Monday, March 14, 2011

Owsley Stanley

With a recent focus on the fiction end of the spectrum, it's been a while since I looked at my Interesting Times history of the latter part of the twentieth century, but I will be back there, and, eventually, my attention will turn to the antecedents of those halcyon days fondly remembered as The Summer of Love.

By the time the hype machine had moved into high gear in mid-1967, the original factors that had created the San Francisco West Coast scene were in the process of being swamped, both by an influx of would-be hippies and a media orthodoxy that has produced a conventional wisdom about what was going on in those parts that would seem to differ markedly from the actual historical reality.

Looking back, the inevitable tendency is to classify things into convenient categories, so you'd probably expect most of those involved to have fitted into a generally environmentalist, probably significantly vegetarian and committedly left wing political world view. The reality, when you start looking at these things, invariably fails to fit into those convenient categories.

That San Francisco scene was the result of a number of intersecting strands that ran right back past World War Two, and there was a rather diverse mix of influencers that ran into the confluence.

Among other things, you had the legacy of the beat era, the poetry and jazz scene that coalesced around Ferlinghetti's City Lights book store, the Bay area folkie bluegrass scene that moulded the players who ended up in the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which threw up concert entrepreneur Bill Graham, the Texas diaspora that brought Chet Helms and Janis Joplin into town and the Stanford University writing school environment that gave us Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.

And that was on the western side of the bay. Throw in the eastern side around Berkeley and Oakland and there are a whole new batch of ingredients that went into the mix, including the Free Speech Movement, the Vietnam Moritorium and the Hells Angels.

Looking at that list of influences there's more than one maverick element, but if you were looking for someone who out-mavericked most of the rest of them you'd probably find yourself looking in the general direction of one Augustus Owsley Stanley III, who died in a car crash in North Queensland on 13 March this year.

Now, the average reader might be surprised to see an obituary to a non-musician on these music pages, but apart from Owsley's status as the chemical architect who provided the substance that fuelled much of the West Coast exploration of inner space his involvement with the Grateful Dead was a key influence on much that came afterwards.

For a start, his status as the Dead's sound man, and the financial resources he contributed that helped build the Dead's Wall of Sound concert audio system shaped much of what ca,me afterwards when it came to the sonic presentation of rock & roll, though few of his successors went to quite the same lengths.

Then his espousal of recording what was passing through that system laid the foundation for the whole tape trader scene which the Dead exploited to build a sustainable marketing operation that continues to this day. He also made significant contributions to the iconography of the Dead, including the Lightning Bolt Skull Logo.

And that's without considering any of his widespread influence as an industrial-quantity manufacturer of LSD.

When my attention returns to that Interesting Times project and I get to that particular era it would, perhaps, have been interesting to interview the Bear, but I suspect that any intrusion into the environs of his home on the Atherton Tablelands would have produced an acerbic reaction.

He was not, by all accounts, a man who suffered gladly, and it seems fair to conclude that he regarded almost everyone who disagreed with him as a fool. According to the Dead's Jerry Garcia, "There's nothing wrong with Bear that a few billion less brain cells wouldn't cure" hail lyricist John Perry Barlow is on record as saying "If you wanted to be an idiot and do something any way but his, that was your decision. And he was not surprised you would choose to be an idiot. Because you were. And he was probably right."

More along the same lines here.

Perhaps the most extreme example of his idiosyncrasies was his belief that humans should be totally carnivorous and the fact that he claimed to have existed on a diet of meat, eggs, butter and cheese since 1959.

The grandson of a US Senator and Governor of Kentucky, Stanley ended up in Berkeley in 1963 after an enlistment in the US Air Force and a spell studying ballet in Los Angeles. Involvement with the production of what he subsequently labelled the sacramental substances predictably led to legal entanglements and a spell in prison, and after he was released he returned to work with the Dead, and migrated to Australia after becoming convinced that it was the most likely place to survive an imminent ice age.

Obituaries often end with the suggestion that we'll never see his like again, but in Owsley's case that statement is truer than most.

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