Sunday, October 2, 2016

Owsley: "what I did was a community service"

With the graying days of sixties' culture well underway, it's inevitable that iconic figures are passing rapidly from view and their life and times become memorials to a different age. Very few sixties' figures achieved the infamy of Owsley Augustus Stanley: his name became a noun in the language of drug culture, a form of hip tribute that ensured not a little legal trouble in the years that followed.

Even rarer were the times that Owsley, nicknamed Bear, spoke publicly about his life and work. Here are excerpts from a 2007 interview Owsley gave to Joel Selvin at the San Francisco Chronicle. Owsley was ill with cancer but could still show flashes of his cantankerous nature. Then again, as Wavy Gravy comments, Owsley had come a long way at the age of 71: sometimes he could actually be sweet.

Sporting a buccaneer's earring he got when he was in jail and a hearing aid on the same ear, he keeps a salty goatee, and the sides of his face look boiled clean from seven weeks of maximum radiation treatment for throat cancer. Having lost one of his vocal cords, he speaks only in a whispered croak these days. At one point, he was reduced to injecting his puree of steak and espresso directly into his stomach.
"I never set out to change the world," he rasps in recalling his early manufacture of LSD. "I only set out to make sure I was taking something (that) I knew what it was. And it's hard to make a little. And my friends all wanted to know what they were taking, too. Of course, my friends expanded very rapidly." ...
He found the recipe for making LSD in the Journal of Organic Chemistry at the UC Berkeley library.
... "If you make some, you've got to move some to get some money to make it," he says now. "But then you had to give a lot away to keep the street price down. So anyway, I'm sort of embedded in this thing that I'm tangled up in. ... Just as soon as it became illegal, I wanted out. Then, of course, I felt an obligation." 
Bear, chemist to Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, was involved with the Dead almost from the band's beginnings at Kesey's notorious Acid Tests. Bear was the Dead's first patron and, briefly, their manager. He bought the band sound equipment and began to use the Dead as a laboratory for audio research.
... 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 months in 1966 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. ...
"He's come a long way," says Wavy Gravy, who visited Bear in Australia this year. "He used to be real snappy and grumpy. Now he can be actually sweet."
His four children are grown. He has five grandchildren, and his oldest son, Pete, in Florida, just became a grandfather, making Bear a great-grandfather for the first time. His other son, Starfinder, a veterinarian, hosted a party for him last month at his Oakland home attended by the old Dead crowd, a tortoise and a caged iguana. He has two daughters, Nina and Redbird, and maintains his own Web site ( where he sells his sculpture and posts various diatribes and essays.
Owsley Stanley (he legally dropped the "Augustus" 40 years ago) has also not joined the ranks of the penitent psychedelicists who look on their experiences as youthful indiscretions. 
"I wound up doing time for something I should have been rewarded for," he says. "What I did was a community service, the way I look at it. I was punished for political reasons. Absolutely meaningless. Was I a criminal? No. I was a good member of society. Only my society and the one making the laws are different."

(Owsley Stanley died March 12 2011. Photo by Perlstein/Redferns/Getty)



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