Owsley and Me, Rhoney Gissen Stanley with Tom Davis

Propelled by the excitement of the times and place – mid to late 1960’s San Francisco, this memoir of life in the Grateful dead family is a quick and fascinating read. Like more than a few other members of that scene, Rhoney Gissen came from wealth and dysfunction, and found in the hippie movement a refuge from the former, but not necessarily the latter. Her relationship with August Owsley Stanley III, better known as ‘The Bear,’ and later just Owsley Stanley, was very different from that with her parents, but no more healthy. It is a credit to Rhoney’s character that she not only survived, but overcame that treatment, to raise an apparently healthy and productive son (with the charmingly period-appropriate name of Starfinder Stanley.

Besides affording an entertaining travelogue, and a devastating portrait of the rampant misogyny of the movement (including the Dead, contrary to their counter-cultural reputation), this is Owsley’s story; the self-driven and self-centered genius who simultaneously revolutionized the recreational drug industry and the state of sound-system art while rubbing elbows and other body parts with a who’s who of psychedelic rock celebrities. Hendrix, Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Joan Baez, Elvin Bishop, the Stones and the Beatles all make appearances, as do Bill Graham, Melvin Belli and many more. Seeing them from inside the movement puts lots of new spin on peace, love and freedom (which seems a better way to complete the trio than ‘happiness,’ given the bad trips, legal troubles, poverty and heartbreak we see).  The detailed accounts of Stanley’s LSD manufacturing are perhaps the most eye-opening part of the book; to paraphrase our current mad-scientist genius, “who would have guessed it was that complicated?”

Fluidly written by Davis, a comedian best known for being half of Franken and Davis (along with fellow SNL writer – later turned politician – Al Franken), the adventure is mostly cheerful and melodic, even when not harmonious. Owsley’s drug business appears to have thrown off enough cash to keep him and his followers in crash pads and the rest of their practicalities were handled with the frugality of artists, trusting to fortune. Brushes with the law are treated as inconveniences, until Stanley serves several years and abruptly shows how much aging he has accumulated. His last years feel bittersweet, as they must have been after such a brightly blazing youth.

A useful antidote to blissful images of the Summer of Love et al, but not one that justifies totally discounting them, just adds another unique perspective.

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