Book Review: Owsley and Me by Rhoney Gissen Stanley: An Insider's Guide to the '60s

Making music, love, and enough LSD to get the whole world high.
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Owsley Stanley is not a household name, but he probably should be.  He was financier and soundman of the Grateful Dead in their early, transformative years.  As a sound engineer he was revolutionary.  In the primal days of rock 'n' roll, bands tended to plug into whatever crappy sound system the venue had and just made do. Usually, these places weren’t intended for rock concerts and the sound sucked.  There weren’t even monitors on stage so the band could hear themselves play.

Owsley changed all that.  He invented systems that are still in use in concert venues all over the world.  In the '70s he created the Dead’s legendary wall of sound, which consisted of some 600 speakers and presented a sound still unmatched today.  All of this is an important part of his history, but Bear (as he was known to his friends) will forever be known as the King of Acid.

Starting in the early sixties when LSD was still legal, Owsley taught himself chemistry and began making the purest acid ever known.  He gave away as much as he sold and turned on, tuned in, and got high such folks as The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, The Beatles, and pretty much every long-haired freak on the West Coast and beyond.

Rhoney Gissen Stanley helped make much of that LSD and was Owsley's lover, sometimes girlfriend, and mother of one of his children.  Her new book chronicles the '60s counterculture, making mountains of acid, and her tumultuous relationship to Owsley.

This is a lady who was there, at ground zero of hippiedom, the cultural/sexual/drug revolution in the midst of a decade that changed music, the cultural landscape, and an entire nation for good.  She was not only an observer but an active participant, making love to one of the decade's biggest influencers and making its drug of choice.

She has a lot of stories to tell and now, for the first time, she’s telling them.  Unfortunately, even with the help of co-author Tom Davis, she’s not a particularly engaging storyteller.  She narrates her own tale with a casual indifference.  These are things that happened, she seems to be saying, but their importance is lost on me.

She drops names often but so casually it's maddening.  She’ll say something like Jimi was smoking in the corner or Jerry chatted in a chair - speaking about Hendrix and Garcia, two of the greatest guitar players in the world like they were background characters.  I suppose they were background characters in her life.  Rhoney Stanley was friends or acquaintances with just about everyone in the psychedelic scene.  One can only imagine what that was like.

You have to imagine it, as that’s not the story she’s telling.  As the title implies, this book is about her relationship to Owsley, everything else is just peripheral.  At the heart of the tale is a love triangle.  While Owsley made plenty of love to Rhoney and seems to have cared for her, he also bedded a great many other women and had another steady girlfriend at the time.  None of this did he hide and in fact the girlfriend, Melissa Cargill, a chemist herself, was highly important to the manufacturing of Owsley acid and worked alongside Rhoney regularly.

Throughout the book whether it's making huge batches of LSD, dosing pretty much everybody at the Monterey Pop festival, or running from the cops, Rhoney is pondering her relationship with Owsley and wishing it could be better.  She often seems to barely recognize the social upheaval and incredible importance of everything going on around her.

It's not a bad book, in fact I rather enjoyed reading it. It's an interesting, and entertaining read with plenty of anecdotes on pretty much everyone who was  anyone at the time.  It's well worth reading, but in no way essential.  While Rhoney stood dead center in the seismic upheaval of the '60s, she writes as if she was an outsider.  Though she loved Owsley, lived with him, and had his baby, she does little to shine light into the enigma of the man who so greatly influenced the culture of his time.  If you are looking for details, for the full story of the times, this is not the place to go.  There are other books who will satisfy that need.  But if you’ve read those and still want more, perhaps an insider's look into the scene, Owsley and Me can scratch that itch quite well.

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