Kid Charlemagne is dead.That would be Owsley Stanley, the highly eccentric counterculture figure who was the inspiration for songs by the Grateful Dead and Steely Dan... and who particularly inspired the Dead in all sorts of ways, some of them even legal. Stanley, 76, was killed instantly in a crash in Queensland, Australia after losing control of his car Sunday. Among the reasons his name is legend to Grateful Dead cultists: The man known as "Bear" in Dead circles was "the band's first patron," as San Francisco journalist Joel Selvin put it—providing the upfront cash that gave the band its start and serving for brief periods as both manager and sound engineer. He co-desiginging their iconic skull-and-lighting-bolt logo. He recorded many of the Dead shows that eventually became live albums, starting with the 1973 release History of the Grateful Dead, Volume 1: Bear's Choice. Stanley was a sound pioneer, creating the first PA systems specifically tailored for rock shows, and he went on to build the Dead's live "wall of sound." But it's impossible to disassociate Stanley's renown from his knack for illicit chemistry. His unrepentant love of LSD, not to mention his evangelistic urge for distributing it, figured into the songs written or reportedly written about him.
The Dead's song title "Alice D. Millionaire" was a pun on a 1967 San Francisco Chronicle headline that described Stanley as an "LSD millionaire."
A more enduring song, Steely Dan's 1976 classic-rock anthem "Kid Charlemagne," was "loosely inspired" by Owsley, "a well-known psychedelic chef of the day," Walter Becker confirmed in a 2000 web chat. The "Technicolor motor home" in the lyrics is said to refer to the brightly painted bus used by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, who were known for tripping on Stanley's supply of acid, as detailed in Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test book. Perhaps the most quizzical line in the highly quizzical Steely Dan lyrics canon—"Is there gas in the car? Yes, there's gas in the car"—alludes to how Stanley was busted after... you guessed it... his car stalled from lack of gas.
Another song that was long rumored to have been prompted by Stanley is Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze." But Stanley vehemently denied this. "This whole 'purple haze' thing is nonsense," he wrote in response to an article in 2007, maintaining that his interests were all in the pursuit of "clarity," and that anything "haze"-like could not possibly have anything to do with him. Less in dispute is the name of the band Blue Cheer, also allegedly lifted from one of Stanley's colorful brand names.
As you might guess from his defensiveness over the word "haze," Stanley was a man of strongly held and quite often peculiar convictions.
He consumed an all-meat diet, for one thing, after reading that Eskimos lived only on meat and fish. Stanley blamed the heart attack he suffered in the early 2000s on some "poisonous" broccoli he'd been forced to eat as a child. In the early '80s, he ditched Northern California based on his belief that a new ice age was imminent and Australia would be the safest continent to ride it out. While receiving radiation treatment for throat cancer, which left him with one less vocal cord, he was said to have injected pureed steak right into his gut.
Stanley was busted during a raid on his lab in 1966, but the lab results didn't merit a prosecution, and he was never successfully prosecuted for LSD-related offenses. He did serve two years in prison in the early '70s, however, after a marijuana arrest.
"I wound up doing time for something I should have been rewarded for," Stanley told the Chronicle in 2007, unbowed well into the post-psychedelics age. "What I did was a community service, the way I look at it... I was a good member of society. Only my society and the ones making the laws are different."
This wasn't the "community service" that might have been predicted for a boy who was the grandson of a Kentucky governor and U.S. senator, or a kid who did a stint in the Air Force before working in jet propulsion labs. There is one thing both his friends and detractors would agree on: Though "obsolete" in a no-tripping era, "you are still an outlaw in their eyes," as Steely Dan wrote in the 1970s.
The Dead's Bob Weir released a statement Sunday, saying: "Bear, as we knew him, was one of my all-time biggest influences. Always, when I think of him, I think of the endless stuff he taught me or somehow made me realize; all stuff that I've been able to use to the benefit of countless people."
If you see fit to pay homage to Stanley tonight, put on "Alice D. Millionaire" or "Kid Charlemagne" and pour out some pureed sirloin in his honor. And remember, if only for this occasion: Friends don't let friends do broccoli.
- Owsley Stanley
- Kid Charlemagne