Heads Bowed in Grateful Memory

Originally appearing at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/17/arts/music/from-owsleys-60s-to-today-a-long-strange-intergenerational-trip.html. There is a bit of Owsley in me. You see, my father, a strait-laced middle-class Jewish kid from Los Angeles, enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1964. That same year, in that same town, a brilliant renegade named Augustus Owsley Stanley III spent three weeks in the university library’s organic chemistry stacks learning the secrets of synthesizing lysergic acid diethylamide, also known as LSD. Before long, Owsley was creating mass quantities of the purest acid the world had ever known, just in time for the seismic cultural and generational transformation of the era. By the time my father graduated from Berkeley in 1969 with degrees in sociology and economics, the world had changed and my dad along with it. My very existence is a direct product of that moment, when old cultural systems gave way, for better or for worse. I was born just a few years later after my father, by then a politically active hippie, moved to New York and married a young working-class black woman from Bridgeport, Conn. It should almost go without saying that such a story would have been quite literally unthinkable before the social upheaval of that time engulfed America. And Owsley connected some of the dots. Owsley Stanley died last weekend in a car crash in Australia, where he lived. It was Owsley who made Ken Kesey’s parties the Acid Tests. It was Owsley who made 300,000 hits for the Human Be-In. It was Owsley who gave acid to Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend and Brian Jones (among many others) at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival of 1967. It was Owsley who agreed to deliver a lifetime supply of LSD to John Lennon. And certainly not least, it was Owsley who originally financed, inspired, amplified and dosed the great American rock band, the Grateful Dead (more about that in a bit). On Tuesday evening my father, Jonathan, sent me an e-mail about Owsley and what it was like to be present at the epicenter of a cultural revolution. “Owsley Stanley,” my dad wrote. “Didn’t know his first name was Owsley. Just knew that the first few hits of acid were called Owsley. Went with friends to the Fillmore West to see Janis Joplin and the Holding Company, or so I was told. They laughed when I told them that I didn’t know who she was. Had just started U.C. Berkeley and had taken an Alternative Course in creative writing and another course on Gandhi. Dropped the Acid and well what is time and space anyway. The second hit of Owsley was back in Santa Monica where I walked a stairway to the clouds above, or was in the process of doing that when gentle hands pulled me back from the cliff. Rainbow Bubbles streaming across the room from the sounds of the Grateful Dead.” There was certainly a dark side to the 1960s drug culture. But many people, including my father, considered LSD positively transforming. “Before Acid, my neck was so strong from carrying the concrete and bars that made up my skull and with the drug coursing through me the concrete chipped off and WOW, I could see and hear and feel so much. Just a reflection of pre-acid American culture chipping off; one chip for repression, another chip for anxiety, another chip for ignorance, another chip floating away carrying my image of short hair, plaid shorts, tennis shoes and high ankle socks. What remains is the sculpture revealed, the New Age of liberation and caring so deeply that it was impossible to remain hidden in classrooms of agonizing dogma. Take to the streets. Let Love be heard. Let Love be seen. Let Love be felt.” Given the family history, it may seem a surprise that I actually didn’t learn about Owsley, LSD and the Grateful Dead from my father, or even while I was growing up in Woodstock, N.Y., the renowned hippie town. For that I had to wait until I met the other kids at one of the nation’s most exclusive elite boarding schools, Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. By the time I showed up as a 14-year-old in 1987, Andover, as the school is known, had been a Grateful Dead hotbed for at least a decade. Not coincidentally, LSD was readily available on campus. When I got there I was a serious Led Zeppelin fan, but of course by then you couldn’t actually go see Led Zeppelin anymore. The Grateful Dead, on the other hand, was this mythic creature that was actually alive and more popular than ever. (In 1987 the Dead released the popular album “In The Dark” and the band’s biggest hit single, “Touch of Grey.”) That fall one of my 10th-grade classmates, Liza Ryan, received a new teddy bear from her father. She named it Owsley. (Owsley’s nickname, known wide and far, was Bear.) Before long she and I and many of our schoolmates were on our way to becoming the last, final generation of true Deadheads. Soon I learned about how Owsley designed some of the first modern rock amplification systems for the Grateful Dead, culminating in the over-the-top (literally) “Wall of Sound” in 1974. As I started collecting tapes of Dead performances, I learned about how Owsley was probably the first sound engineer in the world regularly to record and archive every performance by a band straight from the soundboard. (Rolling Stones fans wish they had had one of those in the early days.) Naturally, the first Dead album I ever bought is known as “Bear’s Choice.” “I think growing up in the early 1980s it was kind of a dark time, and it felt like minds were contracting rather than expanding,” Liza said on the phone from the Bay Area on Tuesday, speaking eloquently for our cohort. “Everyone was worried about nuclear war and the arms race and the Cold War and that movie ‘The Day After’ about a nuclear holocaust. It was a scary time. And it seemed like the ’60s were a time when people were embracing civil rights and crossing social boundaries and of course the music was great. So I guess I was trying to connect with aspects of the ’60s that seemed to have been lost. “I called my teddy bear Owsley because he always seemed to be this fascinating character, this magician in the corner making everything happen, not just with the acid and the sound systems but in pushing the band out to different audiences.” I attended my second Grateful Dead concert, on July 9, 1989, at Giants Stadium, in the company of a famous New York City acid dealer named Mountain. I was 16. Mountain, who was probably in his 50s, told me that he had known Owsley back in the day, and that he was one of the most extraordinary people on the planet. I believed him. By the end of that show I was on the bus, as they say. And by the time Jerry Garcia died in 1995, when I was 22, I had seen the Dead more than 90 times. So there is a bit of Owsley in me. And if modern popular music means anything to you, there is a bit of Owsley in you too. On March 13, 2011, early LSD entrepreneur Owsley Stanley died in a car crash in his adopted home of Australia. Owsley was at the chemical, financial, and musical epicenter of the 1960s. This article discusses Owsley’s role in fueling the dramatic rise in popularity of the Grateful Dead and other icons of psychedelic culture.