Augustus Owsley “Bear” Stanley III died in an automobile accident this past Saturday (March 12, 2011) when the car he was driving swerved off the road, down an embankment and into a tree near his home in Australia. He was 76. His wife, who was with him, suffered only minor injuries.
Owsley is a Rock ’n’ Roll Renaissance man, a ’60s legend that had a hand in many different aspects of the decade’s life and culture. He is best known as the producer of “Owsley Acid” when he developed a process to create LSD that was 99.9% pure. Owsley’s acid flooded San Francisco and is sometimes credited with the emergence of the hippie movement and “The Summer of Love.” That same year John Lennon smuggled a large stash of Owsley LSD from California to his home in Surrey. After LSD was banned in the United States in 1968, shipments from the Sandoz company trickled away, as did most formal LSD research, leaving underground chemists like Owsley as the primary source of the drug.
Beyond his pharmaceutical endeavors, Owsley also had a long association with The Grateful Dead, creating their “Wall of Sound” amplification system, recording their concerts, and designing their iconic lightning bolt-and-skull logo.
Owsley was friends with many other rock stars of the ’60s, including Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison. When The Doors played Winterland in December of ’67, Morrison’s friend January Jansen is said to have intercepted a gift from Owsley to Morrison of megadoses of LSD. In an alternate version of the story Owsley is said to have presented Morrison with a book soaked with LSD, but that might be one of those “legendary” tales, a meeting of ’60s gods that gets blown out of proportion. Ray Manzarek also talked about meeting Owsley in San Francisco.
In later years, Owsley worked as a television engineer, lived in Queensland, made jewelry that sold at high prices, and promoted unorthodox theories about climate change and diet. The book “Bear” tells his full story, and here’s a review at Rolling Stone.
Owsley’s influence and contributions to the ’60s as a social phenomenon are incalculable, and many of his exploits still influence culture today.
Originally published March 14, 2011.