II. A Bear In The Woods

Considered by many as one of the legends of the Sixties counterculture, “Bear” Owsley Stanley III denies his heroic status. Bear was a minor participant in the Acid Tests of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and supplied the acid for their events. He was the first underground cook to produce high-purity LSD in 1965 when it was legal, including the famous White Lightning and Monterey Purple, and by giving much of it away for free he helped catalyse the hippie movement. He is renowned for his contribution to sound engineering, particularly working for the Grateful Dead and perfecting the idea of on-stage monitors and high-quality PAs. A tireless archivist, he kept a ‘sonic-journal diary’ of his front-of-house mixes, including hundreds of Grateful Dead performances, a number of which have been released by record labels. “Bear” Owsley Stanley died in a car accident in 2011.

RAK: Bear, thanks for being an elder who has come out to share your wisdom with the modern psychedelic generation. I think people are interested in your legacy. I mean, I think of you as the ‘shaman of the Haight Ashbury’...

BEAR: I never had anything to do with that... I never lived in the Haight Ashbury, I never lived in San Francisco, I just hung out there. I was never a hippie. I saw the hippies as a real danger to our community and sure enough they destroyed the whole scene very quickly.

RAK: Well, who was the ‘community’ if it wasn’t the hippies?

BEAR: A bunch of us taking acid and having a good time very carefully, and below the radar.

RAK: But then when you started sharing the acid you made with people like the Warlocks, who went on to become the Grateful Dead–now that was a very psychedelic community.

BEAR: That’s right, but that wasn’t on the street, waving and shouting it about. It wasn’t like Tim Leary saying: “Fuck your parents! Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out!” I said to him, Tim, you can’t do that! ... That brought psychedelics into prohibition. And prohibition is the problem. The most important thing I have to say to anyone, anywhere, is that they have to legalize drugs, and I mean not decriminalize, not harm reduce, legalize. Make them available on an open market and you can control them, you can limit them, do anything you want according to your plan – and I have a plan! I’m not just saying you’ve got to figure one out, I have a plan that can be followed or modified, but it has to be done because we will not recover from the [current] economic collapse until the drugs are taken out of the mix.

The worse it gets the more money goes to the black market. So as the economy deteriorates more and more people will try to sell drugs and more people will use their stimulus packages to buy drugs, etc. Jobs are not being created they’re fading away.

Australia can do its dance with China for a long time, but the US will go down, Europe will go down, the Taliban will get more powerful, and Al Qaeda will start spreading out... We’ll have problems down here and China will have problems...

RAK: If the government legalized drugs tomorrow, what do you think the social repercussions would be from people having elevated consciousness?

BEAR: I don’t think they would have elevated consciousness, number one. Most of the common drugs of recreation do not elevate consciousness. And what they’ll do is, people will use less of them. There won’t be anyone out there flogging it because you can’t sell a pound of marijuana at $2500 when you can grow it by throwing a seed in a compost heap.

See, if you grow for your own use, and even if you extract hash from it, or grow poppies for your own use, that is, extract opium from it, and even if you don’t sell it to anybody, that’s your business. As soon as you either concentrate that to THC or morphine, or heroin, or as soon as you try to sell that, you have to have a license and a register and all that.

In order to buy a drug you have to have passed a course–and you’d get a license like a driver’s license, and like how they are endorsed for cars... you have to be endorsed for the drug you want. Then if you want a powder drug you go to a doctor and you get a script. If you want cannabis you just go to a place where someone is selling, where they have a license and you can buy it. You do not pay a tax on that. You do pay a fee. In Australia the constitution says all taxes go to general revenue, and that includes road taxes, which is why our roads are deteriorating. Any type of health tax goes to general revenue.

So, [drugs] can’t be taxed, they have to be [licensed] under a fee, and specifically a fee to provide for the education of the users, a card and health care if the users screw themselves up on stupid shit. A course of education would help people detox and get out of [their addiction], all of that. It would regulate and license the people who are doing it, all of that can be covered by a fee–and not a big fee. If you raise taxes then the government is in the business of promoting [the thing taxed]. If you put a fee on it that’s too high or a tax then it’s the same as prohibition, people say, oh, I’m not going to pay thirty-five or forty dollars for an ounce of tobacco when I can get it for a dollar and a half from a farmer who makes about thirty-five cents from that and is glad to give it out for that because the government’s giving them less.

RAK: But say they do that and the government was to legalize drugs–and the government must be the worst ones to try and instruct us on the spiritual use of drugs –

BEAR: There is no spiritual use that’s a figment of your imagination.

RAK: But many people have spiritual responses to certain drugs–

BEAR: There’s no such thing as an entheogen [Latin for ‘evoking the divine within’]. Drugs do not create gods -

RAK: But they can reveal god within.

BEAR: They don’t reveal anything, I’m sorry.

RAK: But have you had spiritual/ illuminating moments on acid, for instance?

BEAR: I don’t think you’d call them spiritual, but yeah, I’ve seen a whole bunch of shit, you wouldn’t believe what I’ve done.

RAK: Bear, you’ve also promoted the theory of planetary exo-pheremones, that the planet itself secretes these substances [plant entheogens] to interact and shape us...

BEAR: Yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s doing so to create a god within... [The planet] is creating [these things] because it’s like an amplifier. I can’t hear without my hearing aid, but with it now, I can hear you. The acid does the same thing. It turns your knobs up. It makes whoever you are a little bit louder. It brings things into you and raises them up and gives you more fine detail like a high-quality TV.

RAK: It’s a tool to use.

BEAR: it is a tool for anyone. Like when you get your male hormones and hair sprouts and your balls grow, you’re suddenly interested in girls and all that; that’s part of your development. I think you get to a certain point and to go further you need these consciousness altering substances. You can’t say whether they’re spiritual or they create gods, because the only god there is–is not a god. God is the universe we live in and he is the ALL. There is nothing outside of it. There’s no time outside of it so it had no beginning and it can’t have an end–so there’s no such thing as the Big Bang…

RAK: But wasn’t that the whole point of the Acid Tests of the 60s, with Kesey and the Grateful Dead and people like you who realized the point was to evolve beyond acid...to go beyond the doorway acid revealed...

BEAR: No, it wasn’t. There was no point to the Acid Tests...

RAK: Well, that’s what the literature says, like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test...

BEAR: I don’t care what the literature says, no sir...

RAK: Well, what were the Acid Tests all about?

BEAR: Having a great time getting stoned out of your mind and seeing what you could make happen. It had nothing to do with any of that other shit. You can’t go back and analyze all that and write a book about it, it’s nonsense. Ask Kesey, if you wanted to know how to get that gestalt [mind] going, he’d say oh, you don’t even talk about that. Sometimes it happened, sometimes it didn’t. There were very specific things you did to make it come together but you didn’t talk about it.

RAK: It was play...

BEAR: Yeah... Now Humphrey Osmond was a psychiatrist and he used acid a lot in his treatment. And he said that acid alters or changes the mind, and makes manifest, so he coined the term ‘psychedelic’. There were other terms like psycho-mimetic, but acid doesn’t really mimic psychosis. They said hallucinogen but those are not hallucinations, you see. And now they say entheogen, and I think that is so far from reality that it leads you down some weird path...spirituality...oh my God, you know... Spirit is in the forest and you’d better eat your vegetables, despite the fact that your body’s not prepared to eat vegetables at all... Oh, you can’t kill animals–what, you think plants aren’t conscious? There’s no living thing on this planet, including bacteria, that’s not conscious.

RAK: Bear you say on your website that global warming is a naturally occurring event?

BEAR: There’s no such thing [as global warming]. It doesn’t happen it hasn’t happened it can’t happen. It cannot happen. Our planet is governed by water vapor. Have you ever heard of anybody running a steam engine on carbon dioxide? Or methane? You can’t do it. When you take water as ice and melt it, it takes 750 calories per gram to melt it. When you take water and turn it into steam its a 1050 calories per gram to turn it into steam. That’s a huge amount of energy that’s transported back and forth as water changes state. When water condenses in the air it forms an opaque cloud that’s a great reflector of heat and everything else. Yet too much moisture, or too much evaporation from too much heat and bang – you get a cloud that reflects extra heat away. It traps the heat in and traps the heat out. It evaporates water and moves the heat somewhere else, as with rain. You take the heat from here and put it there.

So presently we have an atmospheric turmoil that’s a build up to an ice age storm, which is the next wave.

RAK: So, it’s a natural cycle.

BEAR: It’ll happen within a few years but it’s a long cycle. The last storm like this was 140,000 years ago. We’ve had 11,000 years–which is normally 10,000, and we’re right at the end of the period, we’ve had an extra 1,000 years of fun and we’re about to have a very destructive storm in the northern hemisphere–that’s why I’m in Australia.

In order for that storm to happen the first thing that has to occur is water levels have to rise a certain amount, and the ice from the Arctic Ocean must melt away. 

That then creates a tremendous flow of heat in and out of the Arctic and in the meantime the atmosphere becomes more and more turbulent with more heavy storms and floods and things like that. And all that heat moves from the tropics to the poles to melt the ice.

And in order for the heat to get from here to there it has to pass you. And when it does you experience warming. Now 95% of all the weather stations on the planet are in the temperate zones on land, so they all say it’s getting warmer. But if you take a pan-global satellite analysis, which does exist, by the way, it says the planet is cooling. You can’t melt ice without taking heat out of the system and you can’t get heat in faster to replace it.

RAK: Is it true you studied ballet?

BEAR: Of course.

RAK: And why did you choose ballet?

BEAR: It’s beautiful. I like it. I saw a guy dancing [ballet] and I liked it, and went down and signed up for a class–I was 23. I went backstage to talk to the dancer and I couldn’t talk to him because he spoke Russian, so I signed up for a Russian class as well.

So, I learned to speak Russian and I learned to dance. And I wound up dancing a few parts in local neighborhood dance companies, but then I found out I’d have to join a union, and the highest pay I could expect, unless I was a soloist, was about a hundred dollars a week. And it cost fifty to buy my classes. And if you take ten classes a week you don’t have any energy to do anything and all your money’s going for rent and food – so I didn’t see a future in it. I’d already proven I could do it.

RAK: I look at you as a bit of a Renaissance Man, in that you have the skills and ability to put whatever you put your mind to. And so, when the acid opportunity came along–

BEAR: Well, that was obvious. I wanted to take the acid and I couldn’t find anything good, and I tried four or five different ways...

RAK: Your girlfriend Melissa, she was making acid at the time, wasn’t she?

BEAR: I was making acid. She helped me. It takes a lot of time to do that. I didn’t know any chemistry at the time–I’d played around with rocket fuels and I’d taken a basic course in inorganic chemistry but I hadn’t done the lab work and so I failed the course. So, I learned what I needed to know to cook acid in less than three weeks in the library. I found out very quickly that the apparatus wasn’t quite right and some of the information was missing. So, I designed some apparatus and I worked around and found out what was missing and I had glassware built for that. And so, within a year I was successful in crystallizing acid.

RAK: And it wasn’t just a commercial endeavor for you to make money...

BEAR: Never. Are you kidding? I would make a certain batch and we’d have to sell some of it because it was expensive [to produce]...

RAK: And you gave a lot of it away...

BEAR: About half of it.

RAK: Which was millions of doses?

BEAR: No, wrong. I made less than... I made about 420 grams of which the government confiscated a hundred [grams], so it was somewhere about half a pound... so 250... and we used to dose it out to about 3600 doses to a gram, which was a little over 300 micrograms per hit. I must have made somewhere between 850-900,000 doses of acid. And only about 200 or 300,00 were done properly, some of it had to go...

RAK: But strategically you were in the right place at the right time to be the person who made the acid and disseminate it...

BEAR: I don’t know anything about that... I wanted to take it, my friends wanted to take it, and if you wanted to make it one batch, starting with 15 grams of lysergic acid monohydrate, well the way I did it you ended up with 15 grams of lysergic acid diethylamide... and 15 times 3600 is a lot of doses of acid! And that’s just one tiny batch! So, I’d make about 45 or 30 grams...

RAK: And your acid was the most famous of the period... names for your acid like ‘White Lightning’ still resonate today...

BEAR: Well, I didn’t do anything about that; it was a mistake that my name was attached to it. I gave the first batch to a musician friend of mine and he told everyone who made it. I asked Perry [Letterman] why the fuck he did that... It wasn’t illegal at the time but I still didn’t want my name attached to it because I knew that this stuff was so powerful, so strange and so weird that it wouldn’t stay legal for long. But you could keep it legal by being quiet about it, but oh no, that got destroyed big time.

RAK: Well, when your lab was raided the first time [in 1965] your lab was still legal, and you went as far as suing the government to get your lab equipment back.

BEAR: They didn’t raid me for acid. They raided me because some moronic kid was staying in my apartment and he sold some speed out the front door to an agent. So, they came back looking for me and they found a little laboratory. I was in the process of figuring out the acid process so there was no speed there. So, they took all my stuff anyway and then arrogantly said fuck you. And I said no, you can’t do that. They told me to get a court order and so in less than a week I was back with a court order that named that officer and named the state. I told them they had to give back everything: all the glassware and all the chemicals.

The court said to me that these [chemicals] were poisons and I said to them so what? Lots of things are poison. Draino’s poison. And I picked up my stuff and walked out.

And that guy and that crew, the state narcs, never fucked with me again. They weren’t involved in my federal bust or anything. I said fuck with me baby and I will bite your fucking noo-noo’s off!

And I did. And then he fucked with this lawyer I know and they canned him, quicktime. He was a big guy, top of the department and everything,

but he fucked with the wrong people and he got the shaft right up his butt.

RAK: You were probably one of the most famous alchemists of the 60s but there were others, like Tim Scully, Nick Sands, etc...

BEAR: I should’ve stuck with Nick, he seemed to be dedicated but he didn’t look like he would do the quality...

RAK: Was he your apprentice?

BEAR: Tim kept telling me, but I said Tim, I can’t figure out why you would want to do this. I couldn’t figure out his motivations and I don’t think he knew either. He was so wrong that the first time I introduced him to one of my suppliers they turned him in. Every time he turned around, he did something to get into trouble. I dealt with everybody–I could call and order...crazy stuff... I could get large quantities of chemicals and things in the mail because I knew what to say and how to say it... No one ever turned me in for anything.

The cops would watch my house for three or four months continuously and they saw me come and go only once. And yet I would come and go every day. So, I don’t know...

RAK: William Burroughs said that same thing about going under the radar and not being seen... el hombre invisible...

BEAR: I’ve gone through security checks where I had to open up film canisters full of weed and as they were doing so, I would be thinking... there’s absolutely nothing you’re interested in here whatsoever... and it works... they must look at it but not see it... And the other thing is that I was trained as an actor. I was trained in the Michael Chekhovian method acting school. Which is different from Stanislavski, where you create the character in the script. In Chekhov you discover the character and then impersonate it. I knew how to direct anyone, anywhere by just talking to them.

RAK: Getting back to making acid, there is this theory that the alchemist imprints a bit of themselves on their creation.

BEAR: Alchemists believed the universe was conscious. They weren’t imprinting anything; they weren’t doing anything except trying to pretend to make gold out of lead so that the church wouldn’t burn them at the stake.

RAK: I mean the modern chemists now days and in the 60s which are sometimes called alchemists. One of the theories in psychedelia is that the quality of acid [or other chemicals] is affected by the consciousness of the maker.

BEAR: Well, I thought so, but I do a lot of things strangely. I thought that. You’re taking something absolutely inert and turning it into something so powerful–a microgram will do it–that you can warp the universe. It was so powerful that I always moved it around–I wouldn’t make it in one place for more than two or three weeks because I felt the place would get all twisted.

RAK: Do you have any regrets about how the 60s turned out? About how the psychedelic movement collapsed?

BEAR: Well, what can you say? Let me tell you something. If you have regrets and you look back and worry, think you’re born too late or something, then you’re missing your life. Stay in present time and don’t worry about such things. If you open your mind and look around there’s all kind of opportunities. But you’ll miss it all if you do that. Worry about the past? Forget it. I don’t worry about the past and I don’t remember most of it. Someone said to me once that I should write a book and I said–about what?

RAK: Do you think the War on Drugs is like religious persecution?

BEAR: No, I think it’s stupid, that’s all. It’s the result of putting laws on something which is a natural human right. And yet no one has the bravery to go to the Human Rights Court and say that the worldwide prohibition on drugs is an absolute violation of the basic right of all humans–and animals–to alter their consciousness.

RAK: That message is absolutely correct but do you think governments would listen to anyone saying it? Would they let that message be heard?

BEAR: Well, that’s the point of me talking [at conferences like Entheogenesis Australis ]. If you listen to what I say I’m talking with the hope that someone somewhere will understand exactly what I’m saying, will see it all opened up and know who to talk to, when to tell it and where to tell it, and how to tell it. All of those things are critical. For change to happen it requires someone who has that ability, has the contacts, and is intelligent enough to drop this weird idea that people have that prohibition is stopping or reducing drugs, when in fact it’s spreading and increasing it.

We have to do this. We have people killing themselves by the hundreds in Mexico going across the border with drugs. 95% of the world’s heroin production is growing in poppy fields in Pakistan and Afghanistan under the Taliban. The Taliban have a cash flow that’s over the roof and Al Qaeda are the same way.

All of this endangers the whole world. Their idea is to produce a Taliban-style Shaira government worldwide. Every singe person on the planet would be subjected to the same [paradigm] the poor Afghanis were subjected to before the U.S. went in there. But the U.S. went in there [reprimanding] ‘naughty-naughty’ like–they should have gone in there and blown their heads off. You will not defeat the Taliban until you kill every last one of them. You cannot convert them.

RAK: What I’m interested in though, is if they did legalize all drugs, absorbed the black market economy money back into the regular economy and propped it up, what then would the affect be on global culture? What would it do to our consciousness to have access to drugs without legal limitation?

BEAR: I don’t know. Drugs have been with us since pre-historic times. If you go back half a million or a million years or whatever, however far back you want to go to consider humans different from animals, but even animals like to get high. I’ve watched animals get high, even wild animals. Coffee growers in Ethiopia have trouble with wild goats eating their coffee. In the past I’ve had dogs get into my plants and get so stoned they can’t walk–and any chance they get they’re right back at it again. That’s part of the living process of the animals to want to alter their restricted consciousness which you have to have to make decisions.

Plants don’t have egos, they’re in communion with the manifest all the time. They’re the most holy things on the planet. And yet people say they won’t eat animals, yet they’ll eat the most conscious things on the planet and kill them without regard for them, destroy and cook them!

RAK: Aren’t plants the top of the Gaian food chain, because they drink in the light? And the animals eat the plants, etc...

BEAR: Not so. Bullshit. They’re at the bottom of the food chain. They create the compost that everybody’s made out of. Light’s not life. Life comes from DNA/ RNA and proteins.

RAK: But it’s fed by the light.

BEAR: But plants are actually fed by carbon dioxide. Are you fed by the fire that cooks your food? The light operates the chlorophyll that creates the organic molecules from which life is formed. The carbon dioxide, chlorophyll, and nitrogen which creates everything including the proteins, you have all those things which people think are fertilizers, which in fact allow the plant to build the structures to do what they do.

But plants are at the bottom of the food chain and everything above them are a higher order of consciousness. And at the topmost level are the carnivores. So ideally there should be a few of them and lots at the bottom–it’s a pyramid.

Those animals at the top are not supposed to go down to eat the food from below. It’s bad for their health and it’s bad for the planet because there gets to be too many of them. Why are there six billion people on this planet? About 100 million is about all we really need. I’d rather see cows grazing and trees growing, lots of fish in the ocean and nobody crowded or fighting over territory. If we were all carnivores still that’s how it could be, and no one with bad teeth, heart disease or obesity, etc. That’s how we were, before.

Slavery is what made us vegetable eaters and once that started about 10,000 years ago, our bodies fell apart and our culture took a bad turn, and cruelty crept into it. And all the bad stuff has to do with eating vegetables!

RAK: How did you first choose to eat a meat-only diet?

BEAR: I had a lot of trouble keeping my weight down and I wanted to be a ballet dancer, and then I read a book about the eskimos and I thought shit, that’s right, I knew that when I was a kid, meat was what I wanted to eat. My mother didn’t force me to eat veggies and I lived on huge hamburgers and I had very little weight to hang onto. But as soon as I started eating vegetables, I started putting on the weight and I got to the point where I couldn’t get enough energy from my mixed diet and keep my weight down. As soon as I stopped eating vegetables and carbs, I suddenly had a tremendous amount of energy. We’re carnivores but people don’t want to admit it.

Some hippies believed there was karma attached to eating meat but that’s all bullshit. Meat is food. Is there karma to not eat and die? Do you think a vegetable is not a being? I’ll tell you something–a carrot has more consciousness than you, because you have an ego and it doesn’t. You can kill a carrot without even giving it hope or telling it thanks. You have to eat something that’s alive.

You have a choice: animals with limited consciousness that are easily taken care of, or vegetables that are conscious until the moment you boil them to death and are more conscious than you, and are in complete union with the entity that created them.

It’s the animal’s job to convert vegetables into something you can eat. If you weren’t a meat-eater you’d have a brain the size of a pea and you’d be running around on all fours munching on grass. But you’re a carnivore with a carnivore’s teeth and insights, and your body is damaged severely by insulin which your body has to deal with from carbs, but it can’t.

Vegetables create obesity, heart disease, bad teeth, and diabetes–which is not a disease but your own body trying to protect you. You get cataracts, bad skin, bad joints–all from insulin. If you don’t eat some meat, you’re in serious trouble. Vegans? They’re wrecks. I’ve not eaten a vegetable or a carb since 1958, not one.

RAK: From my understanding of the Grateful Dead culture, the Deadheads were very much a tribal culture within the capitalist society, what’s your take on them?

BEAR: It’s hard to say... the Deadheads were a group of people that used to follow the Dead around and they formed their own community of people that traded and had business between themselves, but they were not very musical. They didn’t listen to anything except the Grateful Dead, so they had absolutely no musical knowledge or taste or anything else; they would just take acid at the shows and have an experience that was all beautiful and strange, but that’s all they wanted to hear.

RAK: You say on your website that the Grateful Dead created music that had so many layers in it that you could only real ‘get’ if you were on psychedelics.

BEAR: Well, a lot of bands did that.

RAK: Now days, maybe, but back then the Dead were the leaders...

BEAR: Oh no, before them, even. Look at Jazz artists, Miles Davis did that, Talking Heads did that. There’s a lot of [psychedelic layering] in the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. In the old days people took mescaline and mushrooms and stuff like that and some people were naturally high–look at inventors like Tesla, the father of AC electricity. He was on the same level as you are when you’re on acid and he could create things in his mind and see them running, hear a clock ticking a 100 metres away; all of those things that you can do on acid.

And as a result, he was stone spacer... But that was natural, it was in his body. Schizophrenic people are naturally that way, too. That’s why they thought psychedelics were at first ‘psychomimetic’, that they copy psychosis. It doesn’t, there’s a confusion of effects.

I’ve been and done all those little corners, been down all those little dead end streets and all that. I’ve been there and done that. You can get anything from acid–a John Lennon or the Grateful Dead, or a Charles Manson, or something even more awful. Some of the Hell’s Angels told me–and to me, the last thing you’d want to do is hit someone else while high–but Angels told me that they just love to get into a fight whilst on acid, because the other guy is just moving in slow motion. The first blow counts for ten.

RAK: Now you were the soundman for the Rolling Stones at their infamous concert at Altamont in ’69... How was it?

BEAR: It was terrible.

RAK: What happened, the group mind shifted...?

BEAR: No, there was no group mind.

RAK: Just a mob mentality?

BEAR: No there wasn’t even a mob. It was a bad site. We didn’t have proper staging. It was forced on us at the last minute because the Rolling Stones wouldn’t fulfill a contract with the mob that controlled Sear’s Point, where we were supposed to have it. And all those guys wanted was one concert in LA to make up for one they had canceled but they refused to do it.

And so, they rented a generator without anyone making sure it was okay, and it had bad fuel. So, we had no power or bad power; we had a stage that was knee-high off the ground and it should have been twelve feet up, and it would have been at Sear’s Point. 

I had five or six disparate sound systems which I wove together, and we had a bunch of very, very psychedelic Hell’s Angels guarding the place. And we had one black lunatic who wanted to shoot Mick Jagger.

He had the gun out and the gun discharged; one of the Angels saw him and jumped on him but this guy overpowered him. He was bringing the gun around on the Angel and the Angel stabbed him, and unfortunately, he stabbed him fatally. It wasn’t his intention to kill him. So now it’s the Grateful Dead’s fault for foolishly hiring the Hell’s Angels who actually killed somebody, an innocent person at the concert? Nonsense! The Angels saved Mick’s life and maybe other people’s lives, too, because those guys when they start shooting at one may shoot as many people as they can.

RAK: The mythology of the 60s says that Altamont was sort of the moment when the hippie peace love myth was shattered, all that flower-power idealism...

BEAR: That’s bullshit, because that was [just] the scene, flower-power idealism... just look at me, I was just getting high!

RAK: But what about things like the Summer of Love, the Human Be-Ins, a whole generation amassing in beauty and love?

BEAR: The Summer of Love was the summer of ‘look at me’ I’m stoned and this is acid and you should all take it–in front of the cameras.

RAK: And did that become a threat to the government?

BEAR: A threat to the government? It was a threat to the culture, to everybody... it was crazy stuff! And they were all dirty, barefoot and sleeping on the streets, which you can do [in San Francisco] in the summer time. The hippies and Tim Leary destroyed what could have been a really beautiful scene.

It might have developed into something that would have been acceptable. We’ll never know. And the point is all of that is conjecture, which I don’t like. We didn’t do that, so therefore it vanished. What did happen wasn’t fun. It wasn’t good, that’s all I can say. It was stupid and I stayed away from it as much as I could. I never lived in San Francisco, I rarely went to the Haight, and when I did it was usually because [the Grateful Dead] had a house there that I’d go to sometimes.

RAK: But you remained with the Grateful Dead for many years, and even after you went to jail in 1970 you still toured with the Dead as a soundman. Was it like a family for you, being with the Dead?

BEAR: I worked for them until I went to jail, and when I came back the roadies and the guys who were supposed to be replacing me temporarily refused to move over. And they did everything they could to fit me. And after you’ve spent two years surviving in a jail and knowing nothing about the culture you’ve been thrown into, except it’s very dangerous, and when you come out into the street and you’re released from a very controlled environment, it’s a shock. It takes a minimum of two years [to readjust]; if you do four years you never adjust. No one who ever did four years of jail ever reintegrates fully back into society. They become a hermit, or they go back to jail.

I did two years, almost three, and in that time these guys managed to fuck me up and I didn’t see it. I could’ve dealt with it if I had of known. And at the end the [band] sort of just squeezed me out, and then I had to go do something else. I wasn’t hanging around because I couldn’t; I had no money and I had to earn a living.

And then the next thing you know the Dead were touring again with Dan Healy and I thought that was strange but he knew how to talk people up, he was very friendly and a nice guy to hang out with. He was tone deaf and had no sense of balance and couldn’t tell when something was right and he wouldn’t leave anything alone. When I was with the band I used 12 microphones; he used 41 or 42. It was a cacophony of blur and I couldn’t stand to be in the audience as [the sound] would change from minute to minute. They had to eventually get a separate soundman on stage whereas with me I did everything for them.

RAK: But you worked with a lot of other bands after the Dead: the Rolling Stones, which we’ve mentioned, but also Jefferson Starship, etc. etc...

BEAR: Yeah, and I also worked at Elmo’s club outside San Francisco for almost two years, and that was when I figured out the perfect [sound] system...

RAK: You describe seeing sound on acid once, and how you saw a circuit of energy was created and how that influenced your approach to sound engineering. It was a very different approach to other engineers at the time.

BEAR: Well, I once saw sound coming out of speakers–on acid–but I’ve never seen it since, or heard of anybody else seeing it.

RAK: But did that vision give you the knowledge of how to approach building sound systems in a more organic way?

BEAR: No, it wasn’t like synaesthesia because I could actually see the sound, and I could see that it wasn’t doing what I thought it would do. I tried to pay attention to what it was doing and how different it was from what I thought it did. I sort of embedded that in my conceptual sphere. And this was at the very beginning, at least within a few months of joining up with the Dead. I think it was April 1966 and I joined the Dead in Feb 1966. So that helped a little bit but I had a long road to go to actually lean something useful.

RAK: You pioneered a lot of approaches like the modern rock stadium ‘Wall of Sound’ approach...

BEAR: I created a sonic space on stage that they could relate to like standing around in a back room and in which they could hear everything plainly. If it got loud they could hear it, if it got quiet they could hear it, they could move up on a mike, if it shifted a little they could hear that and do what they wanted.

And then I sampled them, and moved the mics around in the space until in my headphones it sounded like it did without them on stage. And once I got that I went out and set the PA to sound the same way. And then I never touched anything. If someone came on to do a guest set, they’d move the mic and I’d change the mike accordingly, but I never changed the layout in the slightest. The space, the fall-back, everything stayed the same.

And once the band felt that and learned that they started playing with the dynamics and were able to hear themselves properly. Most soundmen walk away from the stage and shove a mic in, then adjusts accordingly.

RAK: What do you think of the music that the 60s created, and the energy behind it?

BEAR: It was just what people were doing in those days.

RAK: And it’s a very different sound to nowadays.

BEAR: Well, there were different instruments and different ideas, and much younger people involved... Everyone was exuberant and it was a lot to do with the currency of the times. But everything is in time. The music today is great as well but you have to go look for it. If you’re living in the past looking at bands like the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead, and all that, then you’re missing everything. There’s some incredible bands right now.

RAK: Who are some of your favorite modern bands?

BEAR: Wolfmother’s one of them, although I heard they broke up. Arctic Monkeys, is another, White Stripes. I look around, I listen to a lot of them, I read the reviews in Rolling Stone and things like that, then go out and buy a CD to see if I like it. I still like people that do the old stuff, too, like Emmy Lou Harris, etc.

RAK: Well, speaking of music you have an extensive sound archive of many Grateful Dead concerts, some of which have been released as bootlegs...

BEAR: Well, I don’t release them. I was creating a sonic field that the band was playing in. I sampled that sonic field and now I’ve got a signal and two wires. I put that signal out to the audience and it matched. So, I plugged a recorder in to sample that and I got what the audience got. I called that a sonic journal, it’s a diary.

The band and the record company and others have learned that I was there at the golden age of the Grateful Dead and that I was the only one whose recordings really sounded good. And so slowly and surely, they’re putting more and more [of these recordings] out. I have no control over them, except that they can’t alter them in any way.

RAK: Bear, you’ll be 75 in January. Do you still enjoy an altered headspace at your age?

BEAR: Are you kidding? Is the Pope Catholic? Are you asking me do I get high? Do I eat? Am I a meat eater? Do I like sex? Am I an artist? You can ask any of those things–I don’t know why you would.

Bear Owsley’s writings can still be found on his website: http://www.thebear.org/

Support The Owsley Stanley Foundation – a 501c(3) non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of “Bear’s Sonic Journals,” Owsley’s archive of more than 1,300 live concert soundboard recordings from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s here: https://owsleystanleyfoundation.org

Portions of this interview appear in the Bear Owsley free, non-commercial biography White Lightning, available for PDF download here.