I. The Bear’s Last Roar

SATURDAY 11/14/2009

Bear:  I normally don't speak at things like this, but I had a message that I felt is so important to this planet that I needed to expose myself to [the media] and to somebody who might understand what I have to say and have a way of implementing it … I probably made a mistake… but that's fine because one day I'll die and then I won't have to hear about it… But [until then] I'm gonna keep on doing it till I find someone…

Dylan: People always become the most famous when they die…

Bear: I don't care about that. I don't care what people think about me when I die, if they think of me as a good man with honor or not. All I care about is honor. If what you do is honorable that's the only thing you really have. People lie and cheat and don't honor their word and things like that, they aren't honorable. They've given away everything of value.

You're born into this world with nothing and you leave with nothing. And you have to–that's part of the game. But what you come back with–a lot of people don't even think about that. I think the Tibetans are the closest. Don't leave anything behind. Don't die thinking you haven't finished something. That's their method. As long as you're not bound by a desire then you'll go where you're supposed to go. As long as you've left something behind you have to go and finish it. That's what the [Tibetans] say–I don't say that. All I know is that the only people in the world who can be found again after they reincarnate–are the Dalai Lamas.

Dylan: The Dalai Lamas are strict vegetarians.

Bear: No, they're not. They eat no vegetables because there aren't any.

Dylan: Okay, they eat yaks, they eat meat because it's there.

Bear: They eat meat because that's what people eat. They eat yak meat and they eat a lot of yak butter.

Dylan:  Buddha came to tell the world to stop killing animals and to stop doing sacrifice.

Bear: No, he didn't…

Dylan: Yes, he did, that was Buddha's message to the world, compassion and to stop killing animals.

Bear:  He did no such thing. You don't know shit, man, Buddha said 'don't kill anything unneccessarily'. In other words if you ain't gonna eat it, don't kill it. Don't kill things for the sake of killing them. He said nothing about don't kill animals, that's nonsense, that's the vegans talking, the vegetarians, the people that have a weird and wicked, twisted diet, which distorts their mentality and makes them find an explanation to justify every stupid thing they do with their lives. No. You don't know because you've never really read what Buddha said, you're just going on what people have told you.

Dylan: I'm going on what I know, which is all I can go on until someone tells me more…

Bear: I'm telling you that Buddha said that you should have compassion and not destroy life unneccessarily… He didn't say don't eat meat or you can't kill things for food, or any of that shit. Don't abuse other people and don't kill things [you're not going to eat]. He didn't say don't squat mosquitos, but you also don't just go out and step on bugs because they're bugs, that's wrong in his book and it's wrong in mine, too.

Think for yourself. You have to kill conscious things because everything you eat is conscious. The thing you don't know is that plants are nine times more conscious than animals. A carrot has more consciousness than you have. 

You get a gigantic tree, 2000 years old, and you plug into it–and I've done that–I once communed with a great and ancient redwood tree in Muir Woods CA, while under the effects of a strong dose of DMT. And it tells you… it's in ecstasy, absolute oneness with the Creator. And people cut them down to make woodchips out of them!

You can't kill any living thing–plant or animal–without breaking a conscious loop. Consciousness is not the limitation, it's your attitude. You must respect each living thing that gives you your nutrition, whether animal or plant it doesn't matter. If you go against the structure of your own body and your heritage as a carnivore, if you eat vegetables, then you're violating your own body and not gaining anything conscious as far as food is concerned, because most vegetarians have little to no consciousness from their food.

You can threaten a plant and it will shrink; play music to it and it will love it. A plant can hear and see. You [can] find an orchid [that] looks so much like a female bee, and it smells like it, that the male [bee] tries to copulate with it. He picks up the pollen and then realizes it's not happening and sees another flower, carrying pollen with him, and so forth, [essentially doing the plant's pollination]. But how does the plant know what the bee looks like? How does a plant know what the bee smells like? How does a plant even know what bees do?

Dylan: They’re conscious.

Bear: Right. It doesn’t need eyes to see.

I had to pinch myself.

Here was Owsley “Bear” Stanley–legendary figure from the countercultural history books, a living connection to the 1960s–here in the hallowed halls of an off-campus Melbourne University lecture hall, the headline speaker at the EntheoGenesis Australis (EGA) 2009 conference on the psychedelic scene, Down Under.

Before shortening his name in 1967 he was known by the extended epithet Augustus Owsley Stanley III–or AOS3, ‘God’s Secret Agent’ as Tim Leary called him: acid cook, artisan, sound engineer and visionary prophet–whether he damn well liked that label or not. “I’ve studied with the wisest sages of our times: Huxley, Heard, Lama Govinda, Sri Krishna Prem, Alan Watts…” said Leary in the Politics of Ecstasy–“and I have to say that AOS3, college flunkout, who never wrote anything better (or worse) than a few rubber checks, has the best up to date perspective on the divine design than anyone I’ve ever listened to.”

And here I was here with a few dozen glazed punters, still trying to chase down an interview with the man who refused to be photographed for 40 years, who kept a low profile and was notoriously untrustworthy of journalists, yet kept me dangling with the elusive interview possibility because I was the one who had lured him out of his cave at the edge of the world and facilitated his entry into the Australian psychedelic speaking circuit. In retrospect it was sort of like a bear tossing round a half-dead animal in its bloody claws and playing with the meat.

Owsley, known as the ‘Bear’ to his friends (so named after the hirsute body hair he sprouted while still a teenager) was lecturing to a small crowd of hangers-on in the lecture theatre foyer about honor, meat and the nature of consciousness and effortlessly running intellectual circles around them–it was surreal.

You could tell just by looking at him that Bear was a dude, even though he was wizened and frail. As his ex-housemate Charles Perry (author of The Haight-Ashbury: A History) says, Owsley was “short, the kind of short guy who insists that he's ‘of average height’ but always wears elevator shoes.”

He was decked out in tight blue jeans with a brown leather belt and a gold Grateful Dead buckle of his own making, a black long-sleeved shirt overlaid with a black vest and black leather shoes. His lined face was all ears, standing out like receiver dishes either side and framed by a shock of thinning gray hair and a salty goatee beard, a gold buccaneer earring in his left ear and a hearing aid hooked over his right.

Bear had lost over thirty pounds of body weight and was a shade of the robust, Mars-like figure he was in his prime. But he still resonated with a steely kind of temperament; you could read it in the way he carried himself and the bark of command in his raspy voice, squeezed out through a lone vocal cord left after aggressive chemotherapy to kill throat cancer took out more than intended.

Bear was the man, and he didn’t kid around–he meant everything he said, no matter how far out. He was impeccable, guaranteed. Every word, every action, every deed was weighed and considered for the effect it would have on both him and the world around him. Every act an occult grace that infused his life with a presence and consciousness from on high. The Alchemist that walked amongst us, or so those in the know would whisper in reverent tones.

Bear was legendary because he stood his ground when he knew it was the right thing to do–like when he challenged the authorities that illegally busted his chemical lab in ‘65 and he sued the state to get his equipment back. Bear later participated in the Acid Tests with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and helped fuel the parties by suppling the acid.

He was the first underground cook to produce high-purity LSD in 1965 when it was legal, and by giving much of it away for free he single-handedly helped catalyze the hippie movement. Under the umbrella of the Bear Research Group, history says Bear produced around 1.25 million doses of LSD between 1965 and 1967, although he claims the output was much less. What we can say for certain is that without his input, as Grateful Dead biographer Dennis McNally has said, “there simply wouldn’t have been enough acid for the psychedelic scene of the Bay Area in the sixties to have ignited.”

Bear went on to concoct the infamous White Lightning and Monterey Purple acid that switched on such influential users as Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles.

It is said that John Lennon ordered a lifetime supply of LSD from him, smuggled back to Britain in a film cannister just in time to facilitate the Magical Mystery Tour, acid which undoubtedly helped accelerate the changes in the Beatles’ music and the psychedelic zeitgeist of the 1960s in general.

So much was set in motion by Bear's decision to make the purest LSD he could, and the way that he approached the endeavor as a spiritual act, that set the psychic imprint for the culture as a whole. What a curious set of events that a highly intelligent raconteur should find himself in the exact right place at the exact right time, with the exact right skills or intelligence and fortitude to learn those skills, to help facilitate a mass awakening.

If any details had been different: if Bear had just been into the acid for the money; if his brave and tenancious personality had been less inclined to stand up for what he believed was right; if he hadn't been a student of alchemy and magical will; if any of those things were different then the world as we know it would also be significantly altered today.

For Bear was no mere chemist, nor a simple drug dealer. By his own admission he:

 “...[I]never set out to change the world … [merely] 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 told Rolling Stone magazine in 2007.

Bear’s other great love was, of course, music (acid and rock'n'roll are both about vibration, after all). He was renowned for his contribution to sound engineering, particularly working with the Grateful Dead and perfecting the idea of on-stage monitors and high quality PAs. Then there was the infamous Wall of Sound system he built for the Dead’s stadium concerts, consisting of 604 speakers and an array of tweeters and crossovers, stacked 40 feet high and drawing close to 27,000 watts of power. It reportedly cost $350,000 to create, $200,000 per gig to maintain and, hauled from venue to venue on four 18-wheeler trucks, required as many as 26 crewmen 14 hours to set up.

It’s fair to say that Bear invented the modern sound system for rock concerts: playing through his Wall of Sound system was, according to Phil Lesh, like "piloting a flying saucer. Or riding your own sound wave." Mickey Hart told Rolling Stone : “Think of the people who were influenced by his brew. They never played the same again. Us, Hendrix, the Airplane, just about everybody–music in general was never the same.”

A tireless archivist, Bear 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 major record labels. He is so iconic that the name "Owsley" entered the English language, listed in the OED/Oxford English Dictionary (as a noun for an "extremely potent, high-quality type of LSD."). It should probably now be corrected to mean anything of high quality.

Bear was always coming from somewhere deep and meaningful, on the edge of genius and madness, or both.

Some called him a crank, but he was also “admired and respected even by many of the same people who roll their eyes in resignation when he approaches,” as Grateful Dead chronicler David Gans has said. He was only mad to those who wouldn’t journey to the far reaches of the known where his mind soared.

Bear told it like it was, but that didn’t mean you would be able to understand what the hell he was saying. He wasn’t haughty about his intelligence–he simply loved to share his knowledge. Ad nauseum. As Tom Wolfe put it in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, “He is, like, arrogant; he is a wiseacre; but the arrogant little wiseacre makes righteous acid.” He was hard to take sometimes, but he was always illuminating–even catalyzing.

Yes, it was Owsley “Bear” Stanley alive and kicking, despite all the odds, whom had come out of a long retirement after having not been seen by the general public, (apart from the occasional Grateful Dead concert and in concert carparks where he sold his gold and enamel sculptures–mainly the Deadhead skull with the lightning bolt he had helped co-create) for almost 40 years. He had shunned journalists and the media for the most part, with only scattered gems of interviews since he had emigrated to Australia in 1984 and went underground.

Bear came fleeing imminent climate change that the occult pathways of acid had revealed to him, a planetary superstorm that would trigger the next ice age. He was going to survive by living out on freehold land in the rugged Walsh River communes on the Tablelands of Far North Queensland (FNQ), building his hippie dream in the bush. And he did.

The superstorm hadn’t happened–yet–but climate change was here, and so was Bear, now almost 75, the godfather of the psychedelic 60s, recovering from throat cancer, a small, wiry, feisty legend of a man. Here he was, this most archetypal, cantankerous old grandfather, an elder of the tribe, come to talk to the young generation

And yet his very presence dominated the space around him as he jousted happily with those that dared to engage him. Some things never change.

If that foyer conversation had rolled on the orchid-bee analogy would have spiraled out to encompass the way nature really works, the intelligence behind it and the secretion of planetary exo-pheremones through the psychoactive plants to regulate the species, especially the carnivorous humans. Which would have led on to the meat-eating rant, and humans place at the top of the food chain that begins with the plants eating the light and the humans eating the animals that feed on the plants, and the idea of energy circulation and whole systems theory, which undoubtedly ties into the larger planetary cycles of ice ages and warm spells where civilizations briefly flourish.

That is to say, if anyone could actually sit and listen to Bear and all his out-there theories with enough attention to detail, and patience, they would have eventually realized that they weren’t a hotch-potch sampling of way-out acid-musings; instead, each individual insight and intuition gleaned from a life lived deeply interconnected and built up to a meta-theory, a new paradigm that showed an archaic way of sustainability and insight for future generations.

It’s just that very few, if any people–even those closest to him–ever managed to sit through the marathon downloads that Bear dispensed without pissing him off or intellectually falling off the rails, much less integrating his wisdom into a cohesive whole. 

Until now.

Bear’s theories were bold, sometimes controversial, and pointed towards a new way of looking at our culture from a whole systems perspective. This book asks the question: What if Owsley Stanley, affectionately known as ‘Bear’, acid cook, entrepreneur and genius set loose on the psychedelic culture of the 1960s, who always had an opinion about everything, what if his crazy, hyperdetailed theories were in fact, right? Or at least, pointed towards some meaningful truth? What then? What would it mean to the psychedelic community and to the world at large?

Bear’s rants were the stories he laid on the tribe, and this book seeks to weave them together and present them as a whole tapestry. It is less a traditional biography than a gonzo bio-memoir that relays some of his last recorded public speeches, blending themes from previous interviews and public statements, sometimes in long transcription style. In such I have attempted to create a clear narrative flow that communicates Bear’s theories in his own words, as much as possible, and embeds them in the context of a life lived deep and true.

And so, I cast back to that time in November, 2009, when the Bear came out of his delphic cave to lay one last trip on the masses–the urgent need to end the prohibition on drugs and the war on altered states.

"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," he said. "Make them available on an open market and you can control them, you can limit them, do anything you want ... 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."

The collapse of the world economy was intrinsically linked to the black market economy, and the two could no longer remain the same, according to Bear. As he explained, a third or more of the world economy lay unseen in the black market and the siphoning of that money away from the mainstream was part and parcel of why the world faced an economic crisis, as well as a crisis of spiritual disconnection.

Bear had been saying the gist of this for decades but by late 2009 the conditions on the ground were getting critical: economies were now collapsing, the drug war was killing millions, and the governments of the world appeared tainted with corruption on high. Yet on another level it was all expected in a culture rippling with change at the end of one world cycle and the beginning of another. Bear was anxious for the right people to hear and understand his plan, the distillation of decades of applied thought on the matter–and to make a difference.

“There's no way in the world that scene [the global economy] can remain stable very much longer. It's a monster, and it has to come to a crisis point. The whole world is moving towards a social, economic crisis point. There are so many things that are stuffed up, and no one is doing a bloody thing to fix any of it. There's little in the way of constructive arguments going on about any of it either,” he told Bruce Eisner back in 1998.

In retrospect, as the hierarchical leadership of the world has further eroded its credibility when faced with war, economic and environmental crises, and as leaders elected to make the change the people so desperately wanted have repeatedly failed, I’ve realized that maybe it isn’t the politicians and other ineffectual leaders that need to hear Bear’s final message. Maybe it’s you.

Bear followed the ancient alchemical text The Kybalion: A study of the hermetic philosophy of ancient Egypt and Greece, by Three Initiates closely and wisely, and felt deeply into the spirit of things. The issues he was grappling with in his day are just as real and immediate to the turbulent times we are now living through in the second decade of the 21st century.

And so, I present to you, in as much authentic detail from the lips of Owsley ‘Bear’ Stanley himself, his ideas. His words. His way. You get them filtered through me, in classic gonzo tradition, but perhaps that’s the best way to capture the truth of the matter, the elusive pearl in the diamond.

As such, this is the story of Owsley in his later years, of the Alchemist gone bush, and his meeting with the grandchildren of the 60s counterculture–the latest wave come full circle.

These then, are his last words–his last trip, in more ways than one.

Hold on, here we goooooooooooooooooooooooooo………

This is an extract from the free, non-commercial biography, White Lightning, available for PDF download here.

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