alexander Shulgin (who would later reintroduce Ecstasy to the rave generation). "He had this stuff, and we thought it might be good," Owsley says. "It turned out that it wasn't."

The senior arresting officer, aware of Owsley's status, noted that the bust would probably cause "panic in the streets" because "to a lot of hippies, their idol has fallen." He added that Owsley was "actually a psychedelic missionary" who "gives the impression that he feels the average person can never actually know himself without turning on with LSD."

As Owsley's case dragged through the courts for the next two years, he stopped making acid and worked as the sound man at the Carousel Ballroom for three months before it was bought by Bill Graham and renamed the Fillmore West. In July 1968, Owsley rejoined the Dead. By then, the band was being managed by Lenny Hart, the father of drummer Mickey Hart and a minister who believed God had called upon him to save the Dead from their never-ending financial woes. Lenny Hart and Owsley, who had "never trusted preachers anyway," got on like oil and water. In his classic account of the Grateful Dead on the road in May 1969, Michael Lydon noted the ongoing tension between Hart and Owsley by writing that they were "like two selves of the Dead at war, with the Dead themselves sitting as judges. . . . The Bear, says Jerry [Garcia], is 'Satan in our midst,' friend, chemist, psychedelic legend, and electronic genius; not a leader, but a moon with a gravitational pull. He is a prince of inefficiency, the essence at its most perverse of what the Dead refuse to give up."

Because he wanted to keep a "sonic journal" of his work, Owsley began plugging a suitcase-size Ampex 602 tape recorder into the sound board each night as the Dead played in 1966. By doing so, he compiled a historic collection of live performances. He also came up with the concept for what eventually became the band's logo. Because the Dead then began playing "a lot of festival-style shows where the equipment would all wind up at the back of the stage in a muddle," Owsley says, he decided to mark their gear so the roadies could easily locate it.

While driving to work one day in his MG, Owsley saw an orange and blue logo with a white bar across it on a building. He thought it would look cool if the logo was red and blue with a white lightning bolt through it, so he had someone spray-paint a basic version of it on the Dead's equipment. He then talked to his friend Bob Thomas about putting the lightning bolt through the words "Grateful Dead" in lettering, which from a distance would look like a skull. Together, they devised the "Steal Your Face" logo (a.k.a. "the stealie"). Thomas, who died in 1993, sold it to the band as a letterhead for $250, meaning that neither he nor Owsley ever saw a dime from all those Deadhead stickers on the rear bumpers of Volkswagen buses.

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