Owsley Stanley

owsley by jody hewgill

Owsley Stanley (1935 – 2011) was a figure of the San Francisco Bay Area counter-culture, playing a pivotal role in the counterculture of the 1960s. As a crafts-person, he became best known simply as ‘Owsley’ – the LSD ‘cook’ (underground chemist). Stanley was the first private individual to manufacture mass quantities of LSD. Between 1965 and 1967, Stanley produced more than 1.25 million doses of LSD.

Under the professional name of ‘Bear,’ he worked with the psychedelic rock band the Grateful Dead’s international fan ‘family.’ Bear was an early soundman for The Grateful Dead, a band he met when Ken Kesey invited them to an Owsley Acid test party. As their sound engineer, Bear frequently recorded live tapes behind his mixing board and helped The Dead become the first performers since Les Paul to custom-develop high-fidelity audio components and sound systems.

Stanley was the scion of a political family from Kentucky. His father was a government attorney. His grandfather, A. Owsley Stanley, a member of the United States Senate after serving as Governor of Kentucky and in the U.S. House of Representatives, campaigned against alcohol Prohibition in the 1920s. Owsley was expelled from the Charlotte Hall Military Academy for bringing alcoholic beverages onto campus, then self-committed to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C. He studied engineering at the University of Virginia before dropping out; in 1956, when Stanley was twenty-one, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and served for eighteen months before being discharged in 1958. Later, inspired by a 1958 performance of the Bolshoi Ballet, he began studying ballet in Los Angeles, supporting himself for a time as a professional dancer.

In 1963, he enrolled at the UC, Berkeley where he became involved in the psychoactive drug scene. He dropped out after a semester, took a technical job at KGO-TV, and began producing LSD in a small lab located in the bathroom of a house near campus. His makeshift laboratory was raided by police in 1965. He beat the charges and successfully sued for the return of his equipment. The police were looking for methamphetamine but found only LSD, which was not illegal at the time. Stanley moved to Los Angeles to pursue the production of LSD. He used his Berkeley lab to buy 500 grams of lysergic acid monohydrate, the basis for LSD. He produced 300,000 capsules (270 micrograms each) and then returned to the Bay Area. Stanley became the primary LSD supplier to Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. By this time, Sandoz LSD was hard to come by, and ‘Owsley Acid’ had become the new standard. He was featured (most prominently his freak-out at the Muir Beach Acid Test in November 1965) in ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,’ a book detailing the history of Kesey and the Merry Pranksters by Tom Wolfe. Stanley also provided LSD to The Beatles during filming of ‘Magical Mystery Tour.’

Stanley met the members of the Grateful Dead during the acid tests in 1966, began working with them as their first soundman, and helped finance them. Along with his close friend Bob Thomas, he designed the Lightning Bolt Skull Logo, often referred to by fans as ‘Steal Your Face,’ ‘Stealie,’ or ‘SYF’ (after the name of the 1976 Grateful Dead album featuring only the lightning bolt skull on the cover, although the symbol predates the namesake album by eight years). The 13-point lightning bolt was derived from a stencil Stanley created to spray-paint on the Grateful Dead’s equipment boxes (he wanted an easily identifiable mark to help the crew find the Dead’s equipment in the jumble of multiple bands’ identical black equipment boxes at festivals).

The lightning bolt design came to him after seeing a similar design on a roadside advertisement: ‘One day in the rain, I looked out the side and saw a sign along the freeway which was a circle with a white bar across it. The top of the circle was orange, and the bottom blue. I couldn’t read the name of the firm, and so was just looking at the shape. A thought occurred to me: if the orange were red and the bar across were a lightning bolt cutting across at an angle, then we would have a very nice, unique and highly identifiable mark to put on the equipment.’ Stanley suggested to Thomas that the words ‘Grateful Dead’ might be drawn beneath the red, white and blue circled bolt in such a way that it looked like a skull. Thomas returned with the now familiar Grateful Dead icon, having discarded the hidden-word concept. The lightning-adorned skull logo made its first appearance on the 1973 release, ‘History of the Grateful Dead, Volume 1: Bear’s Choice,’ an album put together by Stanley as his tribute to his dear friend, the recently deceased Grateful Dead co-founder Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan, from recordings Stanley had made in 1970. The iconic ‘Dancing Bears’ also first appeared on the reverse cover of this album, created by Thomas.

During his time as the sound engineer for the Grateful Dead, Stanley started what became the long-term practice of recording the Dead while they rehearsed and performed. His initial motivation for creating what he dubs his ‘sonic journal’ was to improve his ability to mix the sound, but the fortuitous result was an extensive trove of recordings from the heyday of the San Francisco concert/dance scene in the mid-sixties. Focusing on quality and clarity of sound, he favored simplicity in his miking, and his tapes are widely touted as unrivaled live recordings. In addition to his large archive of Dead performances, Stanley made numerous live recordings of other leading 1960s and 1970s artists appearing in San Francisco, including Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Taj Mahal, Santana, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, and Johnny Cash.

Stanley and Scully built electronic equipment for the Grateful Dead until late spring 1966. At this point, Stanley rented a house in Point Richmond, California. He, Scully, and Melissa Cargill (Stanley’s girlfriend, and a skilled chemist, introduced to Stanley by Susan Cowper, a former girlfriend) set up a lab in the basement. The Point Richmond lab turned out more than 300,000 tablets (270 micrograms each) of LSD dubbed ‘White Lightning.’ LSD became illegal in California on October 6, 1966. Scully therefore decided to set up a new lab in Colorado. The new lab was set up in the basement of a house across the street from the Denver zoo in early 1967. Scully made the LSD in the Denver lab while Stanley tableted the product in Orinda, California.

Another psychedelic compund, DOM, better known under its street name STP was distributed in the summer of 1967 in 20 mg tablets and quickly acquired a bad reputation. Stanley and Scully made trial batches of 10 mg tablets and then STP mixed with LSD in a few hundred yellow tablets but soon ceased production of STP. In late 1967, Stanley’s Orinda lab was raided by police; he was found in possession of 350,000 doses of LSD and 1,500 doses of STP. His defense was that the illegal substances were for personal use, but he was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison. After he was released from prison, Stanley went on to do more sound work for the Grateful Dead. Later, he would work as a broadcast television engineer.

On January 31, 1970 3:00am, 19 members of the Grateful Dead and crew were busted at a French Quarter hotel after returning from a concert at ‘The Warehouse’ in New Orleans for a combination of drugs. According to ‘Rolling Stone,’ everybody in the band, except Pigpen and Tom Constanten, was included in the bust, along with several members of their retinue, including Stanley, and some local people. Stanley was charged with illegal possession of narcotics, dangerous non-narcotics, LSD, and barbiturates. Apparently another West Coast-based rock band, Jefferson Airplane, had been arrested two weeks prior at the same situation. According to an article in the ‘State Times of Baton Rouge,’ Stanley had identified himself to the police as ‘The King of Acid’ and technician of the band. From this incident, the song ‘Truckin” was written by the Grateful Dead that same year. Stanley was confined to Federal prison from 1970 to 1972, after a Federal judge intervened by revoking his release from the 1967 case. Stanley took advantage of the opportunity there to learn metalwork and jewelry-making.

A naturalized Australian citizen since 1996, Stanley and his wife Sheilah lived in the bush of Far Northern Tropical Queensland where he worked to create sculpture, much of it wearable art. Stanley made his first public appearance in decades at the Australian ethnobotanical conference ‘Entheogenesis Australis’ in 2009, giving three talks over his time in Melbourne.

Stanley believed that the natural human diet is a totally carnivorous one, thus making it a no-carbohydrate diet, and that all vegetables are toxic. He claimed to have eaten almost nothing but meat, eggs, butter and cheese since 1959 and that he believed his body had not aged as much as the bodies of those who eat a more ‘normal’ diet. He was convinced that insulin, released by the pancreas when carbohydrates are ingested, is the cause of much damage to human tissue and that diabetes mellitus is caused by the ingestion of carbohydrates. Stanley received radiation therapy in 2004 for throat cancer, which he first attributed to passive exposure to cigarette smoke at concerts, but which he later discovered was almost certainly caused by the infection of his tonsil with HPV. He credited his low carb diet with starving the tumor of glucose, slowing its growth and preventing its spread enough that it could be successfully treated despite its advanced state at diagnosis.

Stanley died after an automobile accident in Australia in 2011. The statement released on behalf of Stanley’s family said the car crash occurred near his home, on a rural stretch of highway near Mareeba, Queensland. He is survived by his wife Sheila, four children, eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.


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