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Thursday, December 8

Bear: The Life and Times of Augustus Owsley Stanley III, a book review by Greg Heffelfinger

Robert Greenfield, the author of quite a few wonderful books about the Rolling Stones, maybe should stuck with The Glimmer Twins and the gang. The subject of the book is a fascinating man for many reasons and this book is only half a dose about the man who turned on the world.
  Let's start with Robert Greenfield. The man is a great writer. His book about the making of Exile on Main Street is a wonderful read. As well as his book about the STP aka the Stones Touring Party, is fascinating from cover to cover and quite well-written. His newest book about the worst-kept secret personality of the sixties and the creator of some of the purest LSD in the world, according to Albert Hoffman,no less, doesn't do the man or the myth the treatment he deserved. Greenfield spends the first chapter delving into Bear's genealogy and his blue blood upbringing. Owsley hated the name "Gus" and went by Owsley for most of his life and he goes into the childhood of the man who would turn the whole world on. Owsley spent a lot of his youth getting in trouble and running around causing trouble.  Greenfield spends a lot of time discussing his early years and his first two marriages and their dissolution. Most people don't know that Owsley was a wonderful dancer and a ballet dancer of some repute. Bear was arrested in Daytona Beach for disorderly conduct and he was sent back to LA to deal with a charge of writing a bad check. Greenfield goes into a lot of detail about the man before he even introduces the reason he was famous.        

This specific charge affected him deeply. Passing a bad check made him feel extremely bad because he had broken his word and even at that time, Bear lived by an extreme code of ethics. This would manifest itself in lots of different ways throughout his life. When he went to Berkeley in 1964, he showed up at a rooming house. By this time everyone was already smoking weed and this short, weird guy shows up at the door and they rented him a room and he immediately began to talk about drugs for a solid forty five minutes. By the time he stopped talking everyone was sure he was a narc. Pot was still that far underground at that point. Charley Perry, a writer for several magazines about drugs, asked Bear to pick up a friend, Will Spires, at the airport and this friend busted out some herb and got Owsley high the first time.
    Greenfield gives a lot of great information about the beginning of the myth of Owsley. He documents the growth of the myth and the man from his beginnings of slinging morning glory seeds to his meeting Melissa Cargill and how he taught himself to make speed to sell to make the money to buy the ingredients to make LSD. In between the years, he taught himself to make LSD that he sent to Albert Hoffman, who sent him back a letter telling him it was one of the purest samples he had ever seen.  Greenfield documents the Acid Tests and Owsley's tendency to take way too much of his own product and told the famous story of Owsley pushing around the chair on floor, making a horrible screeching noise and how he went up to Ken Kesey and told The Chief he was doing it wrong. I'm not doing the story justice, find it on your own. This was the first time he also heard The Warlocks. He spent half the night, when he wasn't annoying the shit out of everyone, dancing to the band and using his own inspiration plus his ballet training, and birthed the interpretive dancing seen at so many GD shows. You could call him the ur-spinner. 
Greenfield describes Owsley's fascination with the band and how he loved the sound and how it lead him to become the patron/taskmaster of the Grateful Dead. He tells the story of the making of Monterey Purple for the Monterey Pop Festival and the White Lightning for the Human Be-In. He spends a lot of time talking about early Owsley and the Watts time period, then up until the inevitable bust. 
    Then, Greenfield skips through the years and talks about how disturbed he was when he came back from prison and became the Dead's soundman again. By this time, cocaine had infiltrated the Dead scene and everyone was very territorial about their jobs and Bear still believed in the hippie ethos of communal work to make the show the best it could be. The band's crew didn't see it that way and didn't have the Owsley experience to just deal and Bear was slowly pushed out after every other show it seemed like Owsley was a wingnut who talked to the amps and had to re-solder every piece of sound equipment before every show. Luckily, he ran a tape deck next to the soundboard and for the first years the band would listen to the recordings but by 1973-74, the band was no longer interested in listening their shows anymore.
Owsley's Baby
    After leaving the organization, Bear moved around and Greenfield goes off the path during this period of his life. He talks about Owsley and his children and how he used his time in prison to learn metallurgy. He talked about how it was possible in the nineties to meet Bear at a GD show and buy a handmade belt buckle or pin for crazy amounts of money. Now those buckles and pins are priceless.  Greenfield does spend a lot of time discussing Bear's trips to Australia and the building of his home there. He spends a lot of time on Bear's fight with cancer and the end of his life.
    The book is a good read. I hate to call it a beach book but it had the same traits. I read it in maybe two or three consecutive sittings. I think Greenfield just skims the top of his life and the highlights and high lows of his careers. It's not a bad book but if you really want to know more about the man they called Bear, and it is mentioned in Greenfield's book, read the book by his ex-wife, Dr. Rhony Gisson-Stanley, "Owsley and Me". It goes into much more detail about the reason we all know Owsley and if you really want to know as much as possible, read both.  At times it seems that Greenfield did his research from Wikipedia or other lightweight sources and he got some great interviews but I feel like Rhony's book was much closer to the real Bear. Owsley made an effort to stay out of the limelight and it sort of worked. Greenfield had his work cut out for him to start with, especially compared to the Rolling Stones, but he only seemed to skim the top of the sine-wave that is Owsley Stanley. It's well-written but I felt like he could've dove deeper. It's a solid B or maybe I'd give it three and a half lightning bolts. Actually, I'd probably give him four bolts because Owsley didn't leave much of a paper trail so it wasn't an easy assignment. "Alice D. Millionaire" was a complicated, highly intelligent, and incredibly talented man. The book gets that across but I don't feel like it's greedy for Greenfield to have given more. For one of the most original, creative, and massive intellects of the 1960's, i just feel like Greenfield could've done more.

Greg Heffelfinger

"I'm not interested of having a biography of any kind published about me or my childhood. Anything written about me should be about the things I've done and the skills or talents I have and not, "He grew up here and he went to this school, he was in trouble there" and all that bullshit. Because that's the way you create celebrityhood and I'm not into being a celebrity. I don't give a shit." - 
-Owsley "Bear" Stanley 
Jan.31st 2007

"There's nothing wrong with Owsley that a few billion less brain cells wouldn't cure."
-Jerry Garcia

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