Music to My Ears

    Bear: The Owsley Stanley Story, Part Two

    Issue 104

    As reclusive and protective of his identity as Owsley “Bear” Stanley had been, one can’t manufacture the purest LSD on the planet and personally turn on half of the state of California and parts of Nevada and remain unknown.

    Stanley’s lab in Berkeley was raided in 1966 and he was arrested. The police confiscated his stash of LSD, thinking it was methedrine, and also corralled all of his lab equipment. Stanley hired an attorney and because LSD was not illegal he was released.  (My favorite part of his story.)  On his release Owsley sued and got back all his lab equipment.

    But by December 1967 LSD had become illegal in California, so there was a new raid on his lab in Orinda, just north of San Jose. A headline in the San Francisco Chronicle, “LSD Millionaire Arrested,” prompted the Dead to write tongue-in-cheek a song titled “Alice D. Millionaire.” This pretty forgettable little ditty (bring on the e-mails Deadheads) was performed a few times and appeared on a reissue of the Dead’s first album.

    OK, make up your own mind.

    Best part is Pigpen on vocals.

    Before meeting the Dead, Stanley was already experimenting with sound systems. He had a 1900-square-foot living room in which he put together a sound system most audiophiles of the time could barely imagine. Featuring a pair of Altec Lansing Voice of the Theatre cabinets each the size of a washing machine, the cabs had a 15-inch woofer, a 4-inch midrange driver and a horn mounted on top. He ran his sound signal through a McIntosh MC240 40 watt-per-channel amplifier. Stanley was a perfectionist so this must have been killer.

    The gear he had amassed included tape decks and great microphones. By the time the Grateful Dead began living in the Berkeley cottage withStanley he had figured out the use of tape loops, a technique invented by Les Paul, and the band began using them to get songs going on tape then replaying the loops and improvising over them.

    Stanley and Tim Scully began experimenting with the band’s guitar sound by installing a transformer connected by low impedance cables to clean up the sound. Because the power provided by most venues was so unreliable (it’s better but still not perfect today) they acquired transformers so large they required sledding to get them into gigs.

    In the last column we were talking about Stanley damaging his right middle ear in a swimming accident. The damage was severe enough to cause real problems with any adult but certainly would not be an asset to a sound man. However, Owsley Stanley was no ordinary adult. As he would say later, “Both ears have an entirely different character. All the highs come in my left ear, which is connected to the right brain, where most art and creativity come from so I’ve been developing my right brain since I was 19.”

    He developed an approach to his hearing that deepened his art. Because he had to overcome the fact that pan pots – controls on a mixing console that move a sound from left to right in the stereo field – didn’t move the sound for him, he never put a single source into both channels. His hearing combined with his genius led to using innovative sound techniques, including doubling the stage microphones and wiring them out of phase with each other to cancel the feedback coming from the huge PA behind the mics.

    In early 1966 the Dead moved to Los Angeles, ostensibly to follow the Merry Pranksters, and Stanley not only funded the trip but rented the three story house on West Adams in Watts where the band lived and rehearsed. He also bought all the food.

    Since Stanley was paying all the bills he felt he could make the rules. He had a strict diet of steak, eggs, and milk. Since he was buying the food so did everyone else. Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann’s wife had to fight Stanley to get oatmeal into the house for their daughter. Kreutzmann said of this encounter, “Owsley was as stubborn as red wine on a white carpet.” Stanley also insisted the band rehearse constantly, believing they had to break out of the “Acid Test” movement where they made no money.

    During this period Stanley enlisted Rock Scully to be the band’s manager. Scully was a promoter and Owsley understood that one of the promoter’s roles was to get a band for as little money as possible so the promoter made money. Stanley convinced Scully that he could make more money as a manager and thus put him in a role where he had to get the Grateful Dead the most money possible. Methinks that worked.

    From a rare interview, ironically in the San Francisco Chronicle in July 2007:

    “Bear has always lived in a quite particular world. ‘He can be very anal retentive, on a certain level, on a genius level,’ says Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane. ‘I've seen him send his eggs back three times at Howard Johnson's.’

    His all-meat diet is a well-known example. When he was younger, Bear read about the Eskimos eating only fish and meat and became convinced that humans are meant to be exclusively carnivorous. The members of the Grateful Dead remember living with Bear for several weeks in Los Angeles, where the refrigerator contained only bottles of milk and a slab of steak, meat they fried and ate straight out of the pan. His heart attack several years ago had nothing to do with his strict regimen, according to Bear, but more likely the result of some poisonous broccoli his mother made him eat as a youth.”

    I hear that. Poisonous indeed! Our mothers may have belonged to the same club because as a child I was a victim of similar abuse.

    The LA experiment lasted only six weeks and the band moved back to San Francisco into a house rented by Melissa Cargill and Phil Lesh’s girlfriend. Stanley moved back into his cottage in Berkeley. Whether they were chased out of town or the band couldn’t stand the living arrangements, the truth is the band and Owsley Stanley never shared a roof again.

    Stanley continued as the Dead’s sound man as the band began gaining in popularity.  During performances Stanley would dance onto the stage doing what the band called “The Bear Dance.” Stanley liked being a part of the band and liked to remind the band of his dance training. That worked fine, but apparently not the new sound equipment Stanley purchased.

    He had sold his Voice of the Theatre boxes and bought bigger and even heavier gear.  The Grateful Dead hated it since it took five hours (obviously these were the pre-roadie days)  loading in and another five loading out. There was a lot of experimenting going on and as the band began getting more important gigs the sound became more critical and the resulting screaming matches proved too much for all. By Labor Day 1966 Stanley had worked his last gig as the Dead’s sound man.

    As part of the split Stanley agreed to buy the band standard off-the-shelf amps and he kept the system he’d bought for them. It would take some time and some reflection but the Dead and company would come to realize the debt they owed Owsley Stanley. He had funded their escapades and brought to them a sense of sound quality that would be a mainstay of the band’s persona. Stanley instilled in them a rehearsal regimen that would be critical to their stage success. He had hired their manager and made the band listen to the live tapes he had made of their performances to hone their craft. Plus he fed them steak. Come on.

    Owsley Stanley’s interest in the Grateful Dead helped make them who they were.

    Next: The Bear Part Three…Prison and the Wall of Sound

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

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