The Dead Recall the Colorful Life of LSD Pioneer Owsley Stanley

'He’s responsible in great part for the Grateful Dead,' says Mickey Hart. 'We'd be quite a different band without him'

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On March 12, the extended Grateful Dead family lost one of its most crucial allies and collaborators when Owsley Stanley — the band’s one-time soundman, in-house chemist, intellectual stimulus, and sometime artist – died at age 76. Driving home from the Sydney, Australia, airport to his home near Cairns in Queensland (where he had lived since 1982), Stanley’s truck hit a patch of deep mud and water and flipped over, killing him instantly.

Even in the iconoclastic world of the Dead, Stanley — or "The Bear," as he was known, thanks to his hairy chest — was an enigmatic figure, known for vast intelligence, all-meat diet and aversion to being photographed. His life prior to meeting the Dead included a stint in the Air Force and with the Marin Ballet Company (he was a ballet dancer) and working in a jet lab and at a radio station. After a pivotal acid trip in 1964, Stanley began making his own LSD and met the Dead at one of Ken Kesey’s acid tests the following year. From that point on, Stanley’s influence on the band was profound: He funded their first sound system, conceived the idea for the band’s iconic lightning-bolt-and-skull logo, recorded many of their early shows and designed their short-lived Wall of Sound PA system in 1974.

Owsley Stanley: The King of LSD

Stanley’s best-known contribution to the Dead was what Phil Lesh calls his "product," but Lesh maintains Stanley’s influence was more than merely the reported millions of LSD pills he manufactured: "Without Bear, it wasn’t just about getting high. It was about learning that the world is so much more than what we can see and touch. After we had contact with Bear, it was more of a spiritual quest. I loved him as dearly as I’ve loved anyone in my life."

Below, Lesh, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and former Dead cohorts Sam Cutler and Steve Parish recall Stanley’s multi-hued life and times.

PHIL LESH: I fell in love with the guy the minute I met him. It was the Fillmore acid test in 1965. In sweeps Owsley; I think he was wearing a cape and leather hat. He exuded righteous knowledge. He just looked like a man who knew something I wanted to know. 

BOB WEIR: My first recollection is that he showed up there and smelled like patchouli. I didn’t know who he was or what he was about, but he was bright and engaging. We were both cranked up on LSD. 

LESH: Bear rarely boasted idly. If he was bragging about something, you could be sure it was as good as he said it was. His product was a good example. 

STEVE PARISH [former Dead roadie]: Bear was a chemist who made it pure. Everything else back then was dangerous to take. It was either bad trips or too strong or full of impurities. His, we could rely on. He was our guy. 

MICKEY HART: Think of the people who were influenced by his brew. They never played the same again. Us, Hendrix, the Airplane, just about everybody — music in general was never the same.

ROCK SCULLY [former Dead manager]: He became a member of the band by his will to make the sound right. He told the band he was willing to be their sponsor and they said, "Okay!" He just talked everybody into it by the force of his will. It wasn’t hard to do – he had the money and he wanted to buy them equipment.

LESH: I started talking to Bear about our sound problems. There was no technology for electric instruments. We started talking about how to get around distortion and get a pure musical tone. He did some research and said, "Let’s use Altec speakers and hi-fi amps and four-tube amps, one for each instrument, and put them on a piece of wood." Three months later we were playing through Bear’s sound system.

WEIR: After that, we went to L.A. with the acid test and Owsley rented a house down in Watts and we all moved in and he festooned that place with studio-quality stuff, like speakers that were the standard for movie theaters. One day he announced, "Well, we’re surely doing the Devil’s work here!" He was kind of right about that — the music, the chemical involvement, the social involvement. You have to have a pretty accepting view of things to not get upset by that. 

HART: He kept us going when we couldn’t find work. He’s responsible in great part for the Grateful Dead. We’d be a quite different band without him. When you ingest psychoactive chemicals and play as a group and go to places that aren’t accessible in a normal waking state, that’s a place musicians dream of and sometimes can’t find. He released that kind of energy in the music. 

PARISH: He set the pace for dressing. He would wear Afghan vests, fur on the inside and beautiful gold embroidery on the outside. He had us all wearing boots and boot-cut jeans. He said it gave us better lines. It all had to do with his ballet career. He was conscious of how people moved and walked.

LESH: He convinced us we should record every show. At first it was simply to listen back to each one and figure out how to change an arrangement. We never played the same show twice. Bear made sure that we understood how listening to those tapes was necessary. 

WEIR: He taught me to question everything.  We used to listen to his tapes and say, "That didn’t work," or "You hear that accident in there? Let’s make something from that." We questioned everything we did.

HART: He cared so much about sound. One night we were at Winterland and Bear was mixing. Everyone had left except me and Bill Graham. We heard somebody sobbing and we went over to the side of the stage and Bear was talking to the amplifiers: "I love you and you love me—how could you fail me?" He was addressing these electronics as if they were a person. At first Bill and I were laughing, but then we said, "Wow, he’s really serious."

WEIR: His powers of concentration were pretty high. One time in Atlanta, Bear had met a girl at the show and brought her back to the hotel. She might have been underage. Now, Bear was not the quietest guy on earth in bed. I was walking the halls and went past his room and it was pretty noisy in there. The elevator door opens up and here come the police. They hear these unearthly sounds from inside the room and figure there’s some kind of Satanic ritual going on. They pound on the door. Nothing happens. They pound again and say, "We’re coming in." They broke the door down, but this didn’t faze Owsley one bit. He’s banging away and making his flying-saucer noises, and one of the cops shouts, "What are you doing to that girl?" And he just looks at him briefly and says, "I’m fucking her," and goes back to his business. They let him finish, but needless to say they all went to jail. 

HART: When we played Playboy After Dark [Hugh Hefner’s variety show, in 1969], the technicians were drinking coffee and Bear put acid in all the coffee urns. After a while the Bunnies’ mascara was all running and they were starting to take off their clothes and the technicians weren’t operating at full capacity. The Bear was after Hefner, but he didn’t drink the coffee.

SAM CUTLER [former Dead tour manager and friend]: Things changed in rock & roll [in the Seventies] and he decided to leave America and come to Australia. He had very specific ideas about nuclear winds and all kinds of apocalyptic visions about what might happen. It’s ironic what’s going on in Japan is happening so closely to his passing. That’s the kind of thing he warned everyone about. He was absolutely convinced that nuclear disaster and earthquakes were going to happen sooner or later. 

LESH: He kept his enthusiasm for sound design all the way through. Just two weeks ago we were discussing a sound system for a venue I’m going to open in Marin County, Terrapin Landing. Hopefully we’ll be using monitors with Bear’s design. 

HART: I never thought the Bear would die. He was too tough and ornery. But his neck was almost bone because of the chemo [from throat cancer diagnosed in 2004]. The last time I saw him, he was pureeing meat in a veggie mixer so he could drink it through a straw. At least now Jerry and Pigpen have someone to talk to. They’re yucking it up together, wherever "there" is.

WEIR: Bear was way, way more than the acid guy. He instilled in us quality consciousness: If you’re going to do something, you have to absolutely achieve excellence, because nothing else matters. 

HART: He left an ample legacy [smiles]. LSD is very delicate. It doesn’t like heat or light. It has to be well kept. It’s all how it’s stored. But I can’t tell you where it is. I’d have to kill you.

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