Robert Greenfield: Bear: The Life and Times of Augustus Owsley Stanley III
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.