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Remembering Owsley "Bear" Stanley (1935-2011) [Audio]

March 15, 2011 |  9:48 am

956070267Owsley_and_Jerry The obituary for Owsley "Bear" Stanley ran in the news pages of the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday, but it spiritually inhabits the music section. Though he never received the cult of his contemporary, Timothy Leary, the eccentric Stanley did his part to incite the '60s.

He may have lacked a pithy mantra like "turn on, tune in, drop out," but Stanley knew how to produce results in the lab, alchemizing myriad trips of LSD after matriculating at UC Berkeley in 1963.

They don't write résumés like Stanley's anymore. He had a weird and wild career arc matched only by those of Gore Vidal and Aaron Burr. The scion of a prominent Kentucky family, Stanley racked up stints in the U.S. Air Force and the professional ballet, as well as Berkeley. But the academic world rarely holds rewards for those with such occult sensibilities, so Stanley started cooking.

Soon linking up with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, Bear became the go-to guy for the acid tests, ultimately receiving an indelible portrayal in Tom Wolfe's portrait of the scene, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," and a sterling reputation for the "Owsley Acid" flooding the West Coast. But his most memorable contribution was to the music world, as sound engineer/guru for the Grateful Dead.  He became their chief sound engineer and pioneered the practice of taping their shows -- thus, preserving practically the entirety of their catalogue for posterity. He also persuaded the band to adopt his all-meat diet for a brief time.

Describing their first meeting with Stanley in his autobiography, "Searching for the Sound," Phil Lesh wrote that Stanley had "applied his formidable will and intelligence to science, engineering, and dance."

During his first experience with acid, he had found his calling: to be the Johnny Appleseed of LSD. ... Owsley had just begun his brief career as the King of Acid, but his product was already considered the gold standard."

He first showed up on our screens pushing a chair around the floor, in love with the screeching sound of plastic on linoleum, reminding me how I had once felt that the sound of an unlubricated truck transmission was singing to me. ...He [saw] his whole life as a tape loop. 'Where the splice is, that's birth and death.' ...

Bear wanted to develop a sound system for us commensurate with the vision ... of music and dancing as an ecstatic release and a sacred rite. His ideal was music sound undistorted by the artifacts present in the sound-reproduction system -- the entire signal path from pickup through preamp through power amp to speaker. Only the vibrating string and the vibrating air had purity.

Before a 1967 bust, Stanley taped seminal performances by other Bay Area acts, including Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & the Holding Company and Santana. Following a two-year stint in prison on a drug conviction, he continued to work as a sound engineer for the Dead.

Living out the final years of his life in the Australian bush, he spent much of his time sculpting and creating wearable art. If you've ever streamed one of the Dead's thousands of shows on Archive.org, you have Stanley to thank. The world has lost another one who was too weird to live and too rare to die. Rest in psychedelia.

-- Jeff Weiss

Photo: Owsley Stanley and Jerry Garcia; Credit: No Depression


"He Was a Friend of Mine (Just a Hand to Hold)" by Grateful Dead "Scarlet Begonias" > "Fire on the Mountain" by Grateful Dead