by Robert Wilkinson
Owsley Stanley, aka "Bear," died in a car accident March 13 in Australia. If you turned on in the 60s or early 70s, or if you ever got into the Grateful Dead, then you owe a big one to "the Dancing Bear."
Born 11 days after Elvis Presley, he transformed the world as much as Elvis ever did, just in a radically different way! Regardless of personal opinions about psychedelics, Owsley made a difference in millions of lives, as he was the one who manufactured well over a million doses of high grade pure LSD back when it was legal.
A fanatic about quality control, he insisted on the highest standards for his product. Each batch had a specific variety name, the dosages were precisely calibrated, and he insisted that his product brought absolute clarity of consciousness rather than the lesser "trips" that resulted from diluted or impure LSD. From personal experience, that was absolutely true. In a world of variables, he was the gold standard for consistent quality.
Owsley's product created Ken Kesey's famous "Electric Kool-aid Acid Tests." Owsley made 300,000 hits for the Human Be-In, and he gave acid to Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, Brian Jones, and many more at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival of 1967. He effectively made the "Summer of Love" into the cultural phenomenon that swept the world in the months after.
"The Dancing Bear" opened John Lennon's mind and all the psychedelic imagery that followed. And it was Owsley who financed, amplified and kept the Grateful Dead's music going for hours and hours and hours back in those days. In fact, it's safe to say that Owsley had a part in creating the San Francisco "sound," influencing the music of the Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Country Joe and the Fish, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Moby Grape, Janis Joplin, Taj Mahal, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and every other great and not-so-great band in the Bay Area that ever ate a hit of LSD or had a concert recorded with any sound quality.
Due to the enormous amount of wealth generated, Owsley was able to design some of the first modern major league sound systems for the Grateful Dead and other top flight bands. Over time his systems morphed into the legendary "Wall of Sound," a set of speaker stacks that towered over the band that set the standard for all modern stadium and large arena sound systems.
He was also a pioneer in his sound engineering, as he was one of the first to regularly record every performance by the band (in his case usually the Grateful Dead) directly off the sound board, a technique fairly unknown before then. That's why we have so many thousands of great high quality recordings by that all-American band for all time, along with concerts from some of the greats who played the Bay Area back then, including Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash, Miles Davis, and the Northern California bands listed above.
He was the Grateful Dead's patron, fan, sound man, co-designer of the Lightning Bolt Skull Logo, aka "Steal Your Face," and the one who administered the doses that kept the band going for hours. In an era of concerts lasting between 45 minutes to 2 hours at most, the Dead's concerts were a happening unto themselves, often lasting 3-6 hours (or more!) with one or two breaks to refresh. That's why they're one of the most loved bands (and legends!) still to this day.
As a huge fan who boogied many dozens of hours at more than a few of their concerts, I assure you those "happenings" were unlike any others before or since. Contrary to the opinions of those who never followed the Dead, the Grateful Dead didn't just noodle around. Sections of their live performances were some fairly transcendent avant-garde experimental music that set the pattern for a lot of what was done with synthesizers afterward.
They did "sonic" before it was fashionable, and created aural tapestries that enveloped entire crowds in multi-textured waves of sound. Whether dancing or just listening, their concerts were unlike any others!
Regarding psychedelics, while there were many who took LSD recreationally, there were even more for whom The Dancing Bear helped open "the doors of perception," as Huxley put it. Owsley made it possible for several generations of seekers, who knew the outer world and ego-controlled perceptions do not hold the answers in our search for meaning in life, to take a trip around the galaxy of inner space and land safely back home a few hours later after exploring the landscape and confronting both the beauty and distortions there.
Nothing here is an endorsement of psychedelic use or misuse. Each substance that alters our consciousness has its own qualities, and thus each is its own experience. Some people do better than others, depending on the dose, regardless of what they use to get into an altered state. Much depends on the level of fear of the one who is altered. And of course, some substances are a bringdown regardless of the dose.
Any time we get beyond ego controls, for every Castaneda, Ram Dass, or John Lennon, there are also more than a few meltdowns. That's why some don't do well at all with any psychedelic (usually due to irrational fears) unless they have a good Captain. In that regard, I gather some progressive psychiatrists have made major advances in bringing schizophrenics back to this "reality" using LSD in recent years.
I stopped doing LSD in late 1971 as I had gotten everything I was looking for via that medium. I continued with schrooms (a MUCH different, more organic experience) off and on for about 30 more years, and at present haven't taken a substance induced trip in a long time, I have never regretted my psychedelic days, as they helped me get beyond ego traps and assumptions that may have never vanished any other way. Having done many years of different types of formal therapy, I can state this with certainty.
There are few beings who change the world. Augustus Owsley Stanley III, "the Dancing Bear," was one of them. Thanks for opening the doors, thanks for Kesey and the acid tests, thanks for the realizations that the kid of 1969 had nothing to fear from exploring inner space, and thanks for the music of the Grateful Dead. Aum Namah Shivaya! I'm sure you're having an Atma-Buddhic dose with Shaman Jerry as you both exist as Eternals on those Planes of Inner and Outer space.
In grateful memory of a long ago world and time...
© Copyright 2011 Robert Wilkinson