Music to My Ears

Bear: The Owsley Stanley Story, Part Three

By accounts, in early 1967 Owsley “Bear” Stanley (click on the links for Part One and Part Two of this series) had stashed away $225,000 in a safe deposit box at Manufacturers Hanover Trust, $320,000 in various accounts around San Francisco, and an unspecified amount at a bank in London. Since 1965 he and Melissa Cargill had distributed an estimated 800,000 doses of high quality acid around Berkeley. Stanley claimed he had given away half of the doses in order to keep the price down and be able to sell easily. Still, even 400,000 doses at an average of $3 a dose would be a substantial amount of cash.

Owsley “Bear” Stanley.

Also, in early 1967 Stanley was approached by his friend “Mama Cass” Elliot of the Mamas and the Papas to make a special batch of acid for the now famous Monterey Pop Festival. He produced an estimated 100,000 tabs of Monterey Purple, then brought them to the festival and began handing them out. Pete Townsend of the Who recalls taking a 250 mg tab. He had previously experienced European acid, which came out of pharmaceutical company Sandoz and was pretty well regulated. “With Owsley, you had no clue at all. I took some of his at Monterey and I never touched a drug again for 18 years. It was extraordinarily powerful.”

John Lennon wanted some for his own creative use. He decided to go directly to Stanley and get a lifetime supply. One wonders how you calculate that. Lennon hired a cameraman to film the festival but his main task was to smuggle Monterey Purple back to the Walrus. Stanley sent the cameraman home with a telephoto lens packed with tabs of acid. The Beatles spent three weeks tripping on the stuff before they filmed Magical Mystery Tour. Uh-huh.

I have soared through a few acid trips and thoroughly enjoyed the experiences. But I’m talking two or three times. I cannot imagine tripping every day for three weeks. Interesting that it’s called “tripping.” Bob Weir spoke of taking acid every day for long periods and members of the Grateful Dead’s road crew, like Big Steve Parish, have talked of being high while loading in and out. Impossible. I remember figuring out God then being unable to tie my shoes.

With the kind of notoriety Stanley was garnering he knew he was on a list somewhere. His methods of being careful went to another level. He set up a distributor network where he worked with one particular person for each area. As soon as one guy would feel some heat, he would start working with someone else. Meanwhile Stanley kept his product in a small footlocker which went by Greyhound bus alternately around San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco. He could keep it at a bus station for 30 days and so be able to take what he needed and then ship it to himself in another city. And no one but him knew of this.

Alas, all good things find a way to blow up in your face. I think Mahatma Gandhi said that. Possibly Spiro Agnew. By December 1967, Stanley had set up a lab in a house in Orinda, CA, to avoid the authorities. Unfortunately, too many freaks were around (imagine dat) and one of them copped some of the acid and ended up selling to a narc who followed the bonehead back to Stanley’s house. On December 21 six narcotics agents busted down the door and arrested a group of people that included Stanley and Cargill.

67.5 grams of the purest LSD on the planet, enough to make about 700,000 doses, was confiscated. At $3 a tab that’s a lotta dough Joe. The national papers got involved and quiet-like-a-mouse Owsley Stanley became big news, complete with photographs. Everyone was released on $5,000 bonds but Owsley had to can his LSD operation.

In comes the Grateful Dead. A month after the bust, the Dead’s regular sound man, Dan Healy, quit and went to work for the Quicksilver Messenger Service. Stanley and the Dead had some rough history, but he was still a part of the family and still hanging around the Dead. The band offered Stanley the sound man job and he quickly accepted.

There are several stories that revolve around how the name “Bear” became attached to Stanley, including tales about the noises he would make during sex. I never want to know a friend that well. A likely reason is that, as the sound man, whenever a problem occurred the affected band member would shout out his name. Because he had to keep a low profile while on bail, Stanley insisted the band begin exclusively calling him Bear.

The drugs were catching up to Stanley. There are stories of him being late for sound checks or not showing at all. At times the band would find him backstage kneeling and talking to the amplifiers.

During this period Melissa Cargill deposited $100,000 in a safety deposit box at Manhattan Hanover and forgot the password she’d used. Bear had to hire a hypnotist to get it out of her.

In December 1969, Bear was tapped to coordinate and set up the sound systems at Altamont Speedway for a massive free concert. Yeah, that one. Because the crew only had enough scaffolding to build a three-foot high stage, 300,000 kids kept pushing those in front into close proximity to the acts. The Dead had suggested the Hell’s Angels for security, and interestingly, backed out of performing. As history has shown, the security decision was weird and turned out to fuel a catastrophe. A Hell’s Angel was caught on film punching Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane in the head. A man named Meredith Hunter was near the front and started waving a pistol in the air. In front of a cameraman filming the documentary Gimme Shelter, an Angel stabbed Hunter to death.

The party had gotten started.

Bill Graham would call the event “the Pearl Harbor of Rock.” It’s hard to believe now but Altamont took place only four months after Woodstock. Everything we thought was good about our generation, and believed had started with Woodstock, was already frickin’ over.

One Hell’s Angel named Terry the Tramp was a key figure of the LA counterculture. When the band Cream first came to California in 1966 Terry was one person Eric Clapton had to meet.   There’s a great story related by­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ Robert Greenfield in his wonderful Bear: The Life and Times of Augustus Owsley Stanley III of Ken Kesey seeing a Doors concert at the Fillmore. He discovered Terry loaded on acid in the lobby. “When Kesey asked him what he thought of the Doors, Terry the Tramp replied, ‘Gettin’ smaller all the time.  Getting’ smaller all the time.’ And so they were, but in ways that no one back then could even begin to understand.”

The Angels blamed Terry for getting them involved at Altamont and the media frenzy that followed them afterwards. On February 13, 1970, Terry the Tramp committed suicide at Bear’s house in Oakland Hills by taking an overdose of Seconal.

Things were definitely getting weird.

In October 1969, after the dreadful performance of the Dead at Woodstock, Bear and four others stood trial in San Francisco US District Court. All were sentenced to three years in jail and a $3,000 fine. They posted bail with travel restrictions.

In January 1970 the Grateful Dead were playing at the Warehouse in New Orleans. After a show they were congregated at their hotel at 300 Bourbon Street. Despite warnings from the house dick to keep it clean or they would get busted, our boys were in a room at 2 am cleaning a pound of weed. These were the days when you got jail time for being caught with a joint. The New Orleans Police Department came through the door and arrested the Dead, some roadies and the tour manager, and unfortunately Owsley Stanley.

The Grateful Dead got in touch with the district attorney, Jim Garrison of JFK assassination investigation fame, and in return for a $50,000 contribution to Garrison’s campaign fund and a promise to not return to New Orleans anytime soon, all charges were dropped. But Stanley’s bail was revoked and he was sent to jail.

After somehow miraculously getting out again, Bear was busted once more in the house in Oakland Hills on July 15, 1970. This time the bail on the Orinda bust was completely revoked and Stanley was sent to jail in Oakland. After spending months there, during which both Melissa Cargill and Rhoney Gissen gave birth to Stanley’s kids, Bear was transferred to Terminal Island penitentiary to serve his three year sentence. He would eventually be transferred to a low-security correctional institute in Lompoc, CA.

Owsley Stanley was released after serving two years of his three year sentence. He re-joined the Dead but was described by band members as a changed man. Mountain Girl related, “Prison was hard on him.”

And then he built the Wall of Sound. The End.

Ha ha, gotcha. I’ll tell that story in a Part Four or Epilogue or whatever in which we go into the details. Thanks for hanging.

 

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/William Rafti.