The Trippy Life of the LSD Manufacturer Who ‘Helped Create the 60s’
Augustus Owsley Stanley III was the LSD chemist and audio maestro who not only created the Grateful Dead's "Wall of Sound" and inspired the band's dancing bear iconography, but also created the drugs that sparked the "spirit of that era."
Image by Olivia Thomson
Though not a household name, Augustus Owsley Stanley III, a.k.a. Bear, was an underground hippie legend who some say is largely responsible for the zeitgeist of the 1960s counterculture movement, thanks to the ultra-pure LSD he manufactured. Put it this way: If Bear wasn't on the scene, there would literally be no acid in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Bear manufactured millions of hits of "White Lightning," the cleanest LSD this side of Albert Hofmann, at a time when the drug was still legal. He's directly credited with expanding the minds of many of the most influential figures of the 60s, including John Lennon, who once tried to obtain a lifetime supply of Bear's potent product. The chemist even used the money he generated selling LSD to help fund the early days of the Grateful Dead when they resided in Haight-Ashbury. He also worked as the Dead's sound engineer, even creating their "Wall of Sound" and the notorious "Steal Your Face" logo, inspiring the dancing bear icons, and recording some of the band's best recordings, live and in the studio.
His influence was omnipresent, even if below-the-radar of the pop culture canon, and would have continued to affect and inspire lead figures of the era if he wasn't arrested by federal agents in late 1967. (LSD was made illegal by late 1966) Once he was released from prison, Bear never made LSD again, though he continued to be involved with the Grateful Dead and the counterculture scene until his death in 2011.
In the new book Bear: The Life and Times of Augustus Owsley Stanley III, out November 15, noted rock historian Robert Greenfield explores the life of the Grateful Dead insider who "helped to create the 60s" that lives on in our collective conscious. "Without his LSD, I don't think those times would have been as crazy as they were," explains the author. Greenfield had previously written about Bear in Rolling Stone for the magazine's issue celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love, and he had so much unused interview material from his subject, as well as from key figures like Jerry Garcia, that he decided to expand his profile into a definitive biography of the man. VICE chatted with Greenfield by phone to find out why Bear was one of the most important forces within the counterculture community, why his incarceration "ended" the 60s for a lot of people, and if LSD actually paved the way for the internet.
VICE: Can you tell me about how Bear got interested in both taking and manufacturing LSD?
Robert Greenfield: The insane genius of this human being was that he was like a rebel without a cause. He never fit and was a complete outsider. He was brilliant at everything. He'd been in the Air Force. He worked as a rocket engineer. At the same time, he was really kind of a lost soul, and didn't have a place to find himself. Then somebody gave him a half a dose of pure Sandoz acid, and it was beyond anything he'd ever taken before. At the time, he was taking classes at the University of California, Berkeley, and after his LSD experience, he went to the Bancroft Library and spent a couple weeks reading all the existing literature on LSD. Then he began to manufacture acid, synthesizing the purest LSD to ever hit the street.
Albert Hoffmann, who first synthesized LSD in 1938 and took the first intentional acid trip in history, supposedly once said Owsley "was the only one who ever got the crystallization process right." It is incredibly difficult to make LSD. It's not like Walter White cooking meth. It's a very, very difficult chemical process, and Owsley was so obsessive that the glassware he used when he made the acid was designed especially for him. The acid he created was so powerful, clean, and pure that he became the supplier to Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.
I followed the Dead and knew about Bear and his legend, but to those not in the know, why was Bear one of the most important figures in the rise of 1960s counterculture?
It was Bear's acid that helped create what was going on at all these iconic countercultural events. When Bear heard the Grateful Dead perform for the first time in 1966, he knew they were going to be bigger than the Beatles. He became their sound guy, their benefactor, and he paid to take them to Los Angeles to be a part of Kesey's acid tests. Most of the people who were at the Human Be-In [a 1967 concert/event that aimed to join together various sects of the counterculture movement] were tripping on a brand new batch of acid he created called White Lightning. The first batch he ever created consisted of 800,000 doses, an extraordinary amount. At the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, there was another new batch he created called Monterey Purple. He gave his acid to Pete Townsend of the Who, who had taken LSD before, but nothing like what Bear gave him. Townsend said the stuff was so powerful that he didn't take acid again for 18 years.
John Lennon also sent a cameraman to Monterey with the express purpose of bringing back enough Owsley acid to last him a lifetime. Lennon was terrified he wasn't going to have enough acid for the rest of his life, and he only wanted to take Owsley's acid, which Bear gave him packed in a lens case. The Beatles then tripped for the next three weeks and it led to the creation of the Magical Mystery Tour album and the movie. A couple nights later in San Francisco at Fillmore West, he gave Jimi Hendrix the acid, too.
You've written about all the counterculture superstars of the 60s, but what drew you to Bear's story? Why did you make him the subject of a book?
In 2007, when Rolling Stone did the 40th anniversary Summer of Love edition, they wanted to do a piece about Bear. He really didn't trust that many people and he rarely let anybody take his photograph, but he was willing to talk to me. I spent hours and hours interviewing him on the phone. He was living in Australia at the time, and we did the piece and it ran. He was really happy and really liked it. He actually came to my office after to hang out with me, and he was something else. After he passed away, I had so much interview material that nobody else had, and I realized that he was one of the guys who actually created the 60s. Without his LSD, I don't think those times would have been as crazy as they were, and that's why I decided to write the book.
What does the book include that your earlier article on Bear doesn't?
I was not able to fully detail his extraordinary family background or use much of the information that I had gathered from the interviews I had done at the time in the Rolling Stone article. As a result, there was not nearly as much context concerning his role in helping to create the counterculture as can be found in the book, where I was able to quote what people like Jerry Garcia said about him, as well as what Bear said about his relationship with Jerry, Ken Kesey, Terry the Tramp, Bill Graham, Timothy Leary, and others.
Why was Bear's incarceration for LSD charges in the late 60s seen by a lot of the hippies as the end of the 60s?
This year is the 50th anniversary of when LSD was first made illegal in California. Until October 6, 1966 LSD was legal and the Pranksters were handing out LSD-laced Kool-Aid at the acid tests. Back then it was very hard to get, because it was only coming from Sandoz [the laboratories where Hoffman first developed LSD]. What Owsley did was he brought it to the street. He made it available to anybody and everybody. Then Owsley went to prison and when he came out, he never made acid again.
The thing about Owsley was that you can't understand him without realizing that his grandfather, after whom he was named, was first a United States representative for three terms, then the governor of Kentucky and later a senator there. Owsley came from very high-born people, from Kentucky political royalty. His father worked for the federal government his entire life as a lawyer. They never got along and when his father sent Owsley to military school, he got everybody drunk and was thrown out. Owsley was also put in a psychiatric institution at the same time the poet Ezra Pound was confined there. He wasn't a guy from the street, so that colored everything that he did.
Owsley was such a symbol of everything that the 60s was about to those who were in the counterculture. Once they finally busted him and sent him away, it was over. He was the spirit of that era on some level because he was such a fabled outlaw. Once they killed Jesse James, it's kind of like that's the end of that world. In his early days, when Bear was out there at every concert and backstage, he was directly influencing what was going on. He was so powerful in the early days of the culture and then his influence was continued through the Grateful Dead. He recorded all of the live shows, the greatest live shows. They didn't ask him to do this. He was just so compulsive about everything that while he was doing sound during their shows he wanted to have a record of what had happened on stage, so he could listen to it later and improve the way he was making them sound. Owsley is as American as apple pie.
For more on LSD, watch the early episode of Hamilton's Pharmacopeia "Getting High on Krsytle":
A lot of people have said that LSD was what helped technologists create the internet. Do you think it actually did help pave the way for the web?
Steve Jobs famously once said that taking LSD was one of the most important things he'd ever done in his life. I've interviewed Wozniak, and there's a book written about this topic called What the Dormouse Said. It's obvious that LSD helped create the digital universe. If you think about it, the computer is a simulation of the human brain. It really is the brain accessed in a digital manner. Without LSD, I don't think that these people would have had a vision of how to do this, so the world we're living in now has totally been influenced by the use of LSD.
John Perry Barlow, who founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is one of these people who crossed over from the world of the Grateful Dead into the world of the computer. He's living proof of the relationship between LSD and the digital universe. During the Summer of Love, there were many other acid chemists making acid, but if you understand the LSD experience and how powerful and overwhelming it can be, the question is if people weren't using the real stuff, the pure stuff, would they have gotten to the place they got to? The people I have written about—Bill Graham, Jerry Garcia, Timothy Leary, and Augustus Owsley Stanley III—have influenced America in ways a lot of people would like to ignore or deny, but to a great degree they've shaped the culture that we're living in today.
Bear: The Life and Times of Augustus Owsley Stanley III is out November 15 on Thomas Dunne Books. Pre-order it now.