Home Music Music Features

Owsley Stanley’s ‘Sonic Journals’: Inside the Tape Vault of a Psychedelic Legend

New box set features vintage live recordings of New Riders of the Purple Sage, made by the pioneering acid chemist and sound engineer known as Bear

Legendary acid chemist and sound engineer Owsley "Bear" Stanley left behind a formidable tape archive, the source of a new box set.

Alvan Meyerowitz/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Owsley Stanley was known as the foremost underground LSD chemist of the 1960s. But he was also an exacting pioneer of live concert sound, a man who helped invent both monitor systems and high-fidelity amplification. When he died in 2011 at the age of 76, Stanley left behind a breathtaking array of some 1,300 reels amassed between 1966 and 1982. Buried inside are lost concerts by legends like Johnny Cash, Fleetwood Mac, Tim Buckley, and dozens of others, alongside the San Francisco psychedelic bands Stanley is most often associated with, such as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.

An ongoing project by the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Owsley Stanley Foundation aims to preserve the reels and release the best of what Stanley called his “sonic journals.” Available for preorder now is Dawn of the New Riders of the Purple Sage, a five-disc set capturing the Grateful Dead’s stoner-country offshoot during their formative years in 1969 and 1970. Formed as an outlet for Jerry Garcia to learn pedal-steel guitar, the New Riders would develop a life of their own as a successful proto–outlaw-country act.

“I really liked Bear,” says New Riders guitarist David Nelson of their sound engineer. “And evidently he liked me, because every once in a while he would call me over in private and say, ‘Here, put this in your pocket and use it one drop it at a time,’ and he’d give me a Murine bottle with Owsley acid drops. I was just like, ‘For me?! Holy shit, yeah.’”

Stanley wasn’t just an associate but also a key architect of the counterculture he was documenting. “The access that he received from the bands to record their music was unprecedented and unquestioned,” says the executive producer of the foundation’s releases, a mild-mannered international corporate lawyer known as Bill Semins by day, but otherwise known simply as Hawk.

“He was making these tapes to make his sound system better — he called them his ‘sonic journals,’” says Hawk. “Owsley would never abuse [the privilege of recording] by wantonly commercializing or just disseminating their music without their permission. We will never produce anything that doesn’t have the buy-in of the artists or their estates.” The foundation’s three previous releases have featured Doc and Merle Watson, the Allman Brothers, and a pre–Hot Tuna session by the Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady. But that barely scratches the surface of what’s in the archive.

“It’s stunning in its magnitude,” says Hawk, a friend of Stanley’s since he met the retired chemist on a Grateful Dead tour in the Eighties. “From Rahsaan Roland Kirk to Hamza El Din to Ali Akbar Khan playing with a teenage Zakir Hussain to Tim Buckley to Booker T. Jones playing with a pick-up band.” Recording the acts that shared bills with the Dead and working as house engineer at San Francisco’s Carousel Ballroom, bringing his deck out simply because he loved the music, the man known as “Bear” created a priceless collection.

There are reels of Altamont (where Stanley ran sound) and recordings of Toots and the Maytals in San Francisco in the summer of ’75, including a private birthday party for Mick Jagger. “He didn’t set up the house sound for that one,” says Hawk. “Just as Toots went onstage, Bear handed him this giant apparatus of multiple microphones strapped together, and said, ‘Sing through this.’ Toots sort of looked at him, and off he went.” Another set of reels captures a never-heard 1975 performance by synth pioneer Ned Lagin with Jerry Garcia, David Crosby, and Mickey Hart. A deep music fan, Stanley would dub off copies of his favorites and, later, would even have some professionally transferred for his own personal listening, including a beloved 1973 performance by Irish band the Chieftains at San Francisco’s Boarding House.

Dawn of the New Riders of the Purple Sage is a little closer to home, with Stanley’s first recordings coming from Garcia’s living room in Larkspur, California, where Garcia, his wife Mountain Girl, and their family were sharing a house with Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. As the New Riders got going, their old friend David Nelson took up residence on the living-room couch, and was drafted to play guitar alongside songwriter John “Marmaduke” Dawson.

“I remember driving to gigs with Garcia,” says Nelson. “He had this little miniature schoolbus, like five or six rows of seats. You could put gear in there and you could also hang out in between the shows, because it opened out in the back, and you could just hang out there in a hammock or something. I remember [Hells Angel] Freewheelin’ Frank would come over and talk.”

Setting dope-smuggling tales to Bakersfield-inspired twang back when Willie Nelson was still wearing a suit and tie, Dawn of the New Riders picks up a few months into the band’s existence, as the quintet — also including Dead drummer Mickey Hart — jelled into a unit. A half-dozen tracks feature Dead guitarist Bob Weir, trying on his chops as a country singer, including a duet with Dawson on the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown.” There are nearly two dozen covers and originals never released by the New Riders in any form.

While there’s even earlier material in the collection, Hawk prefers the more curated approach for the foundation’s releases. “There’s a historical significance to everything in the archive,” says Hawk. “What we’d like to do someday is have a streaming site where it’s all available for study, but not all of it is [commercially] viable.”

The summer after the New Riders formed, on the cross-Canada train tour known as the Transcontinental Pop Festival (documented in the 2003 doc Festival Express), they encountered Ian and Sylvia’s pedal steel player, Buddy Cage. “There was an instrument car where we were welcome to jam, with amps set up,” Nelson remembers. “Garcia and Buddy set up their steels facing each other real close, so Buddy could show Garcia a bunch of steel stuff, and it really advanced Garcia’s playing quite a bit.” When Garcia told the band they needed a pedal-steel player who could perform with them full time, they knew who to call.

Unfortunately, the Festival Express session isn’t in Owsley Stanley’s collection. Stanley was back in California, about to report for a jail sentence. But except for 1967 (when Stanley was mainly making LSD) and 1970 to 1972 (when he was in jail for making LSD), the archive captures the full scope of the early San Francisco scene. It’s a trove as idiosyncratic as its creator. Besides obsessions with pure LSD and high-quality sound, Stanley’s passions included ballet, alchemy, metal sculpture, and an all-red-meat diet. When Hawk met Stanley while following the Dead in the Eighties, Stanley — then in his fifties — had become a bodybuilder, an extension of his interest in sculpture. Hawk was a college wrestler. The two bonded.

“We became lifting buddies,” Hawk laughs. “We both had Gold’s Gym membership. I’d pick him up at the airport and we’d go to Gold’s Gym, we’d go to the show, we’d go back to the hotel and hang out with the band.” The two became occasional road-trip friends on the Dead tour. “After a while, he cosmically figured out that I’d be best friends with his son [Starfinder], who was also a wrestler, and — as Bear pointed out — born in the same Chinese Year of the Dog as both of us. And so he had me come up to a Dead show in Albany and I met Starfinder and we’ve been best friends ever since.”

Along with Starfinder, several other members of Stanley’s family, and close friends, Hawk sits on the board of the Owsley Stanley Foundation, though the releases are hardly a full time endeavor. Plotting a schedule of three or four releases a year, including vinyl when there’s demand, the foundation works with patrons to preserve reels, whether they’re deemed appropriate for release or not, and researches the many mysteries of the tapes.

Sometimes those mysteries include absences, and Hawk would like to put out an APB for the lost reels of Thelonious Monk at the Carousel Ballroom in May 1968. “That night was the last show by [original psychedelic band] the Charlatans, and one of the first by Dr. John after he reinvented himself as the Night Tripper,” says Hawk. “We have the other sets, but we’d love the Monk tapes back, no questions asked!”

Stanley built an off-grid Australian compound and relocated there in the early Eighties, driven by a vision of catastrophic climate change. Among his favorite musicians near the end of his tape-making years was George Sakellariou, a classical guitarist and student of Andres Segovia. As Hawk explains, Stanley’s reverence for the artists he documented didn’t lead to any shyness when interacting with them.

“It’s just fascinating,” Hawk says of one rehearsal tape Stanley made. “He’s giving [Sakellariou] suggestions on the tape about what to do with his left hand, to free up X, Y, and Z. He was so finely attuned to every aspect of musicianship, but didn’t play himself, and yet here is he is telling a disciple of Segovia how to play. It’s part of what you get. Totally uninhibited, but absolutely committed to improvement in quality all the way down the line.”