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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'

March 30, 2011 9:55 AM ET
The Dead Recall the Colorful Life of LSD Pioneer Owsley Stanley
Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty

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. 

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