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I think the people down the hall know who you are

April 20, 2011

While researching yesterday’s post about Bicycle Day, I found out that one of the

most enigmatic characters of the 60’s, Owsley, died last month in a car wreck.  He

was, in a way, the polar opposite of Timothy Leary, psychedelia’s senior statesman.

While Leary sought out the spotlight to trumpet the virtues of LSD, Owsley was in

the shadows manufacturing the stuff.  Lots of it.  LOTS of it.

Augustus Owsley Stanley III was born in 1935 into a Kentucky family that had al-

ready produced two governors for the state.  Whatever ambitions his parents had

for him were likely dashed early on.  Owsley had been expelled from a military

academy and had admitted himself to a psychiatric hospital well before he made

it out to California.

After one semester at Berkeley, he was producing LSD near campus.  In 1965, when

the police confiscated what they thought was a meth lab,  Owsley (better known as

“Bear”) beat the charge and got his equipment back because acid was still legal then.

Bear developed very pure acid that replaced the dwindling supply of Sandoz LSD. 

He started supplying it to such luminaries as Ken Kesey and the Beatles.  He made

special batches for events like the Monterey Pop Festival.  Between ’65 and ’67 he

manufactured 1.25 million hits.

During that span Bear met the house band for Kesey’s Acid Tests, a new group name

of the Grateful Dead.  He financed them and became their first sound man.  It was

Bear who developed the Dead’s lightning bolt skull logo so he could easily spot their

equipment boxes at festivals.  He also built much of the band’s electronic systems,

and started the practice of recording the Dead when they rehearsed and performed.

In late ’67, Bear was busted with 350,000 hits of acid in his possession.  The police,

for some reason, did not accept his explanation that it was for his personal use.  He

was sentenced to 3 years in prison.  When he got out he did more sound work with

the Dead, devising the band’s Wall of Sound.  This was a system so big that the group

needed 2 of them. One would be with them for their performance, the second would

be at their next venue being set up.

This will hopefully not  be confused with Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, which was

only used for studio productions.

Eventually Bear ended up in Australia, where he was naturalized in ’96.  Until his

death, he and his wife Sheila lived off the grid in remote Queensland.

He remained a maverick to his dying day.  He thought all vegetables were toxic and

ate a low-carb diet of meat, eggs, butter and cheese.  When he was treated for throat

cancer, he credited his regimen for starving the tumor of glucose and making it

treatable even though it was advanced when first diagnosed.

Some of Bear’s adventures have been chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s  The Electric Kool-

Aid Acid Test.  Frank Zappa and the Mothers mention him in “Who Needs the Peace

Corps?”  The L.A. Times ran the headline “LSD Millionaire” referring to him the day

before acid was made illegal in California.  The Dead turned it into the song “Alice D.


This is my favorite tribute to Bear.

  1. Chris permalink
    April 20, 2011 11:33 am

    Ah, the good ol’ days! I read The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, when it hit the book stores and the apartment I shared with my brother and a friend was resplendent with black lights, strobes and lots of fluorescent paint. I actually remember some of it!

    • April 20, 2011 9:51 pm

      This confirms my worst fears about you, Chris.

  2. Joe permalink
    April 20, 2011 11:18 pm

    That was great… I like the suggested reading at the end.

    • April 21, 2011 9:55 am

      Thank you, sir. I think you’ll like the follow-up post as well.

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