Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Augustus Owsley Stanley II

This past weekend, Owsley Stanley died in a car wreck in Australia. If you've never heard of the man, you probably aren't a Dead-head; which is to say, you should count yourself lucky.

Augustus "Bear" Owsley Stanley II was born in Kentucky to a wealthy political family. His father was a government attorney and his grandfather, A. Owsley Stanley, was the 38th Governor of Kentucky and a member of the United States Senate.

Like similar characters in these circles - notably, another LSD-obsessed Kentuckian, Alfred M. Hubbard - it's hard to make sense of the events that led up to their life's apex. In 1956, Owsley entered the Air Force. In 1958, he became intensely interested in the Russian Bolshoi Ballet, and made the unlikely career change from military pilot to ballet dancer. But by 1963, he was attending UC Berkeley taking classes in electronics, and it's here that he became fascinated with hallucinogenic drugs. He was producing thousands of hits of acid in his bathroom on campus, and from there they quickly spread all over the country to be consumed by the curious. Apparently even Lee Harvey Oswald tried some of Owsley's LSD just before the Kennedy Assassination, according to FBI memo #NO-89-69-80.

By the summer of '65 Owsley was cranking out 300,000 doses per batch, and was possessed with an almost religious zeal to get everyone on the stuff, by any means necessary. Soon he was best friends with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, and became their primary LSD supplier. The Grateful Dead practically adopted him as an auxilliary member, becoming a fixture in their entourage as roadie and drug dealer, and it's said their "dancing bear" logo is an homage to him.

One glowing obituary of the man speaks of him as "a colorful figure who would pour acid into a squirt bottle and spray musicians and fans alike at shows". Whether these people in the audience wanted to be sprayed with LSD, even at the height of the flower power craze, is something that apparently didn't concern Owsley. Jerry Garcia, who apparently didn't care either, is quoted as saying: "There’s nothing wrong with Bear that several billion fewer brain cells wouldn’t fix."

Owsley was the Beatles' LSD caterer during the filming of their disastrous Magical Mystery Tour TV special, which was so monumentally hated by BBC viewers that Paul McCartney issued a statement apologizing for the film's acid-addled self-indulgent nature. As Peter Brown in The Love You Make noted, "It was the first time in memory that an artist was obliged to make a public apology for his work."

In typically naive hippiethink, Owsley defended his LSD crusade this way:

"Psychedelics are a gift of nature that brings tribalism to people; they bring an understanding of the ecology of the planet and the interaction of all living things, because that’s one of the first things you become aware of when you take psychedelics—how everything is alive and how everything depends on everything else. You go take a look at every indigenous culture that has a respect for its environment — unlike the hierarchical approach of the feudalistic structures that the world is now run by — and you will find that these people use psychedelics of some sort, usually in a regular, ritualized manner."

This childish assessment is so blatantly false and ridiculous that I don't even think it needs dissecting here; its naivete speaks for itself. Unfortunately, this dangerous sort of thinking still has a foothold today and many young kids are lied to by bargain-basement "shamans" who really believe that harsh brain-damaging unnatural chemicals have some sort of divine connection to ancient tribal cultures, and that therefore, you should ingest them.

Some may feel I'm being too hard on the guy, especially so soon after his death; but I can't underscore enough the number of lives lost and minds ruined by his shenanigans. That "he meant well" is no consolation. As far as I'm concerned, this guy ruined everything that was great about the 1960s.

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