My Life Is the Road: Owsley “The Bear” Stanley Was a Friend of the Mac

Music Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin
My Life Is the Road: Owsley “The Bear” Stanley Was a Friend of the Mac

On Monday, December 8, 1969, Fleetwood Mac began a four-night engagement at Steve Paul’s Scene in New York City. After the sound check, Teddy Slatus, the club’s manager, came into the green room looking for Peter Green.

“There’re some, uh, guests outside asking for you. I can’t let ‘em in without you.”

“Okay. So, who are they?” asked Peter.

“You need to come out front and see,” Teddy replied mysteriously. “I’ve never seen ‘em in the City before.”

Peter shrugged and quietly followed Teddy out the door. My curiosity aroused, I followed them through the club, up the stairs, and to the entrance. Looking outside, I couldn’t miss the three muscular men in heavy black leather and denim jackets with cut-out sleeves standing impatiently on the sidewalk. A short distance down the street, another behemoth waited silently with crossed arms, guarding a clutch of gleaming Harley-Davidsons angled up to the curb. Clouds of biker breath fogged the December air, rising around long, straggly hair and beards laced deeply with ice crystals that could only have formed from hours of riding in the wintery weather. Worn leather gloves and steel-toed boots completed the outfits. Footsteps fell heavily on the slushy concrete as the trio paced back and forth, dwarfing the two nervous doormen.In a quavering voice, our bandleader introduced himself. “Uh… Hello, I’m Peter Green,” he ventured with a half-smile, nervously extending his hand.

I found myself wondering if the guitarist had lost some outrageous wager with someone during Fleetwood Mac’s first US tour, and this deadly looking bunch had come to collect on it. An old and dusty movie reel from one of those classic gangster movies replayed insanely in my mind—“You better pay up, see, or I’ll have your legs broken, see.” But the three impenetrable scowls brightened immediately once Peter introduced himself. The largest giant even smiled as he spoke so quietly that only we could hear.

“Owsley sent us. Got a room we can talk in?”

Peter’s eyes sparkled oddly, and he became quite excited, replying curtly, “To our dressing room. Follow me.”

To those in the closely knit psychedelic underground, the name Owsley held a magical aura. Skilled as a San Francisco chemist, since 1965 Owsley Stanley had been synthesizing what many acidheads considered the finest, purest LSD in the world. The West Coast psychedelic scene grew up fondly around his chemical contributions, with music from the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Quicksilver Messenger Service providing the trippy soundtrack. Owsley, or “Bear” as he was sometimes referred to, often provided the “electric Kool-Aid” that sent entire roomfuls of people off on eight-hour hallucinogenic journeys of discovery.

Obviously, Peter had encountered this scene when the Mac first toured the States, because he instantly realized the significance of Owsley’s name while I remained ignorant of just what was going on. However, I did recognize the famous logo sewn into the backs of the trio’s jackets. A hard-drinking motorcycle gang that operated barely within the limits of the law, the Hell’s Angels had always been part of the West Coast psychedelic scene, partying alongside the bands and their growing audiences. Could it be that we had representatives of that fabled and much-feared clan in our midst?

The modern horsemen turned to follow Peter down the stairs and directly past the front of the stage, since that was the only path to Fleetwood Mac’s semi-private hallway. A few patrons nervously glanced at the looming mammoths following the guitarist, but in true New York fashion, they quickly returned to minding their own business. The Angels maneuvered with difficulty as they entered the crowded, stale beer-smelling hall, their leather gear scrunching loudly and mingling with the laughter and conversation of band members. In an instant, all discussion died as the bikers commanded everyone’s attention without a word.

After an uncomfortable moment, the largest Angel smiled widely, exposing a grill of gold and silver before announcing solemnly, “The Bear welcomes you to America.” As he handed Peter a book-sized package, the giant continued, “He gave us this to bring to you and is looking forward to seeing you all in San Francisco.”

Peter accepted the gift with thanks, then asked the trio where they were from. The largest merely turned around to expose the logo on the back of his jacket, which read “Hell’s Angels” with a smaller “San Francisco” beneath.

“You mean to tell us that you drove your bikes all the way from California to give us this?” Peter asked incredulously, pointing at the package. The bikers simply nodded as if it was something they did every week.

“The Bear and the Angels welcome Fleetwood Mac to America. You have fun with that stuff. We’ll see you at the Fillmore [West].” That was it; they turned to go. The whole encounter had taken less than five minutes.

“Wait,” Peter said. As the largest rider looked back, the guitarist continued. “Please thank Owsley. I hope to see him in San Francisco. We’ll go out for a drink in his town.” The Angel nodded and Peter added, “Tell your friends the same applies to them. We’ll be in San Francisco in five weeks.” Now the giant smiled, exposing the metalwork in his mouth again, before turning to follow his companions as they pushed through the narrow space between the stage and front row of tables.

No one could quite believe what had happened except for Peter. Teddy Slatus cautiously followed the Angels outside where they joined their companion watching the bikes. Considering the coast-to-coast drive and frigid driving conditions in the Midwest and East, I thought their hogs looked pretty well polished and primed for the return journey. Before the bikers kicked their machinery into life, I shouted a final, “Thank you! Goodbye and good luck!” Then the Angels fired up their engines until the howling mechanisms caught, wheeled the chugging machines around, and blasted loudly down the street.

“This is the first time I’ve seen Angels on the East Coast,” Slatus mused in wonder as we watched them vanish around the block. Then he turned to me and shook his head. “You guys must have some hold on Owsley. Four Hell’s Angels drove 3,000 miles just to hand you a package, and now they have to drive 3,000 miles back! It’s unbelievable!”

By the time I got back down to the dressing room, the band members were jabbering excitedly like little kids. Peter had opened up the mysterious gift, finding precious cargo inside, including one small but assuredly potent vial of LSD, as well as other party favors. Plans were swiftly made to indulge in sampling Owsley’s gifts as soon as everyone could pack up and get back to the Gorham. I wrapped up my own work quickly, excitedly buzzing about the nightclub in anticipation of the forthcoming night. Unlike too many drug abusers who had come and gone, living merely as slaves to their fix or high, I was eager to try out Owsley’s acid to learn things about the frontiers of my mind and embark on a mental voyage of discovery with a group of close friends.

Five weeks later, we reached San Francisco and headed to the Grateful Dead rehearsal space. I finally met Owsley and bonded with the group’s sound engineer, Dan Healy, and Ramrod, the stage manager. After the Mac spent a day jamming with the Dead, it was time to play San Francisco and the Fillmore West.

Those Hell’s Angels who had driven to New York came to the show that night, along with most of the San Francisco chapter in tow. Peter met with them and spent a long time being introduced to each and every member.

“I was so nervous,” he later confided to me. But he needn’t worry. Those bikers loved Fleetwood Mac to death, especially when they played the blues. Peter could do no wrong—as long as he played some of the older selections from the band’s repertoire. After the show Owsley told Peter that the Angels appreciated him playing the old tunes, some of which the Mac hadn’t done in months. The Mac had earned an honorary place in the San Francisco scene.