Owsley Stanley, the legendary Grateful Dead soundman and LSD chemist, left behind thirteen hundred reels of live recordings from his sonic laboratory, including a newly released recording of the night Johnny Cash came to town.
November 1, 2021
In the summer of 1990, Bill Semins, who goes by Hawk, was a wrestler who’d just finished his first year at Princeton. He was also a Deadhead. One night, at a Grateful Dead concert in Raleigh, North Carolina, while dancing (sober) out in the concourse, he came across a table promoting the Rainforest Action Network and encountered a well put-together middle-aged man with an all-access backstage pass on a lanyard. Hawk grabbed the laminate and said, “You must be someone really important.” The back of the pass read “Bear.” Bear was Owsley—né Augustus Owsley Stanley III—the near-mythic soundman and LSD chemist. Bear and Hawk, discovering a shared obsession with fitness and diet (since the sixties, Bear had eaten nothing but rare meat), became Dead-tour weight-lifting pals, with matching membership cards to Gold’s Gym. The following spring, at a concert in Albany, Bear introduced Hawk to his son, Starfinder Stanley, a wrestler, too, and a student at Cornell. Hawk and Starfinder became fast friends.
Starfinder was born on a solstice in 1970 (hence the name) while his father, who’d been busted for distributing LSD, was in prison (hence the bodybuilding). Starfinder’s half sister Redbird was born three weeks later. “We’re hippie twins,” he said. “My dad had four kids with four moms and didn’t raise any of us.” Starfinder grew up in the Bronx and in Westchester County, but he and Redbird, as kids, attended a circus camp among the California redwoods. “I resisted psychedelicsuntil I was in college,” Starfinder said. “My father practically had to pry my jaws open and stuff it down my throat. I was wound a little tight.” Now Starfinder is a veterinarian in Northern California.
Starting out with the Dead in 1966, Bear was a mad scientist of amplified music, pioneering sound systems and, later, recording techniques. For years, he made reel-to-reel tapes of virtually every show he engineered, no matter the artist, to assess the sound of the room and the effects of his unorthodox methods. He called these his Sonic Journals. Just before he died, in 2011, in a car accident in Australia, he instructed Starfinder and Redbird to preserve them.
Bear left behind thirteen hundred reels of live soundboard recordings, of eighty artists. Some quick math determined that it would take two engineers more than two years, working full time, to digitize them. This was more than the Stanleys could afford, and so Starfinder and Hawk, along with a Princeton friend of Hawk’s named Peter Bell and Bear’s widow, Sheilah, launched the Owsley Stanley Foundation, to finance the transfer and eventual release of the material. “It was essential that we preserve this pivotal point in American musical history, where all this explosive creativity was happening,” Hawk, now a lawyer in Pittsburgh, said.
They have since got through almost nine hundred reels and released eight performances, including rarities from Doc and Merle Watson (1974), Commander Cody (1970), Tim Buckley (1968), and Ali Akbar Khan (1970). On hearing the Watson, Jimmy Carter sent a note praising it as “a welcome addition to my collection.” He added that he and Rosalynn “look forward to your Allman Brothers release.” The foundation obliged: “Fillmore East 1970.”
Last week, the foundation released a true jackalope, the “otoro of this tuna,” as Bell put it: “Johnny Cash at the Carousel Ballroom, April 24, 1968.” At that time, the Carousel, operated by the Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, and others, was a psychedelic dance hall and, effectively, Bear’s sonic laboratory. Whoever passed through got journaled, and dosed.
Cash was in the early stages of a resurrection. The year before, he’d crawled into a cave near Chattanooga to die: drugs, drink, divorce. Now newly remarried, to June Carter Cash, off the pills, a few days from dropping his career-reviving live album from Folsom Prison, he showed up on a Wednesday night with his band, the Tennessee Three, and, before a scattering of bemused hippies and aficionados (capacity was three thousand; turnout, seven hundred), snapped through twenty-one songs. Among them were a couple of Dylan covers. June also sat in for a half-dozen numbers, including a rip-snorting rendition of “Tall Lover Man” that cuts out at the climax; Bear had been slow to change reels.
The release’s opener is a number called “Cocaine Blues.” Cash says, “Here’s another song from a show we did at Folsom Prison. It’s in the album that’s out this week.” No one had any idea that, in a little more than a year, Cash would have his own prime-time TV program, or that rock and country musicians would begin (again) to borrow and steal from one another, to the benefit (more or less) of both.
“Country music hadn’t yet captured the hippies’ imagination,” Hawk said. “Outlaw country was still five years away. And yet, by October of that year, Buck Owens was selling out the same hall.”
Did Bear, as was his wont, spike Cash’s Coke? “My dad used to pull tapes and tell stories,” Starfinder said. “The music set off his memories. Like the time he dosed with Jimi Hendrix, and so on. But I never did get the story of the time Johnny Cash came to town.” ♦