In his new book ‘Bear,’ Robert Greenfield goes deep into life of counterculture figure credited with inventing band’s ‘Wall of Sound’
In 2007, writer Robert Greenfield interviewed Berkeley-dropout-turned-acid-cooker Owsley Stanley III – whose pure, potent LSD was favored by Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and the Grateful Dead – for Rolling Stone. “I had so much material,” says Greenfield. “And I knew that Owsley was a unique individual with a world view that no one else shared.” His original assignment was a life-spanning feature, but his reporting – including interviews with the Dead’s Bob Weir, Phil Lesh and more – eventually provided enough material for an entire book.
The result, Bear: The Life and Times of Augustus Owsley Stanley III, goes deep inside the chaotic and bizarre life of Owsley, who provided a generation of West-Coast hippies with mind-altering acid, using the profits of his illegitimate business to finance the Grateful Dead into the spotlight. Also a shameless audiophile, Owsley was the band’s original sound man, credited with inventing the famous Wall Of Sound PA system (“It was Owsley’s brain, in material form,” drummer Bill Kreutzmann told Greenfield. “Impossible to tame.”) He also had the bright idea to plug a recorder directly into the soundboard during concerts and rehearsals, thus providing the world with tapes of the Dead during their heyday, which would otherwise never have existed. But beyond his interaction with the band, exploring Stanley’s life also brought Greenfield deep within the counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s, from the Monterey Pop Festival to Altamont to the streets of the Haight.
Owsley was somewhat of an elusive character, surrounded by rumor and hearsay. “So much of what was said about Owsley back in the day was sheer fantasy, that the list of misconceptions would themselves fill an entire book,” says Greenfield. Owsley died in 2011 in a car accident at 76 years old, but he left behind a lifetime’s worth of strange stories and unique anecdotes that sometimes seem too outlandish to be true. For example, Owsley persuaded his girlfriend, a U.C. Berkeley chemistry major, to drop out and make acid with him, and he eluded the law by pretending to run a legitimate lab where he tested rats. He was intelligent and cunning, and to this day, no one can say for certain where he kept all of the money he made from his empire.
The book describes an eccentric genius and master manipulator, and an integral piece of the Grateful Dead’s success. “Due in no small part to the high-quality LSD that Owsley was handing out,” writes Greenfield, “as well as his continuing willingness to bankroll the band with money he made, the scene around the Grateful Dead started to expand at what would soon become an exponential rate.”
But Owlsey’s relationships with the band members were as tumultuous as the rest of his his life, described in Bear in great detail. “There was no one whom he did not drive crazy at one time or another,” Greenfield tells Rolling Stone.
“In Jerry Garcia’s words, ‘We’d met Owsley at the Acid Test and he got fixated on us,’” he writes. “‘We had enough acid to blow the world apart… tripping frequently, if not constantly. That got good and weird.’”
Owsley left behind an extensive Grateful Dead material – still used to this day – and died as a singular counterculture figure. “There was virtually nothing that Bear could not do,” says Greenfield.