Music to My Ears

Bear: The Owsley Stanley Story, Part Four

In 1976 Steely Dan released The Royal Scam, their fifth album. One of my all-time favorite songs, “Kid Charlemagne,” is on this disc. Donald Fagen would describe the lyrics as “loosely based” on Owsley “Bear” Stanley’s adventures.

While the music played, you worked by candlelight
Those San Francisco nights
You were the best in town

Just by chance you crossed the diamond with the pearl
You turned it on the world
That’s when you turned the world around…

…On the hill the stuff was laced with kerosene
But yours was kitchen-clean
Everyone stopped to stare at your technicolor motor home

(OK, technically a Ken Kesey reference but Stanley’s in there somewhere)

Every A-Frame had your number on the wall
You must have had it all
You’d go to L.A. on a dare and you’d go it alone…

…Clean this mess up else we’ll all end up in jail
Those test tubes and the scale
Just get it all out of here

Is there gas in the car?
Yes, there’s gas in the car
I think the people down the hall know who you are…

“Kid Charlemagne,” 1976 Walter Becker/Donald Fagen

Excuse me. What part of that is not about our man? Couple that with the stories of Stanley dressing in Renaissance duds for the Acid Tests (parties held by Ken Kesey in the 1960s where LSD was distributed) and we fade to black.

Owsley “Bear” Stanley.

By the time Bear got out of prison and went back to the Grateful Dead (see Part Three of this series), times had changed dramatically. The stage crew had morphed into a semi-autonomous gang of macho rowdies snorting mountains of coke and causing beer shortages in Milwaukee. To Stanley the atmosphere was out of control. Because of his absence, when he returned he had no real authority over the crew, some of whom didn’t even know who he was. He told Dead biographer Dennis McNally that at the time, he felt he was told, “Here’s a piece of your job back, just a taste. Now stand over there.”

(Part One and Part Two of this series can be read in Issues 103 and 104.)

Still Bear stayed on as soundman for another three years. The Dead had become obsessed with concert sound and eventually realized they needed a sound system that would eclipse anything currently in use at the time – and there was only one man who could design it. They authorized Bear to design and construct his lifetime crowning achievement, the Wall of Sound.

If you net-search “Wall of Sound” you’ll first get music producer Phil Spector. Spector was known in the sixties for engorged orchestral recordings with multiple drummers, bass players, guitarists and so on, which resulted in bloated-sounding performances. [I’ve never been a fan of this production style either, and Woody and I are probably contrarians in this regard – Ed.] My research did not turn up who named the Dead’s sound system The Wall of Sound and even Bear was quoted that “somebody named the system.” I’m shocked that loony Spector didn’t sue.

However one would be hard pressed to come up with a better name.

Stanley is credited with the design but long-time Dead sound man Dan Healy as well as crew members like Steve Parish, who had to build most of the equipment like the speaker cabinets and the scaffolding, were all heavily involved with the project.

Bear’s unique idea was to create a single sound source for each instrument and voice. Garcia had a single column of stacked speakers with very high gain, stacked in a way to multiply the sound and bring the guitar evenly to the audience anywhere from six feet to 600 feet away. Phil Lesh’s bass was channeled through a quadraphonic encoder that sent signals from each of the four strings to a separate channel and set of speakers for each string. In the documentary film Long Strange Trip Lesh related how much he loved that sound of his bass coming from four different spaces.

As Bear himself explained, “The entire system consisted of a cluster of line arrays that I developed and then tested in the way that line arrays work. Number one in a line array, if it’s composed of three different clusters, each of which is a certain frequency range with a crossover, then the bass is the longest column of speakers, the midrange is shorter, and the highs are shorter than that. But, much like a radio transmitter, they must all be the same radiating length. Each array must be as wide as it is tall or it doesn’t work right, and you can’t hang them in isolation.”

Man, I understand about half of dat.

The stage system stood forty feet high and seventy feet wide and sported 88 15 inch JBL speakers, 174 12-inch JBL speakers, 288 5-inch JBL speakers, (dude, remember how popular JBLs were?) and 54 Electro-Voice tweeters. The sound was powered by 26,000 watts generated by 55 McIntosh MC2300 amps. Giddyup.

The system was designed to be positioned behind the band so that they were hearing the same sound as the audience. Bear and John Curl from Alembic (yes, that John Curl) had to design a special microphone system to prevent feedback. They placed matched pairs of condenser microphones spaced 60 mm apart and run out of phase with each other. The vocalist sang into the top microphone, and the lower mic picked up whatever other sound was present in the stage environment. The signals were then added together using a differential summing amp, so that the sound common to both mics (the stage sound coming from the Wall) was canceled, and only the vocals were amplified. Yer kidding. This from a kid who didn’t graduate high school.

All of this required a crew of sixteen, two sets of scaffolding, and four semis to haul the stuff around. Setting up the Wall of Sound was so time-intensive that the crews would leapfrog each other, sending a crew and a set of scaffolding ahead to start setting up the next gig before the first gig was even torn down. I’ve seen film of this beast being setup and it’s scary stuff.

Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann was quoted describing the Wall of Sound as “Owsley’s brain in material form.” It accomplished what the Dead were after but Bear had created a monster that had a life of its own, was not friendly and could not be domesticated. Sound-wise everyone agreed it was gorgeous. But it was ultimately part of a journey. Debuting in its first form in February 1973 at Stanford University’s Maples Pavilion, every tweeter blew at the onset of the Dead’s first number. Sparks and lights flashing. Crowd went wild.

The bugs were worked out and the completed version was in place in March 1974 for the tour beginning at the Cow Palace in Daly City, CA.

But by October serious friction arose in the band. The demands of the high payroll, the costs of hauling stuff around and the weirdness of heavy drug use was wearing everyone down. The Grateful Dead decided to go on hiatus, and when they began touring again in 1976 the Wall of Sound had been dismantled and a more logistical-friendly touring setup put in place.

When the Dead did begin touring again Bear was replaced with Dan Healy at the mixing board. Phil Lesh hired Stanley as his personal roadie and Bear did accompany the band on their Egypt gig in 1978. But after their return to the states Stanley never worked for the band again. He was hired by Jefferson Starship as their onstage monitor mixer but that ended in 1979 and so did Bear’s career as a soundman.

In 1984 Stanley had become convinced a second ice age was coming. Bear tried to convince everyone around him to move to Australia, in his mind the safest refuge. He moved and eventually squatted on 126 acres in a rural corner of northeast Australia near Atherton in Queensland. It took the local authorities two years to realize he was there. By then Bear had built sheds, a reticulated water system, a septic system and a nine-kilowatt generator to provide electricity.

The authorities were not happy and tried to get rid of Stanley, but he had managed to build and maintain a viable farm and a two-family community in what was generously a no-man’s land. And no one was ever more ready for a fight than our boy. Ultimately the locals agreed to give him 26 acres, which Bear felt wasn’t enough. So he hired a crew and fenced in the entire 126 acres. By the time the dust settled he had a 99-year lease on the land.

And of course he turned it into what Bob Weir would call “a sort of science fiction version” of the hippie communes. He’d acquired portable and diesel generators. He installed two solar energy systems and a wind generator on a hundred-foot-high tower.

Stanley married and traveled back and forth from Australia to the States, keeping in touch with friends. As he got older his health began declining and in 2004 he was diagnosed with stage IV squamous cell carcinoma. He beat the disease but only barely. Even after a full recovery he had trouble swallowing and had to drink all of his food. The radiation therapy had been aggressive and caused weight loss, muscle problems in his neck and speech problems. His wife Sheila related they determined later that the doctors had over-dosed on the radiation and Bear was lucky to be alive.

Stanley had been a fighter his entire life; a disease was not going to get him. He would be all right with what would get him. On March 12, 2007 Bear was traveling with his wife Sheila on the dicey road to their compound when the car went off the road. She made it, Bear did not.  He was survived by his wife, four children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

***

This has been a fun look into a genius and fevered mind. Owsley “Bear” Stanley’s contributions to the Grateful Dead in general and specifically their philosophy on live sound quality are evident in his legacy and his gift to us all: the thousands of feet of live tapes of the Grateful Dead’s performances while he did sound as a part of the Dead family. I have thoroughly enjoyed this journey and my hope is you have as well.

If you just can’t get enough about Bear I suggest you read Robert Greenfield’s Bear: The Life and Times of Augustus Owsley Stanley III which was invaluable in my research. Bear’s website, thebear.org, is still accessible as well, where you can see his jewelry designs and read his stories and essays.

Last note: In 2005 Bear found out The Oxford English Dictionary had added a word: “owsley, N. An extremely potent, high-quality type of LSD; a tablet of this. Frequently attributive, esp. as Owsley acid.”
Bear was quoted as considering this the single greatest honor of his life.

Keep on truckin’ buddy.

Wall of Sound image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Mary Ann Mayer.