THIS ARTICLE SOURCED AT THE END.
Upon learning eleven days ago that a world-class avatar had died, the billion-eyed flamingo of electronic media blinked, squawked, then flew off to Charlie Sheen's house.
So there's a good chance you never heard of the shaman I speak of, though he changed the look and sound of the world profoundly, not to mention helping us navigate away from two forms of global destruction—so far.
His name was Owsley "Bear" Stanley.
Born Augustus Owsley Stanley III, Jan. 19, 1935, in Kentucky, this grandson of a governor died March 13 at age 76 in a car wreck in Australia, where he was patriarch to a loving family.
If that's not news, chances are you know Owsley gained fame as a maker and purveyor of "Owsley Acid," a pure and potent class of LSD—starting in the mid-sixties. Or maybe you know of him as soundman, sometime manager and graphic artist for The Grateful Dead and their friend, Ken Kesey, the "Merry Pranksters" leader who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), but is just as famous for his magic bus named Furthur, and legendary "Acid Test" parties in San Francisco in warehouses wired for sound and light.
In these Tea Party times, Owlsley's not the sort of person our media pays much heed, but electronic media can be as addictive, mind-altering and distorting as any drug, so let's bring perspective to our perspective, shall we?
Minus Owsley's influence, the world would look and sound drastically different, assuming anyone would be around to notice. Given the nuclear and environmental minefields our species navigated the past half century, we're all lucky to be alive, and a strong case can be made that Owsley, like Albert Hofmann (1906-2008), the scientist who discovered LSD in 1938, helped pull us through.
Like alcohol, cigarettes (and Big Macs and Twinkies) psychedelics can be destructive to chronic users—a portal to enter at one's own risk, especially when ingesting forms less pure than Owsley Acid. It makes me tired just to think about it. Still, modern art, music, religion, technology, genetics, cosmology, politics, international diplomacy--the whole poker hand dealt in the 20th century--benefitted from Owsley and Hofmann's presence at the table.
Here's a wildcard: Maybe it means nothing, but it could mean... Everything.
A number of people have written that artist and socialite Mary Pinchot Meyer, ex-wife of CIA operative, Cord Meyer, supplied John F. Kennedy with LSD and cannabis during an on-going affair about the time he decided to send us to the moon (and show us the Whole Earth). It was also about the time he rejected top generals' advice that he bomb Cuba, where the Soviet Union was installing missiles. Some advised him to nuke the entire island, but he tactfully declined, and likely averted a massive nuclear exchange between the US and USSR.
There's no way of knowing how much Kennedy was influenced by Meyer and others with links to Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass), Kesey, or Kennedy's friends in the CIA—including Meyer's ex-husband—who were conducting large-scale LSD experiments at the time. Leary wrote in his memoirs that Meyer approached him at Harvard in 1962 and told him she was on a mission "to change the minds of important men" through the use of psychedelics.
To anyone who's had the psychedelic experience, it's impossible to over-state the shift in consciousness that can result. Everyone from Aldous Huxley to John Lennon to Miles Davis did more than remark upon it. Just read and listen to the profound changes of topic and/or styles in their works. If the president was ingesting even moderate doses, there's no doubt this made a big difference in the way he saw the world.
Witnesses to such changes are legion. Nobel Prizewinner Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA, has said he made his greatest contributions while under the influence of LSD. Karri Mullis, who won the Nobel for work that vastly sped progress on the human genome, and DNA technology generally, said his discoveries came while tripping. That iconic skeleton Lucy (Australopithecus, from Olduvai Gorge), "the first human," was named after "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" because that song was playing on the radio when the discovery was made. If there's more to that story I couldn't find it, but demonstrably, psychedelics were ubiquitous in science and tech circles.
Steven Jobs, creator of Apple computers and some of the world's classiest software, has said ingesting LSD was "one or two of the most important things I have done in my life." And there's evidence that Bill Gates and many other digital pioneers indulged as well, including the inventor of the Mouse.
The psychedelic influence was most obvious in our music. Revolutionary sounds sprouted like mushrooms in the lush landscape that Hofmann, Owsley and others, including a group known as the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, conjured. Santana, the Doors, the Dead, Dylan, Jefferson Airplane, Velvet Underground, Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Charles Mingus, Joni Mitchell, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Miles Davis, and dozens more in rock, classical, country, jazz and fusion, brought the counter culture to the mainstream. It's simpler to name bands and troubadors who were NOT influenced by psychedelics in that period than to try and name all those who were.
As I wrote in a 2001 tribute to Kesey, this popular revolution either broke down a stifling conformity or unleashed demons, depending on your point of view. Eventually it reached the Beatles—Owsley provided LSD for the Magical Mystery Tour multi-media project, according to sources cited below—and they turned on millions or billions around the world to notions of peace, love, magic buses, light shows and walls of sound.
More to the point, those old reactionaries Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev were pressured into performing revolutionary high-wire diplomacy acts by an international audience that—even in Russia, vicariously—had been turned on, tuned in, to notions of peace, love and transcendence over hoary old ways of war and prejudice which we felt in our guts could kill us all. Their gift of Détente brought hiatus to a runaway arms race and other tensions goading us towards nuclear Armageddon. Changed hearts and minds made Détente possible, just as changed hearts and minds made it possible for Nixon to open the door to China, initiate Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, sign clean air and clean water bills, establish the EPA, and much else.
So Owsley wasn't alone in setting the world on a sane course. It took the whole crazy concoction known as the Sixties (OK, and Seventies), but his and Hofman's potions were essential ingredients. Owsley was a medicine man whose sacraments launched Kesey, Hendrix, Garcia, Dylan, Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Alpert, theologian Houston Smith, health guru Andrew Weil and many others on vision quests into Eastern spirituality, political activism, arts, sciences, eclectronics and cosmology.
Such quests were common in the sixties and seventies. Owsley's fellow long distant voyager, Stewart Brand—one of Kesey's original Pranksters—took it upon himself to turn the Whole Earth into the world's most visible icon. In the mid-sixties, Brand went around the country passing out buttons and cards asking the simple question, "Why haven't we seen a picture of the Whole Earth yet?" Within a couple of years NASA released such a picture, and Brand plastered it everywhere, most notably on the cover of The Whole Earth Catalogue, a manual for living an ecologically sustainable, if scruffy, life. The world's first Earth Day followed in 1970, and today the image is as ubiquitous as the Crucifix. Credit Owsley and fellow travelers with spawning a vision of the earth as living entity, and thereby transforming, if not creating, world-saving peace and ecology movements.
Others have gone a step further, suggesting the new global consciousness adds up to a new paradigm or new religion—one that grows apace, even now, spread by digital technology, new icons and art forms that Owsley and company concocted, composed, and conjured.
If they're right, then Owsley's influence is, well...
Sources for this extended column included…
On Owsley's remarkable times:
On Hofman, Steve Jobs and other digital pioneers:
On Kennedy and Meyer and Leary:
Burleigh, Nina, A Very Private Woman, Bantam, 1998.
(click the article's footnotes for corroborating sources)
On Francis Crick:
Ann Harrison (2006-01-16). "LSD: The Geek's Wonder Drug?". Wired, below.
http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2006/01/70015. Retrieved 2008-03-11.
(Excerpt: "Like Herbert, many scientists and engineers also report heightened states of creativity while using LSD. During a press conference on Friday, Hofmann revealed that he was told by Nobel-prize-winning chemist Kary Mullis that LSD had helped him develop the polymerase chain reaction that helps amplify specific DNA sequences.")
Mullis, Karri, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, Random House,1998.
My 2001 tribute to Ken Kesey:
Wolfe, Tom, The Electric Cool-Aid Acid Test, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1968.