No one did more to alter the consciousness of the generation that came of age in the 1960s than Augustus Owsley Stanley (who passed away March 13, 2011). Long before the Summer of Love drew thousands of hippies to Haight-Ashbury, Owsley was already an authentic underground folk hero, revered throughout the counterculture for making the purest form of LSD ever to hit the street. Yet today, at seventy-two, he is all but forgotten.
Almost forty years to the day after he blew minds at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967, with a brand-new batch of “Monterey Purple,” Owsley is checking out of a motel in nearby Carmel. Three years ago, he underwent extensive radiation for throat cancer, losing thirty pounds in the process. He is moving so slowly that someone from the front desk comes to the room to ask if he ever intends to leave. Ignoring the inquiry, Owsley roots through his bags for a large state-of-the-art conical burr grinder and a white funnel-shaped device to heat water so he can make coffee from beans he grew and roasted at home in Australia. As the water boils, he packs up a Braun food mixer and the vast array of other gadgets he carries with him.
He puts on a pair of old bluejeans that are now several sizes too big and places a brown Thinsulate stocking cap on his head. With his dark-brown goatee and a gold hoop dangling from his left ear, he looks like an older, careworn version of the Edge from U2. Unable to swallow solid food since the cancer treatments, he laments that he can no longer enjoy dining out with friends. Suddenly, his eyes redden and he is nearly reduced to tears. Quickly regaining control, he says, “But, hey, I’m alive, right?” Without waiting for an answer, he stalks out the motel-room door.
In the Oxford English dictionary, the word “Owsley” is listed as a noun describing a particularly pure form of LSD. But manufacturing acid is not the only accomplishment on Owsley’s résumé. He was the Grateful Dead’s original sound man and their initial financial benefactor. Without his technical innovations — he was one of the first people to mix concerts live and in stereo — the band might never have emerged from the San Francisco scene. And because he had the foresight to plug a tape recorder directly into the sound board during Dead shows, the music the band made at the peak of its power has been gloriously preserved in recordings still being issued in the series titled Dick’s Picks, for which Owsley continues to receive royalties.
While doing two years in federal prison in the early Seventies for manufacturing acid, Owsley taught himself how to make jewelry. He has parlayed this talent into a career, crafting belt buckles and pendants for everyone from KeithRichards to Jackson Browne that sell for as much as $20,000.
For the past twenty years, Owsley has lived off the grid in a remote section of Australian rain forest. Until now, he has never been willing to speak extensively about his life. (He has also never willingly allowed his photograph to be taken.) “I’m not really interested in talking about myself,” he says. “I don’t want my life exposed publicly. I’m interested in the work I’ve done and the things I’ve discovered and in some of my philosophical stuff, because I think it’s of value, but I’m not into being a celebrity, because I think celebrityhood has no value to anyone, least of all to the celebrity. I’ve watched wonderful people get destroyed by it.”
From the time he was a child, what made Owsley unique was his extraordinary family background and the power of his mind. His grandfather, also named Augustus Owsley Stanley, was a trust-busting Democratic congressman from Kentucky who spent twelve years in the House of Representatives. Elected governor in 1915, he became a United States senator and served on the commission that oversaw construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Owsley adored his grandfather, but his relationship with his parents was difficult. “Neither one of them really wanted to be parents,” he says. “They had no skills at it. If you feel you can’t love someone and you are universally told that you must love, you become very guilty.”
After the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lexington was blown out from under Owsley’s father during the Battle of the Coral Sea in World War II, he began drinking heavily and became a lifelong alcoholic. When Owsley was eight, his parents separated and his mother took him to Los Angeles. Three years later, she sent him back to Virginia to live with his father. Owsley says that psychological problems made him “unmanageable in the public-school system,” so his father enrolled him in Charlotte Hall, a military prep school in Maryland. The headmaster later told High Times magazine that he remembered Owsley as “almost like a brainchild, a wunderkinder, tremendously interested in science.” Even then, Owsley was possessed by what he calls “this rogue, get-high nature of mine” and was expelled in ninth grade for smuggling alcohol into school during homecoming weekend, getting virtually every student on campus “blasted out of their minds.”
When he was fifteen, Owsley spent fifteen months as a voluntary patient in St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., where the poet Ezra Pound was also confined. “I was just a neurotic kid,” he says. “My mother died a few months into the experience, but it was there I sorted out my guilt problems about not being able to love my parents, and I came out of it pretty clear.” After leaving the public high school, where his physics teacher gave him a D for pointing out that she had contradicted the textbook, he attended the University of Virginia for a year. “I never took notes when I was in college,” he says. “During the first week of the course, I’d buy my textbooks and read them all through. Then I’d sell them all back to the bookstore at full price as if I’d changed classes, because I never needed to look at them again.”
Over the course of the next fourteen years, Owsley — known to his friends as “Bear” because of his prematurely hairy chest as a teenager — enlisted in the Air Force, became a ham- radio operator, obtained a first-class radiotelephone operator’s license, worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and served as a summer-relief broadcast engineer at TV and radio stations in Los Angeles. He married and divorced twice, fathered two children and got himself arrested on a variety of charges. He also studied ballet, Russian and French.
In 1963, Owsley moved to Berkeley so he could take classes at the university, where the student protest movement was growing. A year later, Mario Savio made his historic Free Speech Movement address from atop a police car to student protesters gathered outside Sproul Hall. In Berkeley, as well as across the bay in Palo Alto, young people seeking a new way to live had begun using LSD to break down conventional social barriers. Until then, the drug had been available in America only to those conducting serious medical research. In 1959, the poet Allen Ginsberg took LSD for the first time, at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto. A year later, the novelist Ken Kesey was given acid at the Veterans Hospital in Menlo Park as part of a federally funded program in which volunteers were paid twenty dollars a session to ingest hallucinogens. Taking acid soon became the watermark. Until you had tripped, you were not part of the new culture. But before Owsley came along, no one could be sure that what they were taking was really even LSD.
In Berkeley, Owsley began smoking pot and selling “Heavenly Blue” morning-glory seeds (250 for a dollar), which served to get people “not high but weird” when taken in great quantity. In April 1964, Owsley took LSD. “I remember the first time I took acid and walked outside,” he says, “and the cars were kissing the parking meters.” During the same week, he also heard the Beatles for the first time. “It was amazing,” he told Jerry Garcia biographer Blair Jackson. “It all seemed to fit together. We had Meet the Beatles! within a few days of it coming out. One of my friends who was a folkie brought it in and said, ‘Man, you gotta listen to this!’ And I was off and running. I loved it.”
Later that year, a friend gave Owsley 400 micrograms of pure LSD manufactured by Sandoz Laboratories in Switzerland, where Dr. Albert Hofmann had first synthesized the drug in 1938. At the time, Owsley was living with a Berkeley undergraduate chemistry major named Melissa Cargill. They decided to try to make acid that was “at least as good or better than any pharmaceutical firm.” It took Owsley just three weeks in the UC Berkeley library to learn everything he needed to know about the process.
Around this time Owsley also began studying The Kybalion, a book of purported ancient wisdom that elucidates the seven basic principles of alchemy, which he describes as “mental transformation,” explaining, ”It was never about transforming substances. Those were all allegories. The lead and the gold is the lead of the primitive nature into the gold of the enlightened man. Alchemy didn’t talk about lead into gold until it had to deal with the church in the early Middle Ages.”
For Owsley, The Kybalion “was perfect because it put into total context all the things I had experienced on acid. The universe is a creation entirely within a being that is outside time and space, and dreaming what we are. Everything is connected, because it’s all being created by this one consciousness. And we are tiny reflections of the mind that is creating the universe. That’s what alchemy says.”
To generate enough cash to purchase the raw materials to make LSD, Owsley and Cargill began making and selling methedrine in a makeshift bathroom lab in Berkeley. On February 21st, 1965, police raided the house and confiscated various chemicals, including a substance they wrongfully identified as speed. Owsley hired the vice mayor of Berkeley as his attorney, who “forced them in court to furnish us with a sample, which we submitted to an independent laboratory that proved them wrong, leading to the dismissal of all charges.”
After obtaining a court order that made the police return his lab equipment, Owsley and Cargill split for Los Angeles. Because the materials needed to synthesize LSD were still only available to serious researchers, he formed the Bear Research Group and paid $4,000 every three or four weeks to the Cyclo Chemical Corporation for bottles of lysergic monohydrate, the basis for LSD.
From the start, Owsley felt that his state of mind while he was making acid would affect the nature of the product. “It’s something that goes from being absolutely inert to so powerful that twenty-five micrograms will cause a change in your consciousness,” he says. “You’re concentrating a lot of mental energy on one package. And if you believe, as I did, that the universe is a creation in the mind of a being that is creating time and space, then everything is mental. So when you had something that affects the minds of thousands and thousands of people in the palm of your hand, how could you not believe that your state of mind mattered?”
By May 1965, he was back in the Bay Area with 3,600 capsules of extraordinarily pure LSD, dubbed “Owsley” by a pot-dealing folk guitarist friend. “I never set out to ‘turn on the world,’ as has been claimed by many,” Owsley says. “And I certainly never made $1 million from drugs. I just wanted to know the dose and purity of what I took into my own body. Almost before I realized what was happening, the whole affair had gotten completely out of hand. I was riding a magic stallion. A Pegasus. I was not responsible for his wings, but they did carry me to all kinds of places.”
Throughout the summer of 1965, in a big house down in La Honda, about forty miles south of San Francisco, Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters hosted wild parties with guests that included Hunter S. Thompson, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and various Hell’s Angels. When Owsley showed up one day during the fall, he walked over to Kesey and handed him a couple of hits of acid. Because Kesey had his own source (a Prankster known as “John the Chemist”) and was suspicious of newcomers, he did not seem all that interested in the gift. After sampling it, he changed his mind.
“For most people,” Owsley says, “the proper dose is about 150 to 200 micrograms. When you get to 400, you just totally lose it. I don’t care who you are. Kesey liked 400. He wanted to lose it.” Thanks to Owsley, the Pranksters now had enough LSD on hand to begin throwing parties at which everyone could get a dose. Kesey and the Pranksters called these gatherings the Acid Tests, a series of mind-blowing events at which people tripping on LSD were exposed to flashing strobe lights, tape loops and sometimes — if the band was not too stoned — even a set by the Grateful Dead.
On December 11th, 1965, the Dead played at the Muir Beach Acid Test in a lodge by the sea in Marin County. The sound of Jerry Garcia’s guitar grabbed hold of Owsley, and he freaked out on acid for the first time. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe described how Owsley completely lost control of himself, dissolving into “gaseous nothingness” until he became nothing more than a single cell. “If he lost control of that one cell, there would be nothing left,” Wolfe wrote. “The world would be, like, over.” “I lost control of that cell as well,” Owsley says. “They were all gone. That was the initiation. The price I had to pay to get through the gate. Ego death. I thought I was going to die, and I said, ‘Fuck it.’ And that was good.”
Running out a side door during his freakout, Owsley leaped into his car, gunned the engine and promptly ran into a ditch. When he finally returned to his physical body and found it mostly intact, Owsley was horrified by the way Kesey and the Pranksters were messing with people’s minds. “Kesey was playing with something he did not understand,” Owsley says. “I said to him, ‘You guys are fucking around with something that people have known about forever. It’s sometimes called witchcraft, and it’s extremely dangerous. You’re dealing with part of the unconscious mind that they used to define as angels and devils. You have to be very careful, because there are all these warnings. All the occult literature about ceremonial magic warns about being very careful when you start exploring these areas in the mind.’ And they laughed at me.”
Even as he was freaking out that night, Owsley experienced the single insight that would shape his life for years to come. The Grateful Dead were not just good — they were “magic personified.” Then and there, he decided to “work for the most amazing group ever, have a fabulous time of it and try to make a positive contribution.” Though Grateful Dead bass player Phil Lesh was the band member with whom Owsley would forge the closest ties, he saw Jerry Garcia as “the sun in the center of the solar system. Take out the sun, and the planets all go their own way. Garcia was the center. Once he stopped exploring, the whole scene stopped exploring.”
Three weeks later, on January 8th, 1966, Owsley sashayed into the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco for another Acid Test. Barely recognizing him as the freaked-out dude from Muir Beach, Lesh would later write that Owsley looked like “some Robin Hood figure out of swashbuckling antiquity.” By then, Lesh, like so many others in the burgeoning Bay Area scene, had been tripping on Owsley’s product for more than a year.
“So you’re Owsley,” Lesh said. “I feel as if I’ve known you through many lifetimes.”
“You have,” Owsley replied, “and you will through many more to come.”
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.
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.”
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.