Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Augustus "Bear" Owsley Stanley III, 1935-2011

I was a little shocked this morning when I logged into a message board that I go to each day, and found a link to a news story reporting the death of Augustus "Bear" Owsley Stanley. I have to admit that I wanted to think it was a hoax, a conspiracy, that he faked his own death. But it isn't.

For anyone who does not know who Bear was: he was among other things, the Grateful Dead's early manager, their first sound engineer, the architect behind the infamous Wall of Sound, and the man responsible for making much of the LSD in North America during the 1960s. His chemical product widened the horizons of many minds and also provided fuel for some awesome music. I truly believe that without Bear and his radical accomplishments, in sound and chemistry, the American pop-culture and live music landscape would be drastically different today. And yet, so many people have never heard of him.

According to the story, Bear died from injuries sustained in a stormy car accident in Queensland, Australia. He was 76 years old. His wife also sustained injuries but survived the wreck.

I was thinking about Bear just a few days ago. I never had the opportunity to meet him, but we corresponded via email when I was a teenager and his attitudes and responses to my questions left a deep impression on me. I had a list of questions about live sound recording and amplification that was a mile long. He was always very patient and never failed to respond to my emails no matter how sophomoric or insignificant they were in content. I remember two things that he imparted to me very distinctly, and I remember them both for different reasons:

[paraphrasing here]

1) Don't make compromises that settle for less if you know that you have a good idea and you can do something better yourself. If something sucks, there is a reason for that. So find the reason, eliminate it, and improve your situation. This is, of course, a fundamental concept in management.

2) The supremacy of modern digital sound reproduction is misleading. More specifically, compact discs are physically degraded after each play, an effect which is progressively more detrimental to the quality of audio playback. If 20 years down the road people think they are going to be happy with the sound of their compact discs, they will be very disappointed.

I brought these emails to the woman who was my Spanish instructor at the time. She was a deadhead herself and regularly supplied me with really nice (and rare) tapes. After reading them she laughed out loud and said, "Chris, my best friend dated Bear for a while. He's nuts. So don't worry about your CDs. And take off your headset before you come into class."

The first point is an example of the kind of attitude defined his life and career. It is also something I try to remember, and so should everyone else on the planet. In a sense, it's quite a powerful economic statement. At various key times in my life, I have remembered - or rather, I never forgot - the simple acumen of believing in myself.

I cannot say that I ever agreed with him on that point about CDs. We could get into discussing disc rot with really cheap CD's, but that isn't what he meant. Interestingly, an essay on his website reveals that he was ultimately accepting of CDs and CD-Rs, although taking issue with common sampling rates, and perhaps his mind changed at some point. In the essay about analog vs. digital, there is even a line which reads, "all things in the real world require some compromise" (!). But such is the enigma that was Owsley.

For anyone who would like to know more about Mr. Stanley, I have provided two links below.

If you're drifting somewhere nearby in the spiritual ether: Farewell, Owsley. And thank you.


  1. I knew him when I was a kid in Laguna Beach, CA. I'm afraid to say what else I did as a result of his aquaitence. One thing's for certain, he was one of the most brilliant genius' I've ever known, and I've known many.

    Black James from Woodland Dr.

  2. Sorry for misspelling 'aquaintence'.

    Black James from woodland Dr.

    P.S. Say hi to Eddie Coleman Jr. for me.