Members of the Grateful Dead and the 'Wall of Sound' at sound check in Vancouver, May 17, 1974. Photo, Richard Pechner. [o]
Bear: The Life and Times of Augustus Owsley Stanley III
By Robert Greenfield
Hardcover, 288 pages (2016)
Thomas Dunne Books
Prologue: The Muir Acid Test
Amid all the swirling madness being created by Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters in the Muir Beach Lodge on Saturday, December 11, 1965, one thing is eminently clear. The guy who supplied all the high-octane rocket fuel powering this event is definitely freaking out. Every one knows this because for what feels like hours but has only been about ten or fifteen minutes, he has been making the most horrible screeching and scraping noises imaginable by dragging an old wooden chair back and forth across the floor.
Had he been doing this at one of the wedding receptions that regularly take place here in this hundred-foot log cabin, someone would already have long since asked him to stop. Because this is an Acid Test where every one is tripping on LSD and there are no rules, no one is about to do anything about it even though the sound is driving everybody up the proverbial wall.
His; that was all that was left of the entire known world and if he lost control of that one cell, there would be nothing left.
On every level imaginable, the guy has already had himself quite an evening. Having never before taken acid with the Pranksters, he has seen the Grateful Dead perform for the first time. Accompanied by a flashing strobe, a light machine, and a home movie that was being shown by two projectors at once, the sound of Jerry Garcia’s lead guitar wrapped itself around the guy’s mind like the claws of a tiger.
Initially terrified, he then had the stunning revelation that would shape the rest of his life. The Grateful Dead are not just good. They are fantastic. Someday, they are going to be even bigger than the Beatles. Although the guy has no idea how he can help them accomplish this goal, what he wants to do now is to hitch a ride with the most amazing group he has ever seen and somehow make a positive contribution to their future.
While all this might already have been more than enough for anyone else, the LSD he has taken combined with the weirdness of the Pranksters’ current sound interval suddenly mesh to send him off somewhere that he has never before been. Losing all control of his body, he finds himself trapped in an endless spiral of utterly fantastic scenes.
“The Johnny Appleseed of LSD . . .” [o]
As Tom Wolfe will later write in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, this guy has now been transported back to the eighteenth century, where he sees himself as an “alchemist, seer, magician, master of precognition, forecaster of lotteries” stuck in a dank dungeon in the Bastille, which itself then shatters into fragments as he loses all of his skin and then his entire skeleton as well. With “his whole substance dissolving into gaseous nothingness,” he becomes a single cell. “One human cell: his; that was all that was left of the entire known world and if he lost control of that one cell, there would be nothing left. The world would be, like, over.”
Making the guy’s current plight yet even more dire, one of the Pranksters geometrically increases his paranoia by pointing out some conventionally dressed guests who might well be the police. Although LSD is still legal in California, the guy is holding so much of it at the moment that he decides the time has come for him to split the scene and get the hell out of here just as fast as he possibly can.
He does something that is completely unthinkable on every level imaginable . . . confronting Kesey about what is going on.
Running out the door, he leaps behind the wheel of his car and begins driving madly along the narrow, winding road leading away from the Muir Beach Lodge. In no condition to drive, much less do anything else, he promptly runs his car into a ditch. Abandoning the vehicle, he charges back into the lodge and does something that is completely unthinkable on every level imaginable by confronting the unbelievably powerful and incredibly charismatic Ken Kesey about what is going on here to night.
In no uncertain terms, the guy tells the noted author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, who is also the peerless and unchallenged leader of the Merry Pranksters, that he and his cohorts are messing around with something they do not understand. Taking LSD in this kind of wildly out-of-control group situation in order to awaken the part of the unconscious mind that used to be defined as containing all of the angels and devils is extremely dangerous. And since it is the guy’s LSD that made all this happen, he is going to ensure that tonight’s Acid Test will be the last one ever held by cutting off their supply.
Laughing off every thing that the guy is saying to him, Kesey responds to the diatribe by pinning a badge on the guy’s shirt. Precisely why Kesey has chosen to do this, no one knows. Offended by the act, the guy’s girlfriend promptly removes the badge, only to have Kesey take it away from her. In true Prankster fashion, Kesey says, “No, no. He gets to decide if he wants to wear it or not.” And then puts the badge right back on the guy’s shirt.
Bear with the Dead, Phil's Earthquake Space. April 18, 1982. [o]
Due to the overwhelming popularity of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe’s account of this freak-out soon becomes the stuff of legend. In the book, Wolfe, who himself had never taken LSD, somehow manages to convey the all-out careening madness that acid can sometimes induce even in the mind of not just the most experienced user but also someone whom Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh will later describe as “the Johnny Appleseed of LSD.”
As the man in question, born Augustus Owsley Stanley III but then known to one and all simply as Owsley, will later say, “The Pranksters were playing around with Wolfe and he didn’t have a clue. He didn’t realize who and what they were. Nothing about me in that book was accurate. It was what other people said about me. I never met Wolfe and the man never talked to me. So it was all his fantasy about it or someone else’s fantasy about it.”
But then in the world according to Augustus Owsley Stanley III, only he was ever right all the time. ≈©
ROBERT GREENFIELD, a former Associate Editor of the London bureau of Rolling Stone, is the author of several classic rock books, among them S.T.P.: A Journey Through America with the Rolling Stones. With Bill Graham, he is the co-author of Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out. His short fiction has appeared in GQ, Esquire, and Playboy. He lives in California.