Last-minute show, held one year after the death of the eccentric icon of the psychedelic ‘60s, is a benefit for a foundation that hopes to digitize his massive collection of recordings from that era.
By Jim Welte
White Lightning, Monterey Purple and Blue Cheer won’t be on the menu at the Sweetwater Music Hall Monday night.
But while those aptly named strains of LSD are from a bygone era, the spirit of the man who introduced them – and whose life story defines the adage that the truth is stranger than fiction – promises to be alive and well at a celebration of Owsley “Bear” Stanley at the downtown Mill Valley music venue Monday night.
The event, which centers on the music of the Janis Joplin-fronted Big Brother and the Holding Company, is a celebration of Stanley, the pioneering sound engineer and famed psychedelic drug supplier who was dubbed an “artisan of acid” in a New York Times obituary after his March 12, 2011 death from a car crash in his adopted homeland of Australia at the age of 76.
The celebration of Stanley promises both live music from Big Brother-related musicians, as well as a preview of an audio recording of a 1968 Big Brother show from San Francisco’s Carousel Ballroom that is being released as a CD by Columbia/Legacy Recordings on Tuesday.
More than anything, it’s a benefit and coming out party for the Owsley Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit his family recently created in an effort to preserve, digitize and hopefully release Bear’s massive collection of more than 1,000 audio recordings from live shows of that era. The foundation calls the recordings Bear's Sonic Journals, as Stanley viewed them “as a way of learning and listening to his sound system and how to improve it,” according to Starfinder Stanley, a 41-year-old veterinarian and one of Bear’s four children.
The show will feature a live show from Big Brother guitarist Sam Andrew and a slew of guests, including Sons of Champlin guitarist Terry Haggerty and frequent Big Brother singer Lynn Asher. Upstairs in the Masonic Hall, where the Sweetwater resides, clips from Live at the Carousel Ballroom 1968 will play between sets.
"This is Bear's vision how he heard the band live, and how he wanted to transmit that to you... this truly is Bear's presentation of this phenomenal band and inspirational music,” wrote Bear's widow, Sheilah Stanley, in her dedication to Live at the Carousel Ballroom 1968.
Starfinder Stanley said he was thrilled that so many people have volunteered to help make the event happen, including local musicians, event organizers and the owners of the Sweetwater, particularly venue investor and former Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir.
“We didn’t even know where we were going to hold this until Thursday,” Stanley said. “This is truly a flash mob fundraiser. It’s really heartwarming to see this coming together so quickly.”
The event is one of two Bear tributes being held Monday night, with Starfinder’s mother, Rhoney Stanley, hosting one in Woodstock, near where she lives.
“We just really want to celebrate Bear’s life and commemorate his death,” Starfinder Stanley said.
That life is loaded with interesting details.
Before the onset of the 1960s, Stanley had been a ballet dancer and a member of the United States Air Force, and his grandfather was a governor and U.S. senator from Kentucky.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, he described his first LSD experience as transformative, saying, “I remember the first time I took acid and walked outside. The cars were kissing the parking meters.”
He quickly taught himself how to make LSD and soon was supplying the likes of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters for their famous Acid Trips. His name became so synonymous with LSD that the Oxford English Dictionary contains an entry for the noun “Owsley” as “an extremely potent, high-quality type of LSD.”
Owsley also formed a deep bond with the Grateful Dead, for whom he was an early financial backer and sound engineer. In the latter capacity, he was one of the first people to mix concerts live and develop high-fidelity sound systems, including the Dead’s towering “wall of sound.” Many of his recordings have been released as part of the Dick's Picks series.
After having his bail revoked for a 1967 drug arrest, Stanley served two years in prison in the early 1970s, learning skills like metalwork and jewelry making that became pursuits for him later in life.
Stanley strictly adhered to a carnivorous diet, attributing a heart attack he had suffered in the 1990s to eating broccoli as a child, forced on him by his mother, according to the Times obit. In recent decades, Stanley was a “reclusive, almost mythically enigmatic figure” who moved to Australian in the 1980s “so he might survive what he believed to be a coming Ice Age that would annihilate the Northern Hemisphere.”
Starfinder Stanley said the management of his father’s long-delayed digitization and release if his recordings kicked into high gear after Bear’s death.
“He told me that if he didn’t get to it, he expected that I would take care of the archive and do it the way that he would,” Stanley said.
Stanley estimates that the digitization of his father’s recordings will cost around $300,000, while the acquisition of licenses from the host of people with rights to the recordings, from members of the bands and their estates to the record companies to whom the bands were signed at the time, will cost much more. He noted that some of the oldest recordings are just a few years from reaching their expected life span, which adds some urgency to the digitization efforts.
“We have to raise a substantial amount of money to preserve the archive first and foremost,” he said. “Once we have the archive secured, we’ll have to embark on the next phase of going through the legal hassles.”
The Stanley family’s portion of the proceeds from the sales of the recordings will go right back into the foundation, Stanley said. The foundation has Meyer Sound founders John and Helen Meyer on its board, along with San Rafael sculptor Al Farrow.
He said the Sweetwater’s state of the art Meyer Sound system, made possible by the advances of Bear more than 40 years ago, “made it an obvious choice for this jam. This will be one big a** party to celebrate my dad.”
The 411: A Celebration of Owsley "Bear" Stanley featuring Sam Andrew, Terry Haggerty, Scott Law, Lynn Asher, Dave Pellicciaro, Pete Sears and other special guests. Famed psychedelic cover artist Stanley Mouse will be signing special edition commemorative posters. Suggested donation of $20 at the door. Box Office opens at 7 p.m. Show 8 p.m. Sweetwater Music Hall, 19 Corte Madera Ave.