Saturday, February 20, 2010

Owsley "Bear" Stanley: The Dark Star Palace Coffee...

Artifacts of the Week: Owsley aka Bear!
 Belt Buckles / Business Card / Signed Wall of Sound Photo
Tape of the Week:  6/20/86 (Bear Recorded!)

Some years back, on my 35th birthday, I was getting ready to head over to Alfred's Steakhouse in San Francisco to celebrate my big day with my girlfriend (now wife). As we were getting ready to leave our loft, my cell phone rings.  Since the number didn't look familiar, I let it hit voice mail. When I checked it, there was a rough voice on the line saying "Hey Unterfunken, it's Bear. What's the point of having a cell phone if you don't answer the damn thing? Call me at this number." Owsley was back in town after being out of the United States for seven years and wanted to meet up while he was here so I could get a buckle.  As last week's Tapes of the Week were Owsley-recorded, I thought it would be a nice transition this week to link to a "new" recording of his that has just hit circulation a few weeks ago.  I thought I would pair this with a few stories and artifacts from when I had coffee with Owsley "Bear" Stanley.

After touching base with him, Bear decided he wanted me to meet up with him on Sunday for some coffee over by the Grateful Dead's old business office in San Rafael.  Despite my girlfriend not having any interest in this hook-up, I told her that she should really meet Bear... it would be like meeting Thomas Edison and da Vinci. Or at least Ben Franklin. She decided to go. So off we went.  It wasn't until we got to the coffee shop that I realized I wasn't totally sure what Owsley looked like these days.  For one, he had never allowed himself to be photographed!  But I shrugged this aside as Ms. Funken and I sat and tried to figure out which of the characters that were passing by the coffee shop window might be Bear. 
Finally, in he came... dressed in a black leather vest, a grey ponytail and a funky leather sack. He looked very much like a older funky Deadhead.  Bear spotted me right away and greeted me with a "You must be Funken!" Owsley and I had been emailing for about a decade at this point... I remember I was first put into contact with him due to a dispute over even vs. odd-ordered harmonic distortion in solid state / vacuum tubes for recording preamp devices. We totally disagreed on this topic (I being against solid state and insisting it could not do even-ordered harmonics)... but in the end, Bear ended up being right. I found out then that Bear has no problem letting you know that he knows he is usually right!  And it's true... his path of "empirical evidence=reality" does seem to make him quite right most of the time.

For the next few hours, my girlfriend and I were treated with wonderful tales that only Owsley could tell.  Topics included: his 40+ year diet of eating only meat/animal products (and no carbohydrates), the role of line arrays in the Grateful Dead's Wall of Sound, descriptions of his process for making sculpture, how to make a "meat-shake" if you can't chew steak (due to some personal issues going on with him), X-rated stories from Janis Joplin's dressing room circa '68 that are so frickin' nasty that my girlfriend still brings them up with a shudder, how he came to be known as "Bear" (see Chewbacca attached photo for a clue), his theories on stereo/surround/mono recordings, how fame is perceived and how it made Jerry Garcia and John Lennon fall (and why he wouldn't let me have a pix of the 2 of us), why omnidirectional microphones are his favorite mics for stereo recording, how his father was a United States Senator and State Govenor, and of course, a few tidbits on the psychedelic landscape and how he became one of the key figures of making the 1960's, well, the 1960's. Obviously, there was about 300 nooks and crannies that we mined as well!  This was all after we spent some time checking out Starbucks blenders that he wanted to buy for grinding up his meat.  Funky!

Before he left, he pulled a slew of his hand-made jewelry out of his sack.  From mind-boggling / uber-detailed owl rings to peaceful moon-face buckles...  it was an amazing collection of his artwork. There must have been 20+ amazing pieces. Unfortunately, I couldn't afford any of these! But the real deal was a 1983-vintage Grateful Dead Steal Your Face bronze buckle that he had just found when clearing out his old storage space during this current trip. This is our first Owsley Artifact of the Week! 
It was "new old stock," and was something he knew I wanted to buy from him (Owsley, of course, designed the Dead's Steal Your Face logo with Bob Thomas in 1969). He talked Ms. Funken and I through his process for making the buckles, discussed bronze vs. silver, and went into detail on how he came up with the design for the buckle while in Egypt with the Dead in 1978 (see attached poster for the shows). One will notice that there is a sun disc and two serpents above the Steal Your Face on the buckle.  These images come directly from the Egyptian Book of the Dead (and related hieroglyphs) that represent the sun god "Ra" and the union of upper and lower Egypt (via the 2 snakes).
After looking at various coffee grinders that he wanted to bring back home with him, Bear agreed to sign a small Wall of Sound photo I had... this was after he refused to sign anything saying that he "never signed anything unless it was an artwork of his."  I countered that the Wall of Sound WAS an artwork of his, so therefore he shouldn't have an issue with it.  He agree with that logic and proceeded to sign it: "I made this! - Bear." 

About a year after meeting up with Owsley, and well after he had returned to Australia, he hooked me up with a second SYF buckle as I had described to him how I wanted have the buckle be the centerpiece to an Egyptian falcon-winged inlay that would go into the amp-rack stand for the Dark Star Palace's Grateful Dead McIntosh MC75, MC275, and MC2300 amplifiers.  Bear thought I was nuts to use the buckle for this purpose, so initially offered to hand-mold the same design in plastic so I could back-light the mold.  But, this turned out to be a hassle for him, so he just sent on another buckle, as well as a business card (attached, though I removed the email/phone info) via his North American art agent.  Of course, he also thought my surround sound layout for the Palace was a "recipe for crap sound" and that I would be better off using a line-array as was used in the Wall of Sound.  Of course, I disagreed.  It appears that some things will never change.
On to this week's Tape of the Week, which is an amazing new discovery for Deadheads. It is one of Owsley's late-career personal "sonic journal" recordings.  It began circulating just a few weeks ago, on January 19, 2010, on Owsley's 75th birthday. The show is from June 20, 1986 at the Greek Theater in Berkeley. Jamie Waddell digitally edited and mastered Bear's master audio cassette.  When seeded, the info on the tape was that it was recorded from "a combination of microphones and select console feeds" at the soundboard via help from Dead sound man, Dan Healy. When doing the mastering, Jamie mentioned that "no patch-work was performed (via audience recordings). This is what he (Owsley) chose to tape. Tape flip in LIG (Let It Grow). There is a good deal of reverb in places, but overall it is a very nice tape; certainly unique. This single cassette came anonymously last week in the mail, with a private tale of ownership. It is a confirmed master cassette. No more tapes are available from this person."  

As the fan photo (on the left) shows from this show, Jerry's health was on the decline. Just a few weeks after this performance in Berkeley, Jerry lapsed into a diabetic coma on July 10. He didn't come out of the coma for five days, and was not released from the hospital until his birthday on August 1st. Jerry had been severely impacted by the coma, and with the help of old friend and collaborator Merl Sanders, spent the next several months having to re-learn how to play the guitar from scratch.The Grateful Dead returned to the stage in December of 1986. By June of the following year, their new LP (In the Dark) was released, and the Dead would be bigger than they had ever been in their 20+ year journey... Check out the links below for the Owsley Matrix, as well as the audience recording that you can stream.

Set One
01. In The Midnight Hour
02. Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo
03. El Paso
04. West L.A. Fadeaway
05. Me And My Uncle ->
06. Mexicali Blues
07. Candyman
08. Let It Grow

Set Two

09. Uncle John's Band ->
10. Playing In The Band ->
11. Comes A Time -> 
[ Drums -> Space ->
I Need A Miracle -> ] <---missing
12. Black Peter ->
13. Around And Around ->
14. Good Lovin'
MISSING: Encore- Mighty Quinn

Until next week at Dark Star Palace.....


  1. I love this story and your blog. If you ever want to pass one of those buckles along...I would love it :)

    1. I'm selling one on ebay right now. check it out. it's the real deal

  2. Here's my Owsley story:

    I met Owsley by chance at a Dead show at the Nassau Coliseum on 3/29/91. A buddy of mine and I had, shall we say, achieved liftoff in a big way and were sitting behind the Rainforest Action Network table trying to collect ourselves. A guy fitting the description in this blog entry - black leather vest, long gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, carrying a big black leather jewelry case - walked over to us and said, "You guys look high and I figured you might like to look at some pretty stuff". He opened his black bag and pulled out all sorts of castings - SYF pendants, owls, moons - the works. Needless to say we were totally mesmerized with all the sparkly things and I asked him for his name. He replied (if I remember correctly), "They used to call me Bear". We were floored to say the least. He was as friendly as can be and his cool demeanor went a long way towards replanting our feet on terra firma (relatively speaking). I have always been surprised at the descriptions of him I've run across over the years as some sort of ornery mad scientist. I believe the mad scientist part, but he was a totally friendly guy and made our night.

    1. never happened^ i knew bear my whole life. they never "used" to call him bear, we always called him bear. the thought of bear carrying a leather bag full of gold/silver/bronze/gems into a show is ludicrous. he kept one bronze buckle with him inside shows and would hold it in front of him quietly. bear would never ever have approached you. you should stop telling tales. bear was gruff and outspoken. he came off as dickish many times. op, there was nothing "totally friendly" about my old buddy owsley.

    2. I also met the kind man at 2 events. One event was at a San Fran. JGB early 90's show I was shomin and very high. There was kind of a big blast of energy between us even though I didn't realize who he was just yet.,being so high. I was in ah! of his belt buckle he was wearing. When I got back to my set my husband and I had a big laugh when he told me just who he was. Oh yah he did say his name was Bear when I'd met him in the hall way. The next interaction with Bear was early 9o's at shoreline. you could often catch him vending,as you entered the gate down in front of the bar. My husband and I knew he had a jewelery store in Sonoma Calif. We asked Bear if he would take payments. He said,"what can you afford?" Will we told him we where just married and a couple of poor deadheads and would he go for ten dollars a month. He so graciously excepted our payments. As as soon as we got more work and the money came rolling in we had him paid off in no time. we often drove to Sonoma for the week-end hopping to catch him in his store but never did.My husbands work landed us in Portland or. Our last show was Portland meadows. I was so blessed to have gone to about 100 west cost shows and my husband had about 300. My husbands passing was late winter 99' I never recovered his ring from the hosp. that Bear had made. the ring was lost forever Now Bob is with Jerry some day I will join them untill then I miss them and shows very much. thanks for the great memeries they live in my heart for ever. peace and love Mojo


    3. To the anonymous poster who said that never happened you wrong ....

      I toured with the dead for 10 years and knew Bear and Fran, Fran ran the Greenpeace booth at all of the dead shows back then and Fran and owsley were quite close friends ... He would hold up one buckle while the bag of stock was 1 either under the table .. or in a carry bag that he wore ... Bears laminate said "Jerry Garcia Guests #1" on the back of it ...
      I should know I got to use it in 1995 for part of the summer run ...
      Owsley may of been reserved but he was quite approachable.
      He was smarter than your average bear

  3. My friend has a silver belt buckle from back in the day, he just sold his bronze one. How much is this worth.

  4. The silver has a number 3 on it.

  5. Silver is worth like $1500.
    That is what bear is selling them for currently.
    Let me know if you want to sell.

  6. i would like to purchase some owsley jewelry but cant figure out how to find the correct link please help,slip me a way

  7. can you send me a link to buy a owsley buckle, he might remember me, we conversed many a show and through email back in 97 and 98, his email is nowhere to be found though.

  8. I would love to find out how to get one of Owsley's buckles, ring or pendant. I did photos for Sam Cutler last year when he came out to the states and he showed me a bunch of Bear's stuff that he had. Here's the link if you want to see the photos:
    There's also stuff I shot while working with the Dead.
    RIP Owsley...

  9. his buckle was silver his manner was bold his story was the greatest ever told Owlsley and jerry sittin on a bench theyd rebuild the wall of sound if they had any since you know the one thing they need is a left handed monkey wrench!!

  10. Hi,

    If anyone has the story of the original bronze, silver or gold belt buckles from the 1980's please send me an email.

    I am doing research on them and would like to know how many exist, who they were given or sold to, ext.

    Thank you so much.


    I am interested in knowing the full story. I have Grateful Dead things as well if anyone is looking for original posters or anything.

  11. I have a bronze SYF belt buckle with what looks like enamel coloring (red & blue) of the logo on the front.. I bought it at Roosevelt Stadium in 1974. Haven't seen anything else like it online, was Bear making these back then?

  12. I'd be curious to know more about it if anyone knows..

    my email is

    1. It sounds to me that you may have an old
      Pan galactic buckle.Bob epstein made bronze steal your face buckles that he hand inlaid w- fimo clay.Now usually there done very swirly w- multiple colors, but I have seen 1 that looked just as the original, being he just used the straight red and blue... So maybe this may help you to id your piece..

  13. If anyone is interested in purchasing Bear buckles or his art in general contact his family at

  14. Bear did not make buckles until 1983 and he never made any enameled buckles, though he did make other enamel jewelry pieces.

  15. Wish I bought more than the one bronze syf I paid $30.00 directly from Bear at a concert in Grass Valley. I gifted it to a friend who was at the concert with me and immediately regretted not having the money for two of them.
    Still have an original skull and roses buckle, 1978 GDP & syf on inside. Anyone know what that might be worth. Thanks, David

  16. Dark Star PalaceMay 16, 2011 at 8:20 AM

    We'll be doing a future blog post on all the other GD buckles that are floating around out stay tuned.

  17. I have a silver for sell

  18. Hey ron why do you want to know who they are given too??????? That's sounds sketch

  19. Does anyone know if Bear's family has or is willing to sell any of his art?I recently lost my silver buckle while being life flighted to a hospital when i awoke my buckle was gone and nobody knew anything about it but they had my leather belt witch was cut.Anyways i feel lost without my buckle and would gladly give his family what ever for a piece of his art and to just show my appreciation for how much light he shined on so many people.Thanks & Terrapin station sounds and looks awesome!!my contact is

  20. If you google "owsley art" it should take you to his website and you can try from there....

  21. I have a SYF buckle that Bear enameled.
    It took me an entire tour to convince him to do it.
    In the end, it cost me $1200 for the enamel work, this after I paid $275 for the buckle.
    Looks absolutely stunning!
    Not as stunning as my 22kt SYF cut-out buckle though.

  22. I would really love the opportunity to purchase any of Bear's artworks or creations, somehow I think my luck may have passed on this one :(

    However if anyone is reading this and might be able to help or point me in the right direction (I've tried the email on his site, no reply yet) then I would be very grateful!

    I can be reached at createdbymin at gmail dot com

  23. I have a #2 belt buckle, im not sure what kind of metal it is i was told it was platinum but im not sure.

    it has many diamonds on the bolt and rubies and sapphires on each side.

    I cant find any info on this buckle anywhere does anyone know anything

  24. This comment has been removed by the author.

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