Bear: The Life and Times of Augustus Owsley Stanley III by Robert Greenfield, review by Bruce Jacobs
Augustus Owsley Stanley III, soundman for the Grateful Dead, had many sobriquets: the Johnny Appleseed of LSD, the Luther Burbank of weed or, as Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow described him: "Acid King, Annealer of the Grateful Dead, and Master Crank." When he joined up with the band in 1965, however, they just called him Owsley--or his high school nickname, Bear (for his hairy chest and a lifelong all-meat diet). Five-foot-six and 150 pounds, he was a little guy who loved many women, the Grateful Dead and lysergic acid diethylamide. A self-taught electronics wiz, he mixed and taped more than a thousand Dead concerts and designed their unwieldy, 40-foot-tall, 70-foot-wide touring Wall of Sound system. The music may have sustained the Grateful Dead as the most popular live band in rock history, but it was amateur chemist Owsley's branded pure tabs of Blue Cheer, White Lightning or Monterey Purple that first elevated the audiences (and the band) into that "long, strange trip."
There is a plethora of Grateful Dead books, a bottomless supply of their concert tapes and even a 24/7 Sirius/XM station, but Robert Greenfield's Bear is the first full biography of the man whose obsessive drive for perfection gave the Dead their dedication to quality in their performances and recordings. When Bear first heard them play at Ken Kesey's La Honda party, they were a ragtag bunch with talent and lots of drugs. He may have accelerated their drug use, but he also made them a tighter musical force. Greenfield, former Rolling Stone associate editor and author of several books about rock music and the '60s (Exile on Main Street; Dark Star; Timothy Leary), includes archival photos of the justifiably paranoid camera-shy Owsley, interviews with the man himself and conversations with the surviving Dead and their global posse.
If Bear slows a bit in the second half, it's because Owsley also trimmed his sails. Busted many times, he quit the acid business and worked his last gig with the Dead in 1978. For a while, he lived on sales of his homegrown primo marijuana, but then walked away in 1984 and took girlfriends, ex-wives and children to northeastern Australia, where he squatted on open range and built a compound for his family. Returning to the States frequently for Dead tours, he also made a little scratch hawking his homemade belt buckles at concerts. In 2011, his body wracked by chemo treatments for cancer, Bear died in a car wreck in Australia. In memory, his son placed some of his ashes on the soundboard for the Grateful Dead's 50th-anniversary Fare Thee Well concert in Chicago in 2015. Drummer Mickey Hart commented on his death: "At least now Jerry and Pigpen will have someone to talk to." Greenfield's anecdotal Bear feeds a Deadhead's jones--those who were there during that Summer of Love or their children and grandchildren.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.