A new biography details how Augustus Owsley “Bear” Stanley, grandson of a Kentucky governor, helped fuel a cultural revolution with his psychedelic creations.
It might surprise some to learn that a Kentuckian was largely responsible for America’s own little short-lived era of enlightenment in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Augustus Owsley “Bear” Stanley, the innovative sound man and sometime manager of the Grateful Dead, was also the largest manufacturer and proliferator of LSD in the history of the United States. A self-taught chemist, radio technician and electronics wiz, Owsley’s intuitive technical genius and cunning logistical skills earned him the moniker “the Johnny Appleseed of LSD” after turning on just about every cultural luminary of the 1960s. Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Janis Joplin, Ken Kesey, Jefferson Airplane, as well as Timothy Leary and the great doctor Hunter S. Thompson, were all at one time fueled by Owsley’s exceptionally pure homemade acid. Thompson’s favorite songwriter and recent Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan was one of the few to turn Owsley down. When Owsley offered the bard a taste of his “Blue Cheer,” Dylan reportedly told him to get lost. “Who is this freak?” Dylan scoffed. “Get him out of here!”
Born in 1935, Owsley was “authentic Bluegrass political royalty.” His father was a prominent government attorney and his grandfather, Augustus Owsley Stanley, was elected governor of Kentucky in 1919 and served in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. He’s also related to William Owsley, the 16th governor of Kentucky, for whom Owsley County is named. Owsley’s grandfather, Augustus, was known to debate his opponents while so drunk that he could barely stand. A lawyer and Campbellite minister who graduated from Centre College in 1887, he staked his political fortunes on fighting alcohol prohibition and was run out of office in 1925. Forty-five years later, in 1970, his grandson fought against the prohibition of another mind-altering substance being blamed for society’s ills and was handed a three-year jail sentence in return.
No Owsley, no sixties as we know them; it’s that simple.
Author Robert Greenfield pulls back the psychedelic curtain on the Owsley legend in his new book, Bear: The Life and Times of Augustus Owsley Stanley III, the first and only biography of Owsley. The book offers a nuanced account of the “wild-eyed radical visionary” whose impact on the cultural revolution of the 1960s cannot be overstated. As author and historian Dennis McNally put it: “No Owsley, no sixties as we know them; it’s that simple.”
Roots of a revolution
While the counterculture might have taken flight in California, the brain behind it was born in the Bluegrass state. LSD was not simply a pastime or token of the 1960s, it catalyzed an entirely new way of thinking and turned culture experimental. Whether it was music, drugs or sound systems, Owsley was concerned with making the absolute highest quality imaginable.
As with many great minds before him, traditional schools were too restrictive for the eccentric Owsley, and he spent his youth bouncing from institution to institution. While living with his father in the Washington, D.C. area, he was voluntarily admitted to the Government Hospital for the Insane at age 15, where he lived for more than a year. He studied the techniques of the hypnotists and psychotherapists assigned to “heal” him and slipped from his room at night to roam the hospital’s campus. After his release he spent eighteen months in the Air Force before moving to California to work as a radio engineer, landing in Berkeley in 1964.
Owsley first synthesized LSD in Los Angeles in 1965 after befriending a lab technician from a local college and converting his bathroom into a chemistry lab. He cut his teeth producing a highly prized variety of “organic meth” by synthesizing amphetamine directly from the ephedra plant, and his first attempt at LSD was no less victorious. Purity tests showed a quality superior to samples from Sandoz Laboratories, where Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann first synthesized the substance in 1938. Hofmann, the “Father of LSD”, validated Owsley’s work, noting that he was the only one to get the crystallization process correct. In all, Owsley manufactured somewhere around 1.2 million doses of LSD in his life, half of which he claimed to have given away for free.
Rather than a dangerous drug, Owsley considered LSD to be a chemical key that unlocked and opened the mind, and he saw himself in the tradition of the alchemists of the Middle Ages. Like Paracelsus — who dabbled in equal amounts of quackery, Kabbalah, healing, scrying and astronomy — Owsley was fascinated with ancient knowledge and the occult. “Alchemy was mental transformation. It was never about transforming substances,” Owsley told Greenfield. “Those were allegories. The lead and the gold is the lead of the primitive nature into the gold of the enlightened mind.”
A conversation with Owsley was said to be more like “listening to a series of lectures” on radar electronics, chemistry, music theory or whatever else he had just taught himself. Inspired by the Eskimos, Owsley adhered to a strictly meat diet: no vegetables and no carbohydrates. When Jerry Garcia and other friends lived with him for extended periods of time, it was beef, eggs and milk all the time, with no exceptions. Owsley even removed the shelves from the refrigerator and hung slabs that he would cut and quickly brown on each side, then eat along with a glass of wine. A 65-year-old Owsley attributed a 90 percent blockage in a main artery to a piece of broccoli he was forced to eat as a child.
Owsley’s appearance and behavior matched his unusual cleverness. He wore a cape with a Crocodile Dundee hat, like some “Robin Hood figure out of swashbuckling antiquity,” said Grateful Dead bass player Phil Lesh. Owsley started out selling LSD through the mail, and the money piled up so quickly it became more than he could handle. He made trips to the bank on his motorcycle with wads of cash stuffed in his boots and pockets. Besides completely funding the Grateful Dead’s early career, he also became patron to a community of artists and outsiders in California who ignited the blooming counterculture. Owsley financed, designed and built the Dead’s legendary “Wall of Sound”, a nearly $2 million dollar live sound system that took five hours to set up and five hours to take down. Though it became too expensive to haul around on tour for more than a few years, Owsley’s sound sculpture is still considered to be the peak of live concert sound.
In 1966 newspaper headlines began popping up all over the country about “THE LSD KING”, condemning the substance and its popularizer as a national menace corrupting the minds of the young. The press unwittingly turned the enigmatic Owsley into a mythical figure and modern-day folk hero. “Mr. LSD Makes Millions Without Breaking The Law” was the headline in the Los Angeles Times on October 6, 1966. The Grateful Dead’s “Alice D. Millionaire”; Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne”; Frank Zappa’s “Who Needs The Peace Corps?” and “Mexico” by Jefferson Airplane were all written about Owsley.
The “Pow Wow” at Golden Gate Park brought out more than 20,000 people in January, 1967, to hear the Dead along with Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service. Owsley made 300,000 tabs of 270 microgram LSD for the event and called it “White Lightning”. As Owsley dispensed acid to the frenzied crowd, Timothy Leary was on stage opening the show. “Flick on the inner switch to full power,” Leary urged. Later that summer, 100,000 tabs of Owsley’s “Monterey Purple” powered the Monterey Pop Festival. The entire place was stoned out of their gourds while Otis Redding, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix put on career-defining performances. Owsley’s latest acid was terrifyingly powerful. “I took some of his at Monterey and I never touched a drug again for 18 years,” said The Who’s Pete Townshend. John Lennon and the Beatles tripped for three weeks straight after Owsley sent them a telephoto lens packed with purple; their Magical Mystery Tour road film resulted from the experience.
Owsley encountered Hendrix once again at his Fillmore West debut, six days after the Monterey Pop festival. A pioneering sound engineer and gearhead, Owsley wanted to record Hendrix playing solo that night and they sealed the deal over a pipe of DMT-laced mint leaves. After setting up his rig inside of the large auditorium, Owsley lit a fire and dosed Hendrix with some LSD dispensed from a small glass bottle. Hendrix played, Owsley hit stop, and then removed the magical tape from the deck, holding it in the air victoriously like The Sword in the Stone. Hendrix then snatched it, pitched it into the fire and walked out, leaving Owsley and his tape destroyed. “Oh, Owsley, can you hear me now?” Jimi Hendrix asks about halfway through “Day Tripper”, recorded for the BBC in 1967.
Beginning of the end
Convinced that a new Ice Age was coming, Owsley moved to Australia in 1982 to prepare for doomsday. He squatted on 126 acres of unclaimed land and built an elaborate self-sustaining eco-homestead in the outback, complete with solar panels and a system to harvest rainwater. “When this storm happens, which I call an ultra-cyclone, the rains come, the winds blow everything flat, there are waves a thousand feet tall, and the earth appears to be covered in water,” Owsley told Greenfield. In true Kentucky fashion, his new pad was on a large “rocky hillside studded with eucalyptus trees” that could only be reached by way of a five-mile dirt road. Safe from the coming apocalypse, he traveled the world with his wife and held a yearly music festival on his property, coming back to the States only occasionally to follow the Dead and sell his homemade jewelry and belt buckles.
On March 11, 2011, Owsley died after crashing his SUV into a tree on his way back home from the airport. He was 76 years old. “An outlier from birth who became an outlaw in the eyes of a society that perceived him as a distinct threat to the status quo, Owsley was someone to whom the ordinary rules of behavior never applied,” Greenfield eulogized. Just as Bill Monroe synthesized country, blues, jazz, gospel, jigs and reels into a singular creation, Owsley’s acolytes fused east and west, primitive and modern into a psychedelic subculture that eventually merged with the mainstream and altered the course of history. So you can thank Kentucky for one of the most fruitful creative periods in America and, considering that Steve Jobs said that taking LSD was one of the most important experiences in his entire life, possibly also for all your Apple devices.
Born and raised in McLean County, Travis Kitchens spent the summers of his youth drinking cheap beer on the Green River under the shadow of the famous Livermore Bridge, a geographical oddity and relic of the Great Depression. A wanderer and bookworm, he now writes about country music and psychedelics.
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