Owsley Stanley III dies at 76


This week in North Queensland, Owsley Stanley III died in a car accident at the age of 76. Many people will never have heard of Owsley – better known as ‘Bear’ – although anyone who has been to a rock concert or enjoyed a live album will have benefitted from his creative genius.

Augustus Owsley Stanley III was born in 1935, the grandson of the Governor of Kentucky who was called the father of the St Lawrence Seaway for his contribution to that engineering marvel. By all accounts a complex and confrontational person, Grateful Dead biographer Dennis McNally described Owsley as “a man who combined brilliance and charisma with social dysfunction, a genius … isolated from others by intelligence and personality to the point if extreme elitism.” 

After a brief stint in the US air force and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Owsley located to San Francisco Bay Area where he became fascinated with LSD and fell in with the likes of Jerry Garcia, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. Most obituaries will no doubt refer to Owsley as a psychedelic icon and link him to the Acid Tests and hallucinogenic days of the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. He certainly was instrumental in the birth of ‘acid rock’; however this is only part of the legacy he leaves.

The legacy is not just his prowess as a chemist, however talented he may have been in that regard. Owsley’s contribution is that he almost singlehandedly changed the way rock bands are heard and recorded. Owsley practically invented the live stereo sound and the PA systems which are now a staple of rock and roll gigs.

Owsley Stanley had two main passions in life – acid and sound. Legend has it that while on an acid trip, he literally ‘saw’ the sound coming from the speakers and thus began a lifelong obsession with improving the on-stage sound of live bands, which up until then was restricted to whatever set up the venue had installed. Owsley became the soundman for the Grateful Dead and began revolutionising their live sound.

In those days, rock bands used whatever sound system the ‘house’ had installed, and mostly these were primitive and not designed for the new wave of psychedelic bands that evolved in the mid-1960s. “I thought it was absolutely disastrous that we were shooting rockets, building rockets that could deliver atomic bombs to destroy entire cities, and musicians were playing on something that looked like it was built in a garage in the ‘30s,” Owsley said.

He told the Grateful Dead of his plan – to build a sound system “sensitive enough to let the audience hear everything – exactly as played. Every instrument separately miked.” He wanted to build this system in stereo too, which in those days was a revolutionary concept.

With the assistance of fellow ‘nerds’, he started by modifying the Dead’s electric guitars, installing transformers to reduce impedance and the noise that high-impedance cables caused.  Next he built a mixing desk capable to creating a stereo mix so he could record live concerts and analyse the sound so as to make constant improvements to what audiences heard.

Owsley would record every concert he worked on, applying his theories of microphone placement and stereo imaging. His live recordings are still considered unrivalled in quality and definition. Today there are dozens of high quality live CDs available by artists like the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Gram Parsons and Janis Joplin all because he had the foresight to make stereo recordings of shows. 40 years later, this archive of live material continues to be mined and milked by record companies and the releases keep flowing. 

When Owsley began working for the Grateful Dead in the mid-1960s, he used his own hi-fi system (with Voice of the Theatre speakers) as the band’s PA. The Grateful Dead became the first ever rock band to haul their own PA to concerts. Today, the travelling PA is taken for granted, but Owsley first conceived and implemented this practice. In 1974 his idea would grow to ludicrous proportions with the Dead’s Wall of Sound, a three story high, 641 speaker, 26,400 watt sound system that needed five semitrailers to cart it between venues.

But back then, Owsley was an innovator and pioneer. He created two things that would change the face of music forever.

First, he bought 800 grams of lysergic acid monohydrate and allegedly brewed up 2,500,000 hits of LSD, giving away half as part of the ‘Acid Tests’ that featured a combination of music and improvised theatre. It should be noted that LSD was only made illegal in 1966 and his early chemical activities were not considered unlawful.

As McNally put it, “without [Owsley] there simply wouldn’t have been enough acid for the psychedelic scene of the Bay Area in the sixties to have ignited.”

Second, he arranged for the Grateful Dead to turn a set of speakers around on stage, and thus invented the stage monitor. Prior to this simple innovation, performing bands had no idea about their front-of-house sound.

From these small innovations, Owsley would go on to develop numerous innovations in live and recorded sound. Interestingly, he never used EQ in a PA system and claimed “the fewer mics used, the cleaner and more transparent the sound.” Even with the Grateful Dead, a band with up to seven musicians, he only used 12 microphones onstage. 

The advent of acid on the Californian music scene has been well documented, however the changes to music technology and Owsley’s contribution is often overlooked. 

Augustus Owsley Stanley III should be remembered for more than his contribution to hallucinogenic drugs – he was an electronics genius who introduced the stage monitor, the travelling PA, separate miked stereo sound and live recordings to rock and roll.

Simon Tatz is the Director of Communications for the Mental Health Council of Australia.