If I had to pick one guy, outside of the immediate circle of musicians or lyricists, who was responsible for the success of the Grateful Dead, it would be Augustus Owsley Stanley III.
If you were a member of the GD circle, you knew him as Bear. If you bought LSD anywhere on the west coast in the late 1960s or early 1970s, you knew him simply as Owsley, the guy who cooked millions of doses, before and after the drug was deemed to be illegal in 1966.
Bear was killed on Sunday, in a car accident near his home in Australia.
Bear’s underground industry helped him finance the band, which he first saw at one of the Bay Area Acid Test shows. He bought gear, he paid for their living expenses and allowed them the time to develop from something of a novelty to the biggest band in the San Francisco area. He even took them in while he lived in Los Angeles for a spell, feeding the band’s members only steak — he thought vegetables were toxic and carbohydrates caused diabetes — kept them stoned nearly all the time, because they all lived in the lab where he was cooking the substance that paid for the band’s expenses.
He observed early on that the band’s live harmonies were horrible; he actually went as far as to suggest that they play only songs that didn’t require background vocals. The guys didn’t go for that, so Bear did the next best thing — he upgraded their monitors and sound system, a process that continued with him until he designed the Wall of Sound, a monstrous system that could produce crystal-clear sound at a staggering decibel level. For those two-and-a-half years, the band had to use two Walls of Sound, so one could jump ahead to the next venue while the band used the other for the current show. It was a sonic success but a business nightmare — the expenses associated with hauling two of those things around the country nearly bankrupted the band and was a big factor in the hiatus that started in 1974.
Bear was a notorious pain in the ass, and he pushed the band through the years about matters both artistic and acoustic. That had an impact, back then and today, as Weir said in a statement posted at Jambands.com:
He taught me to take myself and my interests out of the picture and work with the subject under consideration so that the best deductions or conclusions are made. I guess this means working from the point of view of the higher self, though that term never came up; it was always just assumed…Most important was the approach he taught me: Always be open and engaging – always critical and questioning, but not negatively so much as playfully.
There are pictures of Bear available through the magic of Google, and I’m not going to post any of them here. Bear preferred to be a behind-the-scenes guy, and that’s something I’ll respect here.
Instead, you get a Stealie, which Bear helped design as a stencil to easily identify the band’s gear. It’s a pretty good symbol of the impact he had on the band. He needed something to make his job and that of the crew a little easier; what he came up with because the best-recognized icon for an iconic band.
Thanks, Bear, for that and everything else.