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

February 11, 2017 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

Bear: The Life and Times of Augustus Owsley Stanley III – Robert Greenfield – Thomas Dunne Books – Hardcover – 9781250081216 – 288 pages – $25.99 (ebook versions available at lower prices)

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.

Clara Bingham reading from Witness to the Revolution

September 19, 2016 by  
Filed under AuthorsVoices

clara-binghamWitness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul
9780812993189 – Random House – Hardcover – $30

I interviewed Clara Bingham about her terrific and important book, Witness to the Revolution for Writerscast.  You can listen to that interview here. When she was in the studio, I took the opportunity to ask her to read from her book as well. Here is that terrific selection. Of course if you like what you hear, you can buy the audio book and listen to the whole thing.

And if voices from the sixties is of interest, there is a wealth of such material online. There’s a great collection of interviews with sixties era radicals and activists at Winthrop University, for example, and much, much more to be found and heard.

 

Nick Schou: Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and Its Quest to Spread Peace, Love, and Acid to the World

October 13, 2010 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction

978-0312551834 – St. Martin’s Press – Hardcover – $24.99

Nick Schou writes for the excellent OC Weekly (one of the several Village Voice papers) based in Orange County, California, home of Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, UC Irvine, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Little Saigon, and of course seemingly endless tracts of California suburbia.  But Orange County in the 1960’s was also the birthplace of some of the most amazing scenes of hippiedom, and the little known “Brotherhood of Eternal Love.”

In this book, Schou tells their story from beginning to end, and it is a pretty incredible saga, including what was probably the largest LSD manufacturing and distribution operation of all time, a world wide hashish and marijuana smuggling cartel, incredible tales involving Timothy Leary, and much, much more.

Known as “Hippie Mafia,” the Brotherhood began in the mid-1960’s as a small band of surfers (and in many cases petty criminals) in Southern California. After they discovered LSD, they took to Timothy Leary’s mantra of “Turn on, tune in, and drop out” and resolved to make that vision a reality by becoming the biggest group of acid dealers and hashish smugglers in the nation, and literally providing the fuel for the psychedelic revolution in the process. In Orange Sunshine, Schou journeys deep inside the Brotherhood, combining exclusive interviews with many of the group’s surviving members, former hangers on and supporters, and interstingly, the law enforcement establishment who pursued them and by doing so helped to launch what has now become an institutionalized government war on drugs.

Schou tells a compelling story of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll (and more drugs) that runs from Laguna Beach to Maui to Afghanistan, and a time when America moved from the golden era of peace and free love into the much darker time that soon followed, marked by hard drugs, international crime and paranoia.

Talking to Nick Schou gave me a chance to explore with him some of the background to the book, and to talk about the large amount of research he did to put it together, and the challenges he faced in getting some of the participants to even tell him what they did in those days.  We also talked about some of the more startling elements of the story of the Brotherhood, their involvement with Timothy Leary and Ram Dass, Orange County then and now, and much more.

This is a fascinating story, one that helps us understand some of the complex issues that began in the sixties and are still with us today.  This kind of grassroots history is important to document as it can give us all a chance to better comprehend the always diverse and sometimes simply amazing culture in which we live.