The Bear

Iconoclasm is a breaking of established rules or destruction of accepted beliefs.  The Grateful Dead probably broke a lot of rules and they have been called the world’s most iconic improvisational band by some and that is because in essence they played free form music which allowed them to jam.  It’s often said that no two Grateful Dead shows were ever the same, although many shoes were similar, they never used the same setlist.  They played over 37,000 songs live in some 2,300 concerts over their 30-year career.  Just by mentioning their name, people will think of psychedelic tie-dyed clothes, dancing bears, and rose-garlanded skeletons.  Their music is understood by individuals that refer to themselves as Deadheads with a particular type of mind.  The idea of the Grateful Dead was to bring the freedom of creative movement and fluidity as an artform within the context of a rock band that involved audience participation and many fans yelled out requests for them to play.  Some of their songs were written to induce audience participation, singing along with the band, and clapping their hands.

Deadheads were encouraged to record their concerts and they would share their recordings with the other fans along with their photographs, stories, and mementoes.  They were pioneers and innovators for concert sound.  One of the reasons the Grateful Dead was so popular live is because the band toured relentlessly, and they sounded so much better than any other live band.  They started out in Palo Alto, California in 1965 as The Warlocks and they became part of Ken Kesey’s Acid Test parties which were LSD-fueled parties in the San Francisco Bay Area.  They became popular in the area with their free live shows which eventually led them to play at the Fillmore in San Francisco, because the legendary rock music promoter Bill Graham formed a friendship with Jerry Garcia.

Long before the Summer of Love drew thousands of hippies to Haight-Ashbury, Owsley Stanley the band’s promoter and soundman, in-house chemist, intellectual stimulus, and sometime artist was already an authentic underground folk hero, revered throughout the counterculture for making the purest form and most powerful LSD on the planet.  In 1964, Owsley began smoking marijuana and he started selling “Heavenly Blue” morning-glory seeds, which contained a naturally occurring tryptamine, lysergic acid amide (LSA), that is chemically similar to LSD and has similar effects, but people did not get high on this, it just made them weird, however this experience led him to becoming a drug advocate.  When Owsley took LSD for the first time, he walked outside and saw cars were kissing the parking meters.  Owsley was called a chemist, but all of his knowledge came from reading books and when he wanted to get more LSD, he started reading up on this, so he could produce a measured, reliable dose of high-quality stuff.  Before Owsley came along, no one could even be sure that what they were taking was actually LSD.  Owsley sold about a half a million doses for around $3 a hit and he made a good deal of money doing this, before LSD was made illegal.

In October 1965, Owsley and a friend drove to La Honda to meet Ken Kesey who was hosting parties with the Merry Pranksters.  Owsley began providing his superior LSD to the Pranksters, but the parties became too much for him, however he met and fell in love with the Grateful Dead at one of them.  For many, the psychedelic Sixties began at an event called the Trips Festival held at Longshoreman’s Hall at 400 North Point Street in San Francisco the third weekend of January 1966, where the Grateful Dead, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane along with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters were the featured attractions.  This three-day blowout, drew between 3,000 and 5,000 people that were all tripping on LSD that Owsley provided.  Jerry Garcia said, “It was total, insanity.  I mean total, wall-to-wall, gonzo lunacy.  Everybody was just partying furiously.  There were people jumping off balconies onto blankets and then bouncing up and down.  I mean there was incredible shit going on.  Plus, it was like old-home week.  I met and saw everybody I had ever known.  Every beatnik, every hippie, every coffeehouse hangout person from all over the state was there, all freshly psychedelicized.”  This event had more people tripping in a single room, than anyone had ever seen before.

Owsley brought Tim Scully with him to the Trips Festival, and the two then began working together on assembling state-of-the-art sound equipment for the Dead, eventually creating the world’s greatest live sound system.  Stanley also made many recordings of the Dead in performance, now considered valuable documentary records of the band’s early years.  Owsley was born on January 19, 1935, and he died on March 12, 2011, in a car accident at 76 years old.  He was the inspiration for the creation of the group’s iconic dancing bear logo.  These dancing bears were initially designed by artist Bob Thomas, and they first appeared on the back cover of the band’s 1973 release, The History of the Grateful Dead, Volume 1 (Bear’s Choice).  Bear’s Choice was a tribute to Pigpen who had recently passed away and all the tracks were selected by Owsley.  These iconic cuddly dancing bears are not really dancing, as they are in stride doing a high-stepping march.  They have become deeply ingrained in the culture surrounding the Grateful Dead, because Stanley who was known as Bear was an extremely important person to them and they have become some of their most recognizable and well-loved symbols, securing a permanent spot in American pop culture.

There are two stories about how Owsley became nicknamed the Bear and one has to do with him having a lot of body hair and the other is because of the way he snored.  He supposedly had this unique way of dancing at concerts while he was high on acid and that is where the term dancing bear originated.  Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan paid tribute to Stanley Owsley in their song ‘Kid Charlemagne’, regarding his LSD as “the best in town”.

Written for Reena’s Xploration Challenge #214, where today she asks us to grapple with the word Iconoclasm and its meaning.

23 thoughts on “The Bear

  1. i find it fascinating how some people find outlets for their innermost essence, and turn it into a cult. There are many others who nurse similar feelings but fear being labelled ridiculous or lunatic for being different. All the others love playing jury over expressed or repressed thoughts.

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  2. I just watched a documentary called The Sunshine Makers… with Tim Scully and Nicholas Sand about making Orange Sunshine. It was really good and they of course mentioned Owsley.

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    1. I will have to look up that documentary, but I knew that Orange Sunshine as well as Purple Haze was attributed to Owsley. There was a lot of bad acid being made in the early days which lead to people having bad trips.

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