For many of us who came of age during the decade loosely known as “the sixties,” the name Augustus Owsley Stanley, AKA Owsley or Bear, remains iconic and recognizable. He is best known as the maker of some of the best LSD ever manufactured; “Owsley” branded acid could convince psychedelic adventurers that the tab on their tongues would be safe to take and would produce a good trip. And of course his role as the LSD source for the very famous “acid tests” run by writer Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters was well known to most hippies and fellow travelers “back in the day.”
But few then knew much else about this mythic character. Owsley, who was the scion of an iconic southern political family, known to his friends and admirers as Bear, was an individualist in an era of individualism, a deeply anti-authoritarian truth seeker, who lived his life accordingly during a time when it was all too easy to simply proclaim oneself “against the man,” but then do very little concretely to make things different. Owsley was himself a different sort of individual, his thoroughly unique mind and personality opened doors for others and changed the world in meaningful ways for thousands of people.
Owsley seems to have been everywhere and done every thing that mattered during one of the most creative and recognized periods of modern history. He was a self taught sound engineer and chemist, and later in his life a practical climate scientist and accomplished craftsperson. He was brilliant and iconoclastic, difficult and sometimes paranoid (taking lots of acid does change one’s brain chemistry).
Early on, Owsley recognized that the Grateful Dead, then just among the many early Bay Area hippie groups, was an historic band, and being in the right place at the right time, he provided the money they needed to hone their sound, and ultimately become one of the greatest bands of all time. As their founding sound engineer and musical adviser, he recorded almost all of the Dead’s greatest live performances (which have been released over the years to great acclaim), and designed the massive sound system that was known as the Dead’s signature Wall of Sound. Owsley even designed the band’s now ubiquitous logo after he realized the need to identify their equipment when the group played at live venues with other bands.
Being the central popularizer of LSD and creator of the Grateful Dead’s sound system might be sufficient accomplishments for most people, but there is much more to tell about Owsley’s life than this. Owsley’s complete life story is here brilliantly and lovingly chronicled by Robert Greenfield, himself a well traveled and accomplished veteran of sixties pop culture. This is a fine biography, compelling and sympathetic, and whether you were “there” then or not, it is well worth reading about this fascinating and perceptive individual. When I read the book, I found myself wishing that Bear was still alive and still around to tell tales and open minds. We’ll just have to make do with this story of his life and times. It’s almost enough.
Robert Greenfield is the former Associate Editor of the London bureau of Rolling Stone magazine. He is the author of several classic rock books, among them S.T.P.: A Journey Through America with the Rolling Stones, as well as the definitive biographies of Timothy Leary and Ahmet Ertegun. With Bill Graham, he is the co-author of Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out, which won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award. He has also written novels and short fiction. His novel Temple, won the National Jewish Book Award and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His book, Timothy Leary: A Biography, which he spent ten years researching and writing, is a major work of cultural history, as is another fine book, A Day In The Life: One Family, The Beautiful People, and the End of the Sixties. Greenfield lives in California.
It was a great pleasure for me to talk with him about Bear, this book, and the period that so much influenced who we are today.
Interestingly, even though Bear was killed in a car accident in 2011, his website is still up and running, and is interesting to visit.
Memoirs are most often stories of self discovery. To work for readers, they have to engage us indirectly – we have to buy into the narrator’s central problem the story will show us being solved. Marc Nieson’s memoir is about a period in his life when he was confused about love and self-identity. He left his home and long term lover in New York City to attend the famed Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, and ended up living in a former one room schoolhouse on 500 acres of beautiful Iowa landscape.
Escaping the travails of modern life, and living in the woods, the comparisons to Walden cannot help being made. City-bred Nieson learns how to observe the natural world, and in so doing, learns how to understand himself at the same time. Nieson keeps us involved throughout his narrative, and we come to the end of the story fully engaged in his personal adventure.
The book is structured like a schoolbook, each chapter being named after a school subject (i.e. Geography, History, Social Studies, What I Did On My Summer Vacation), which gives the book a certain charm, and while it’s a conceit, this organization helps keep the narrative moving forward. It’s a fully transformational story, even if you have never experienced the woods or the Iowa landscape.
As Nieson writes: “Here on a quiet Iowa hillside, I was hoping … to both learn and unlearn who I was. To try living not only alone and apart, but a more consciously observed life — both inside and out.” I think he achieved what he was hoping to do in Iowa.
“Those of us who have lived in old one-room schoolhouses understand the solitude, solace, and proximity to nature that they provide. During his year living in Union #9, Marc Nieson embraced these opportunities for inner growth. His new memoir—a must read—traces the story of his journey of discovery along the trail through the woods surrounding his house and along the path of human relationships. Read Schoolhouse, and you will open the door to the mind of an engaging voice, a probing, reflective writer who delights the reader with his lyrical prose on every page.”
—Mary Swander, author, Out of this World: A Woman’s Life Among the Amish
Marc Nieson has degrees from both the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and NYU Film School. His background includes children’s theatre, cattle chores, and a season with a one-ring circus. He’s been awarded a Raymond Carver Short Story award and recent fiction appears in Everywherestories: Short Fiction From A Small Planet (Press 53), Museum of Americana, and Tahoma Literary Review. He is also a screenwriter, whose credits include Speed of Life, The Dream Catcher, and Bottomland. He teaches at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, and is working on a new novel, Houdini’s Heirs.
In this interview, Marc and I talked in detail about this excellent book and his work as a writer and teacher. Special kudos to Ice Cube Press for publishing this memoir.
The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived: A True Story of My Family – Tom Shroder – Blue Rider Press – hardcover – 9780399174599 – 416 pages – $28 – published October 4, 2016 (ebook editions available at lower prices)
Tom Shroder is an excellent writer and an experienced editor who has had a long career as a journalist, as well as having also written some really interesting books. As it turns out, he is the grandson of the once-bestselling author, MacKinlay Kantor, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1956 for his sprawling historical novel about the Civil War, Andersonville. I expect that a number of my listeners will have read that book, and many will quite possibly remember MacKinlay Kantor as someone who was an extremely well known and popular author in the fifties and sixties.
Like so many of us, Shroder grew up mostly taking his grandfather for granted, and while he was close with both his grandfather and grandmother, Tom did not really know very much about their actual lives before he was born, when their lives were very different. Their daughter, his mother, was also a writer as Tom was growing up, but he did not want to identify with the literary milieu of his youth. It was only later in his life that he was spurred to learn more about his family history, and to begin to understand himself within any kind of a personal literary context.
This book recounts the thoroughly compelling MacKinlay Kantor’s very colorful and intentional life as a writer, as well as weaving together Shroder’s own story, which is one of becoming a writer without perhaps intending to do so. It works amazingly well, and even if you have never read Andersonville or any of the other many books Kantor wrote during his long and checkered career, this particular book is likely to captivate you. It is full of wonderful stories and empathetic emotional connections.
Shroder’s journey to understanding who his grandfather was turns out to be almost as epic as Kantor’s actual life, full of twists and turns, discoveries and surprises. I read Andersonville long ago, and remember being fully engaged by its epic scope and historical detail. But I had forgotten that Kantor was also the ghost writer for Curtis Lemay later in his life, when things were not going so well for him. His was a complicated and very American 20th century story, story, and Shroder tells it exceptionally well.
Tom Shroder has been an award-winning journalist, writer and editor for nearly 40 years. His books include Acid Test: LSD, Ecstasy and the Power to Heal (2014), a mind-altering account of the resurgent research into the medical use of psychedelic drugs; Fire on the Horizon: the Untold Story of the Gulf Oil Disaster (2011) (co-author); and Old Souls: Compelling Evidence From Children Who Remember Past Lives (1999), a study of the border between science and mysticism.
He was the editor of The Washington Post Magazine between 2001 and 2009, where he oversaw Gene Weingarten’s two Pulitzer Prize-winning feature stories, “Fiddler in the Subway” and “Fatal Distraction.”
Shroder’s The Hunt for Bin Laden (2011) was based on 15 years of reporting by The Washington Post. Shroder is also known for co-creating the Tropic Hunt, a mass-participation puzzle which has become The Washington Post Hunt in Washington, D.C.
Shroder was born in New York City in 1954.
You can visit Shroder’s author website here.
“Fascinating…As Shroder vividly tells the story of this larger-than-life writer who was a generous and often doting grandfather, he contemplates the fleeting nature of fame….a biographical gold mine and an object lesson in the ultimate fading away of the best-selling, prize-winning success many writers dream about.”
—Susan Cheever, The Washington Post
Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories by Blume Lempel – Translated by Ellen Cassedy & Yermiyahu Ahron Taub – Mandel Vilar Press & Dryad Press – paperback – 9781942134213 – 240 pages – $16.95 (ebook versions available at lower prices)
This book was the winner of the 2012 Translation Prize awarded by the Yiddish Book Center.
Blume Lempel wrote in Yiddish, her native language. She was a wonderful storyteller with a strange and far reaching imagination. Hear writing slips beautifully between realistic and dreamlike states, lyrical and penetrating in style, completely compelling to the modern reader. What a surprise to discover this writer whose poetic language style is masterful.
As the publisher describes her stories: “A Holocaust survivor speaks to the shadows in her garden, a pious old woman imagines romance, a New York subway commuter forges a bond with a homeless woman, and in the title story a mother is drawn into a transgressive relationship with her blind son.”
Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub (the translators) on encountering Blume Lempel’s stories wrote: “When we began reading and translating, we didn’t know we were going to find a mother drawn into an incestuous relationship with her blind son. We didn’t know we’d meet a young woman lying on the table at an abortion clinic. We didn’t know we’d meet a middle-aged woman full of erotic imaginings as she readies herself for a blind date. Buried in this forgotten Yiddish-language material, we found modernist stories and modernist story-telling techniques – imagine reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez with the conversational touch of Grace Paley.”
Lempel (1907–1999) was one of a very few writers in the United States who wrote in Yiddish into the 1990s. She immigrated to New York during the time that Hitler rose to power, and began publishing short stories in 1945. By the 1970s her work had become known throughout the Yiddish literary world. When she died in 1999, the Yiddish paper Forverts wrote: “Yiddish literature has lost one of its most remarkable women writers.”
Blume Lempel (1907-1999) was born in Khorostkiv (now Ukraine). She immigrated to Paris in 1929 and fled to New York on the eve of World War II. This book is the first English-language collection of Lempel’s stories and is based on a manuscript that won the 2012 National Yiddish Book Center Translation Prize.
Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub received the 2012 translation prize from the Yiddish Book Center for their translation of short stories by Blume Lempel. In 2016, Ellen Cassedy received a PEN/Heim translation grant for her work on the Yiddish writer Yenta Mash, the first time the prize has been awarded for a Yiddish book. Ellen is the author of We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust published by University of Nebraska Press.
Yermiyahu Ahron Taub is the author of four books of poetry, Prayers of a Heretic/Tfiles fun an apikoyres, Uncle Feygele, What Stillness Illuminated/Vos shtilkayt hot baloykhtn, and The Insatiable Psalm. Tsugreytndik zikh tsu tantsn: naye Yidishe lider/Preparing to Dance: New Yiddish songs, a CD of nine of his Yiddish poems set to music, was released in 2014. He was honored by the Museum of Jewish Heritage as one of New York’s best emerging Jewish artists and has been nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize and twice for a Best of the Net award. His short stories have appeared in Jewish Fiction .net, The Jewish Literary Journal, and Jewrotica. Taub’s website is www.yataub.net.
I think it’s safe to say that most Americans have not given much thought to the very early history of the United States. During the first decades after the country was formed, there was much concern about the survival of the new nation. The British were still well established in the north, the Spanish were in the south and southwest, and large numbers of Indians inhabited the vast area to the west. Pressure was being exerted on the federal government to open these western lands to settlement, putting the US on a collision course with the natives who lived there.
This area was known as the Northwest Territory – comprising what are now the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota. Almost all Americans dismissed the land claims of the Native Americans. These tribes they saw simply as impediment to American growth. While some American leaders preferred to purchase the Indians’ land, the need for the government to pay its debts by selling (Indian owned) land overwhelmed all other concerns, and led ultimately to a war of extermination with the tribes.
Historian Colin G. Calloway is exceptionally perceptive and knowledgeable about the early history of the United States of America. This short, well written book focuses on a single unnamed battle that took place in late 1791 in what is now Fort Wayne, Indiana. In this period, before there was a standing army, President George Washington ordered Arthur St. Clair, the governor of the Northwest Territory, to direct a military campaign aimed at defeating the tribes that had refused to accept the unfair land deals the United States had proposed to them.
Calloway shows that the Native Americans were well organized and well-led, both politically and militarily. This surprised St. Clair as much as it may surprise us today. The American Indians were led by Little Turtle of the Miamis, Blue Jacket of the Shawnees and Buckongahelas of the Delawares (Lenape). Their war party numbered more than one thousand warriors, and included a large number of Potawatomis from eastern Michigan, a broad confederacy presaging similar Indian efforts to come in later years.
As Calloway points out: “Indians fielding a multinational army, executing a carefully coordinated battle plan worked out by their chiefs, and winning a pitched battle—all things Indians were not supposed to be capable of doing—routed the largest force the United States had fielded on the frontier.” It’s useful to note that the American army was poorly organized, included a large number of ill-trained militia, and was also victimized by crooked suppliers, starting a longstanding American tradition of private gain by military purveyors we recognize all too well today.
Unfortunately for the Native Americans, their victory was short lived. The stunning American defeat led directly to a number of changes in the way the new government operated. The House of Representatives initiated the first investigation of the executive branch, Congress established a standing army and gave the president authority to wage war. A liquor tax was created to finance the Army (which led to the Whiskey Rebellion that ironically, President Washington used the tax-financed militia to put down). The Indian confederacy did not last, and in 1794, General “Mad Anthony” Wayne built Fort Recovery and defeated another Indian war party at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, ultimately bringing an end to Northwest Territory Indian resistance and opening the way for the first stage of westward growth of the new American nation.
There is so much interesting history that relates directly to the story told in this book. It’s a compelling read for anyone interested in the early period of the American republic. My conversation with Colin Calloway reflects the stirring nature of his book, and the breadth of his knowledge. This book is an important American story, well told, and I highly recommend it.
Colin Calloway is the author of a number of excellent works, including one of my personal favorites, One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark. He is the John Kimball, Jr. 1943 Professor of History and Professor of Native American Studies at Dartmouth, where he has taught since 1990. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Leeds in England.