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.

1 comment:

annie said...

What a great post about a very different and magical time. I always loved Aid Charlemagne, too.