The first of our ongoing surprise BEAR DROPS, exploring the life and legacy of Owsley Stanley, the pioneer underground LSD chemist as well as trailblazing sound engineer for the Grateful Dead. With Bear’s son Starfinder, partner Rhoney, and Hawk Semins of the Owsley Stanley Foundation, we explore Bear’s singular personality, the hi-fi origins of the Dead’s quest for sound, and how Owsley was the inspiration for two of the Dead’s most potent symbols, the skull-and-lightning bolt Steal Your Face logo and the omnipresent dancing bears, seen everywhere and beyond, most lately on Nike’s NikeSB Dunk Low Pro ‘Grateful Dead’ sneakers.
What’s With the Bear(s)? Supplementary Notes
By Jesse Jarnow
All those dancing bears might look cute and cuddly, but there’s a lot more to them.
The bears first appeared in July 1973 on the Grateful Dead live album, The History of the Grateful Dead, Volume One: Bear’s Choice. The album was a tribute to Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, who’d passed away that spring. The “Bear” was Owsley Stanley, and it was the first release of music from he called his Sonic Journals, verite audio documents of his work as the Grateful Dead’s first sound engineer. And he would’ve told you the bears aren’t dancing. They’re marching.
Back cover of Bear’s Choice, art by Bob Thomas, 1973
Also known as Bear, and in addition to his work as a trailblazing pioneer of live concert sound, Owsley Stanley was also the most legendary underground LSD chemist in history. It’s a story inseparable from the history of the Grateful Dead -- and, for that matter, perhaps the entirety of western culture over the past half-century. (I wrote a book about that.)
Owsley Stanley at the Fillmore East, February 1970.
Photo by Amelie Rothschild.
Stanley’s recordings can be heard on many Grateful Dead releases from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, such as the incredible Dick’s Picks 4, recorded at the Fillmore East in February 1970.
The Owsley Stanley Foundation has dedicated itself to preserving many of Bear’s Sonic Journals of other artists, so far including the New Riders of the Purple Sage, the Allman Brothers Band, Doc & Merle Watson, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, and--most lately--Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen.
“Turnaroumd,” Jorma Kaukonen & Jack Casady (with Joey Covington), from the Owsley Stanley Foundation release Before We Were Them
Owsley had many fascinations and obsessions, from alchemy to coffee, from ballet to hi-fi stereo. Along with his partners, he was an enthusiastic attendee of the early Renaissance Faires in California, countercultural events that grew from the same underground arts scene as the Grateful Dead, topic of a great book by Rachel Lee Rubin. One of his close friends from involved in that world was musician Bob Thomas of the band the Golden Toad, who (in addition to working on some of Owsley’s labs) would create the art for Live/Dead, as well as the dancing bears and the Dead’s skull-and-lightning bolt Steal Your Face logo.
Grateful Dead logo, originally designed c. 1970, nicknamed the Steal Your Face after appearing on the 1976 live album of that name.
Lovin' this new podcast !! Thank you so very much Brothers and Sisters !! Love me some Pig and Bear too !! Bears Choice is still one of my go to must haves !! N.F.A.!!
I'm a big history buff so I really love this. Hearing the real deal from those that knew the band and crew is awesome. Please keep it coming.