Thursday, August 14, 2008

Owsley Stanley

Owsley Stanley was the eccentric and obscure engineer, who as much as any other figure, created what we today remember as the 1960’s.Passing the Acid Test

Stanley’s greatest contribution to popular culture was his ability to mass produce a very pure form of LSD which was distributed by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters on their Acid Test tour of the West Coast in 1965.

In the early Sixties, LSD use had begun its spread into popular culture from the labs of psychiatry, the Army, and the CIA. Previously produced only by Sandoz of Switzerland, LSD’s increased popularity required an increased supply. Using an academic article he found in the library at Berkeley, Stanley began an underground lab capable of producing a form of LSD more pure than otherwise available. The Bear Research Group (“Bear” was the nickname given to the young Stanley who developed body hair much earlier than his friends) produced, by conservative estimates, 1.25 million hits of acid between 1965 and 1967.

It was this Owsley Acid that proved to its users that what most accepted as one objective reality was in fact only one of many possible realities. This simple but profound insight brought into question the social reality which was accepted by American society at that time, and allowed many to believe that an alternative social reality could be created by changing the perspective of individuals.

Patron of the Dead

Of course it was LSD that was so influential in giving direction to the fashion and music of the Hippie culture, and it is in music where Stanley most directly left his imprint.

Entertainment for the Acid Tests was provided by The Warlocks, who soon changed their name to the Grateful Dead. Stanley used the engineering skills he acquired in the army to create a massive PA system, the Wall of Sound, which powered the Dead performances. Stanley went as far as to use the profits from his LSD business to purchase much of the Dead’s early electronic equipment. Bob Weir credits Stanley as the first person ever to treat concert sound production as a serious art.

The Reclusive Bear

Understandably, Owsley “Bear” Stanley shied away from publicity. He spent much of this time avoiding arrest, failing once and spending two years in prison. He can be seen in the picture above leaving a court room after a 1967 arraignment, or in this video of a 1971 Grateful Dead sound check. He surprised the San Francisco Chronicle by allowing and interview in 2007 on a rare return to the US from his adopted home of Australia. The Wikipedia article on Stanley also covers his training in ballet (sometimes known as "Dancing Bear") , his contribution to Grateful Dead graphic imagery, and his current unusual lifestyle.

He occasionally is referenced by musicians, such as in 1975s Kid Charlemagne by Steely Dan.

While the music played you worked by candlelight
Those San Francisco nights
You were the best in town
Just by chance you crossed the diamond with the pearl
You turned it on the world
That's when you turned the world around
Did you feel like Jesus
Did you realize
That you were a champion in their eyes
And because its such a great song, we’ve also provided this link to the full original version.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Mitchell Brothers' O’Farrell Theatre

The Tenderloin

I recently had the chance to visit San Francisco, a city with an endless supply of pop culture closets to open. On this trip I decided to take a late night walk from the tourist hotels of Union Square into and through the Tenderloin, as it is officially named on city maps.

San Francisco is a city of many neighborhoods, many of which have been gentrified in recent decades by the need for livable and affordable space. The Tenderloin is not one of these.

I walked along O’Farrell Street on my trip to meet the city’s fringe dwellers. All are teetering on the edge of the social grid. Many of the area’s African-Americans are mired in a mix of alcohol, drugs, poverty or mental illness. They sit the stoops or hurry along to somewhere no better than the place they’d just left. Others, such as the Thai, Chinese, and Pakistani families whose modest but sincere restaurants disproportionately anchor the street corners, are the pioneers who forever forgo their own pleasures so that their children can someday own apartments in the Mission or the Haight.

The Theatre

The Tenderloin is a spinning top whose axis wobbles on The Mitchell Brother’s O’Farrell Theatre. The theatre is the birthplace of modern pornography culture and industry. And by providing strippers and prostitutes, is the sole draw of men with wives and children scattered somewhere across the towns of the vast eastness that is not San Francisco.

I am told later by a talkative cabbie that like the men who are their customers, the women of the O’Farrell come from the same eastness to make their fortunes at the legendary theatre. All are young, and all have the attractiveness of untarnished expectations which only the young can claim. Each walks through an uninspired routine which includes half-hearted gestures at the three brass poles which are mounted to the stage. They collect the tips of ones and fives from the audience knowing that each of these men is a candidate for sexual services costing hundreds of dollars. By comparison, there is more authentic humanity in the street smells of sweat, alcohol, curry and urine.

Artie and Jim

Artie and Jim Mitchell opened the theatre on July Fourth, 1969 in the very city which has warmly welcomed those unable to live by the rules of others at the very moment when the rules of others had come under question. The brothers revolutionized pornography by creating films with the pretense of plot and impolitely marketing their shows without a blush of shame.

And of course there was luck. When it was revealed that Marilyn Chambers, the star of their film “Behind the Green Door”, was also the model on the box of Ivory Snow Soap, the brothers received the attention of main stream media and audiences that had previously refused to acknowledge porn.

The brothers publicly defended themselves against the attacks of then SF mayor Diane Feinstein, who made the closing of the theatre her very public cause. The brothers earned the admiration of many who may not have otherwise approved of their business when they listed Mayor Feinstein’s home telephone number on the theatre marquee under “For Show Times Call”.

The Mitchell celebrity spectacularly crumbled under the weight of drug abuse in 1981 when Jim shot and killed Artie. Jim escaped a significant jail sentence to eventually die from natural causes in 2007.


The Mitchell Brothers were the subject of serious treatment in "Rated X" (see at Amazon Rated X (Unrated Version)) a Showtime film starring Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen. In my opinion it is certainly worth a watch. For more information on the brothers, the San Francisco Chronicle reviewed their legacy with an article on the occasion of Jim’s death. And then there is always Wikipedia… And when in San Francisco, ask the doorman at your hotel for directions to the theatre, and he’ll provide you with pass representing a modest discount for you, and a modest reward for him.