Owsley Stanley: the Sixties hero who 'turned on' a generation
Owsley 'Bear' Stanley, the original LSD cook, survived the psychedelic decade to die in a car crash. Kathy Marks reports
Tuesday 15 March 2011
If you cannot remember the Sixties because you were there, you might – if you happened to be living in San Francisco – have Owsley "Bear" Stanley, the original LSD cook, to blame.
Stanley, who died in a car crash in Australia on Sunday, fuelled the "flower power" counter-culture that took root in California in the mid-1960s, supplying it with acid that he manufactured after stumbling across a recipe in a chemistry journal.
He also worked with the psychedelic rock band Grateful Dead, who wrote their song "Alice D Millionaire" about him after a newspaper described him as an "LSD millionaire". One batch of his drugs reputedly inspired Jimi Hendrix's song "Purple Haze", and he provided LSD for the notorious "Acid Test" parties hosted by the American writer Ken Kesey, which featured in books by Tom Wolfe and Hunter S Thompson.
News of Stanley's death – his car swerved off a road and slammed into a tree near his home in north Queensland – elicited tributes, but also surprise. Despite a youth so misspent that his name became slang for good acid, Stanley had made it to the age of 76. He was even a great-grandfather. In a statement yesterday, his family mourned him as "our beloved patriarch".
The folk hero of the counter-culture came from an establishment Kentucky family: his grandfather was the state's Governor and a Senator; his father was a United States government attorney. Augustus Owsley – he later dropped Augustus – fled to the West Coast in 1963, enrolling at the University of California in Berkeley. He already had done stints in the US Air Force and in a professional ballet company.
At Berkeley, he dropped out after one semester, having discovered the LSD recipe in the university library. Police raided his first laboratory in 1966, but acid was still legal then and Stanley successfully sued for the return of his equipment. Between 1965 and 1967 he produced an estimated 1.25 million doses – stoking the "Summer of Love" in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district and enabling countless hippies to follow Timothy Leary's advice to "turn on, tune in, drop out". By then, Stanley – who moved to Australia in the early 1980s, convinced the Northern Hemisphere was heading for another Ice Age – was closely involved with the Grateful Dead. After briefly managing the San Francisco-based band, he became their sound engineer. He is credited with technological advances such as on-stage monitor speakers, as well as creating the first public-address system specifically for music.
Sam Cutler, the group's former tour manager and a close friend of Stanley's since the 1970s, described him yesterday as "an alchemist, a wonderful man, a great thinker". He said: "His death is a grievous loss to his family and the tens of thousands of people from the Sixties on who were influenced by his work with the Grateful Dead."
The first person to produce LSD in large quantities, Stanley was the supplier of choice for many musicians, and is credited with inspiring many classics. Raided again in 1967, Stanley was jailed for two years in 1970 after being convicted of marijuana possession.
In a rare interview, with the San Francisco Chronicle in 2007, he was unrepentant: "I wound up doing time for something I should have been rewarded for. What I did was a community service, the way I look at it. I was punished for political reasons. Absolutely meaningless. Was I a criminal? No. I was a good member of society. Only my society and the one making the laws are different."
Stanley was a colourful character, nicknamed the Bear after sprouting body hair at an early age and the Dancing Bear because of his ballet background. According to the website jambands.com, he would "pour acid into a squirt bottle and spray musicians and fans alike at shows". The psychedelic dancing bear became one of the Grateful Dead's logos; Stanley also co-designed the band's lightning bolt skull logo.
Psychedelic drugs "bring an understanding of the ecology of the planet and the interaction of all living things, because that's one of the first things you become aware of when you take psychedelics – how everything is alive and everything depends on everything else", Stanley wrote in later years. Every indigenous culture that respected the environment, he said, used "psychedelics of some sort, usually in a regular, ritualised manner".
Stanley – who survived throat cancer in 2006, losing one vocal chord – claimed to have eaten only meat, eggs, butter and cheese since the 1950s. Convinced that vegetables were harmful, he attributed a heart attack he suffered a few years ago to broccoli that his mother made him eat as a child. He wrote in his blog in 2006: "I much prefer cannabis to alcohol, never liked hard liquor and gave away even having the odd glass of wine in '90 when I began lifting weights."
Stanley's wife, Sheila, survived the crash near the town of Mareeba, inland from Cairns. She broke her collarbone, but has been discharged from hospital. The couple have four children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Based in Queensland's tropical north, which Stanley believed was most likely to survive another Ice Age, he worked as an artist, making gold and enamel sculptures which he sold online. He also made money from his recordings of Grateful Dead concerts, which he turned into live albums.
Stanley still kept up with the music scene. Among new bands he particularly liked were Wolfmother and the Arctic Monkeys, he told the San Francisco Chronicle. He said: "Any time the music on the radio starts to sound like rubbish, it's time to take some LSD."
Under the influence?
'Kid Charlemagne' by Steely Dan
American rock band Steely Dan loosely based their 1976 single on Owsley Stanley's exploits. The lyrics "On the hill the stuff was laced with kerosene/ But yours was kitchen clean" refer to Stanley's reputation for producing LSD with a high level of purity.
'Purple Haze' by Jimi Hendrix
In his 2008 memoirs, former rock 'n' roll tour manager Sam Cutler wrote that Hendrix's 1966 single paid homage to a particularly potent batch of Stanley-made acid. However, despite its reputation as the epitome of psychedelic drug-inspired music, the famous guitarist always maintained the song was a love song and had nothing to do with drug culture.
The San Francisco psychedelic blues-rock band is said to have been named after a street brand of LSD produced and promoted by Stanley.
'Who needs the peace corps?' – Frank Zappa
The American composer's lesser-known 1968 track mocked the hippy movement and those who followed the philosophy of its lyrics: 'I'll go to Frisco/ Buy a wig & sleep/ On Owsley's floor'.
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