When Augustus Owsley Stanley III, better known as Owsley Stanley, better known as “Bear” died in an automobile accident on March 12, 2011, a true icon of the ’60s left us. Ironically, he was a major figure of the psychedelic era for two very different contributions to San Francisco counter-culture. While best known for being the soundman for The Grateful Dead, Bear was also a pioneer in improving stage sound and recording thousands of hours of live performances from many headline groups of the time. In addition, he was the most famous “cook” of LSD anywhere, a virtual brand-name for dispensing the best acid available, especially at rock festivals and concerts.
Tragically, before his death, Bear had just begun working on saving the recordings he’d made in the late ’60s collectively to be called “Bear’s Sonic Journals.” To the surprise of many, the first posthumous release of Bear’s own remixes wasn’t for the Dead, but rather Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Live at The Carousel Ballroom 1968. If you check out the official Owsley Stanley website, you’ll see his family is hopeful the releases will continue and the remaining aging tapes can be salvaged. It’s a project worthy of similar efforts by the Library of Congress as in all the historic Alan Lomax field recordings.
Speaking of the Stanley family, this April Rhoney Gissen Stanley is publishing Owsley and Me: My LSD Family. Simply stated, it’s a psychedelic flashback to the times of sex — a lot of it, drugs — from the inside of the chemist’s basement, and rock ‘n roll as observed by someone who was at Woodstock, Altamont, and many points in between. Get ready kids — it’s time for a peek into the wizard’s laboratory.
The first third of this memoir is rather reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. But instead of the idealized muse of the real Neal Cassady fictionalized into the character of Dean Moriarty, this account is of an admittedly directionless college student enthralled with the romantic figure of “Bear” Stanley, who quickly seduces her. As it happens, Bear already has another girlfriend, Melissa, but this doesn’t stop Rhoney Gissen from joining Bear’s entourage on its travel west, including, in true Kerouac fashion, a layover in Denver. It’s the freewheeling ’60s after all, and Gissen, Bear, and Melissa carry on as a threesome as they move into the epicenter of West Coast hippie culture just as it was all just beginning to percolate.
It’s the years 1967 to 1970 that are the heart of the book when Bear and his acolytes practice the very precise arts of mixing chemicals in underground labs and spending time on stages lining up speakers, microphones, cables, and tape recorders. Some of the groups, most notably the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, and Quicksilver Messenger Service, were very much involved with Bear and his circle. These were the bands that organized the short-lived Carousel Ballroom where rock bands played for free with audiences very high indeed. This was where Bear shaped the Dead’s wall of sound, where he created the use of monitor speakers for bands to hear themselves onstage, and where he learned how to capture the clearest high-fidelity concert recordings of the time.
As part of this sound and acid crew, Gissen got to meet, often fleetingly, the big names of the day and has hit-and-run anecdotes about George Harrison, David Crosby, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Jimmy Hendrix, Ravi Shankar, Joan Baez, Elvin Bishop, Bill Graham, Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert (before he became Ram Das) and other luminaries. Then, the ’60s wound down, Bear had to spend three years in jail for his drug production, and the rest of the book is a very long denouement. Owsley and Melissa never left Rhoney’s life — Bear had fathered Rhoney’s son, Starfinder, as well as Melissa’s daughter. (Probably. This reader would insist on a paternity test to be sure.)
While there are many books about the glory days of the psychedelic ’60s told from insider’s perspectives, few take the reader to the places where Bear lead his entourage even in the days before LSD was illegal. Gratefully, there is no apologia here, no cautionary warnings about the excesses of youth. Clearly, Gissen Stanley had a very good time and has few regrets. True, there were bad patches along the way and determining what to do with her life after the scene had come and gone wasn’t immediately clear. But Gissen Stanley isn’t preaching about redemption, salvation, or crawling out of the pits of drug abuse. She’s taking us on a tour of her youth and, fortunately for us, the sights and sounds are colorful and vividly described. If you weren’t there yourself, after reading this memoir, odds are you’ll wish you had been.