Without Owsley Stanley, it’s quite likely the Summer of Love wouldn’t have happened. Widely regarded as the ‘Acid King’ of the West Coast, he was responsible for synthesising, manufacturing, and dispersing the highest-quality LSD anywhere in America, helping to fuel the psychedelic revolution that birthed everything from Jefferson Starship to Apple computers. But, as well as being a self-educated scientist with a talent for crafting mind-altering hallucinogens, Stanley was also a talented artist, musician, and sound engineer.
This latter pursuit saw him craft “sonic journals,” an approach to live recording which allowed for bands to critique their performances and for Owsley to rework and improve his technique. His recordings were clean, simple, and based on scientific principles. He never relied on equalisation (electronic tone control) – preferring to correct poor sound by rearranging and replacing microphones until the sound in the venue was just right.
Stanley’s desire to have complete control over what the audience heard saw him amass a huge number of recordings, many of which he kept in his personal collection and never released. It was only in 2021, ten years after Stanley’s death, that the Owsley Stanley Foundation started releasing select recordings from this private stash in order to fund further releases. This recording of Johnny Cash performing at the Carousel Ballroom in San Francisco is the first of the foundation’s Bear’s Sonic Journals series.
A week into his 1968 tour across America, Johnny Cash recorded his infamous concert at the Folsom State Prison in California. While Columbia Records got to work whittling down the two sets into one LP, Cash pushed onward, burning a trail through America, into Canada, and back again, returning to the West Coast for one last show at the Carousel Ballroom, where Owsley was working as a sound engineer. Stanley’s experimental, journalistic tendencies are clear as day. He pans Cash’s backing band as far to the right of the stereo field as it’s possible to get. At the other end, Cash’s vocals and glimmering acoustic guitar radiate a rich warmth.
This particular performance also sees Cash’s new bride June Carter join him on stage. Indeed, it was only a few weeks earlier, on the Ontario stop of the ’68 tour that Cash paused his performance to propose to Carter. It is indicative of Stanley’s talents that he was able to capture Cash’s husbandly pride in as much detail as tracks like ‘Don’t’ Think Twice It’s Alright.’ If you’d like to find out more about Owsley Stanley and The Owsley Stanley Foundation, check out their website here.