Fare-thee-Well Owsley Stanley

One of the twentieth century’s great social revolutionaries died last week in Australia.  Owsley Stanley, sometimes called Bear, the chemical enthusiast who turned LSD into an affordable commodity in synch with San Francisco’s ‘Summer of Love’ period, fatally crashed his vehicle in a remote region of the country.

‘Owsley’, as he was known to hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people whose lives were marked by ‘acid’, charted a bizarre, bumpy course as psychic traveling companion to the likes of author Ken Kesey and members of the Grateful Dead. His was a remarkably American journey – a product of wealth and the military who mastered dance, reinvented the staging of live rock ‘n’ roll along with his buddies in The Dead, unleashed a chemical torrent and, got, at least temporarily, rich in the process.

The waves emanating from San Francisco, almost half century ago, traveled through time and space.  They splashed upon drowsy Toronto where even high school students at a private Catholic school heard of the legendary Bear and might have means to sample the sort of chemical wares that traveled eastward.

Jerry Garcia, the aforementioned Kesey, John Lennon, the journalists Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson are but a few of the lives that Owsley Stanley affected deeply. His death – far, far from the locale of his dizzying rise to musical and pharmaceutical influence – is truly a milestone in the cultural history of our times.

The man who helped create the unparalleled Grateful Dead sound and image archive was responsible for compiling a Grateful Dead release during the band’s early prime.  I listened to Bear’s Choice (1970) yesterday. Made as a showcase for the Dead’s original organist/vocalist, the late blues shouter Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan, the album now serves as a fitting memento to both McKernan and Owsley Stanley.  Side One is acoustic. At a time when it was hardly predictable or safely cool for a full-on ‘psychedelic’ band to go ‘unplugged’, The Dead had begun doing traditional blues and Appalachian tunes during their opening sets.  Side Two is strictly classic electric Chicago style blues featuring ‘Pigpen’s’ astonishing vocal and harmonica chops.  It’s a charming, very odd, idiosyncratic selection from a band which was then renowned for playing 3-4 hour fast-paced, electric and sometimes highly improvisational shows.

Mr. Stanley, tip of the hat! Yours was indeed a long, strange trip.

Recommended listening:  Bear’s Choice and Anthem of the Sun, the Grateful Dead.

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