R.I.P. Bear: Rock 'n' roll wouldn't have been the same without Owsley

March 14, 2011

 
Though his name may not have been as famous as that of Timothy Leary or Ken Kesey, Augustus Owsley Stanley III did more on a practical level than almost anyone else in the ’60s to help a generation “tune in, turn on, and drop out”—it was LSD from his laboratory that fueled many a journey toward the white light, inspiring some of the best and most enduring psychedelic rock.
 
Stanley died on Sunday at age 76 after a car accident in his native Australia, and it is a testament to his accomplishments as an influence in pop culture and an entrepreneur that both Rolling Stone and the Wall Street Journal were quick to run laudatory obituaries when the news broke on Monday.
 
On the musical front, Owsley’s acid powered the Merry Pranksters’ Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests, the prototype for every rave to follow; it led Brian Wilson down the path that resulted in “Pet Sounds,” and it ran through the Beatles’ systems when they made “Magical Mystery Tour.”
 
Re-christened “Bear,” he built many of the Grateful Dead’s legendary sound systems and helped record “Anthem of the Sun,” my vote for the group’s best album. But he was just as instrumental helping to forge another, very different sound—heavy metal—by championing the influential noise of Blue Cheer, a group he managed, and which took its name after one of his special batches.
 
Owsley helped start the instrument manufacturing company Alembic, was said to be the inspiration behind the Dead song “Alice D. Millionaire” and the Steely Dan tune “Kid Charlemagne,” and was nicknamed “God’s Secret Agent” by Leary. And he never bragged about any of it, remaining notoriously press-shy to the end.