March 14, 2012

The Owsley Stanley Foundation

This is not a "news" blog, since I usually focus on the early history of the Dead; but there's a recent development that I thought was worth a brief post.

After Bear's death, his family started the Owsley Stanley Foundation, which is now raising funds to restore and release Bear's tapes - over 1300 live recordings:

Most of these are probably either bands that opened for the Dead from '68-70, or bands that played at the Carousel in early 1968, where Bear was the soundman. More details on Bear's tapes are here:

This is a listing of shows at the Carousel - Bear would have taped shows from March to June, 1968:

The first release from "Bear's Sonic Journals" is Big Brother at the Carousel, 6/23/68.
This album was actually prepared long ago, and Bear wrote about it here (at the bottom of the page) -
(Notice that the cover has been changed!)
Back in 2000, Bear wrote, "I have word that Sony Music is at last ready to offer a contract agreeable to (most of) my terms, which means the album may actually get into production sometime soon."
Of course, this didn't happen. It seems apparent that, unfortunately, it took Bear's death to make any kind of archival release series from his tapes possible.

It remains to be seen what the future volumes will be, or even how many different bands were taped. A wide variety of groups opened for the Dead in the late sixties, some of them forgotten today, some renowned. (There's a partial list on the Foundation site, but it would be good to have a complete listing.)
Of the bands listed, we know Johnny Cash, Dan Hicks, Chuck Berry, Thelonious Monk, Dr. John, Steve Miller, Santana, the Youngbloods, and Electric Flag played at the Carousel. Taj Mahal, Quicksilver, Country Joe, and the Airplane frequently played with the Dead, and there could be any number of tapes from them. Blue Cheer opened for the Dead at the LA Shrine on 7/11/68.
Bear likely taped Fleetwood Mac both at the Carousel in June '68, and in New Orleans in January '70. He also taped Miles Davis' sets at the Fillmore West in April '70 - though ironically, those sets were also taped by Columbia for a live album. The Allmans, of course, were taped at the Fillmore East in February '70, and a CD was already released from those tapes. David Grisman and Old & in the Way were taped in '73, when Bear was no longer recording the Dead's shows, but focused on Garcia's bluegrass sideproject.
There are many other bands that opened for the Dead in those days, both obscure & famous - it would be great to know what tapes might survive of them.

I don't know how many Dead shows are included in this collection. It's my understanding that all of Bear's Dead tapes were donated to the Vault already; so it seems unlikely that new & unheard Dead shows will now emerge. Dan Healy mixed the Dead's sound when they played at the Carousel, so it's possible Bear did not tape any of those shows, only the other bands - but who knows?

Any releases, of course, will have to be negotiated with the bands and licensed through their record labels - for instance, the Big Brother release is coming out on Columbia/Legacy. Other releases may be worked out through other labels, or may be blocked, depending on the individual bands & companies.

There are no details yet on the tapes - Bear taped on both reels and cassettes, depending on what was available; some may still sound pristine today, but others may sound quite degraded. Most of them perhaps haven't even been played in decades.

I'm not sure what measures Bear took to preserve his tapes in the last 40 years (other than just storing them) - he wrote, "Not all the tapes managed to make it through to the present, and I didn't have enough blank tape at the time to record all the shows... These tapes have not always been stored under ideal conditions."

The Foundation writes that the surviving tapes are rapidly deteriorating:
"The tapes are approaching the end of their known shelf-life, and if the recordings are not digitally preserved, they will be lost forever. Experts believe that the typical lifespan of this media is approximately fifty years if maintained in ideal conditions and have advised the Foundation that the digitization of the earliest of these recordings should occur within the next five years or they will not be salvageable; all of them will continue to degrade and will become unsalvageable unless eventually digitized. The cost of digitally preserving these recordings is estimated to be US $200,000 to US $300,000 and will require two to four years of studio time by sound engineering professionals to complete."

They are taking donations, but the restoration project will no doubt also be funded by sales of the Sonic Journal releases.


  1. Hey, anyone know why they don't crowd source this? Enough of us have high end playback systems that this could be digitally archived pretty easily... what am I missing?

  2. Profits, I'm sure.
    Bear's estate probably does not want his tapes to go into free circulation, and is probably not in favor of "crowd-sourcing" their digitalization, or using any methods that would loosen their control over the tapes.

    Bear was extremely unhappy with Dead insiders like Latvala who'd leak tapes; if it had been up to Bear, we would not be listening to any of his SBDs except for the official releases.
    I would guess his estate feels the same way about his tapes.

  3. Bear was interviewed for the Taping Compendium back in 1998, and said a number of pertinent things worth quoting:

    "Even when I was working for the Dead, I went to see other bands and recorded their music."

    His tapes were initially stored "in the basement of the house I was renting for a while. They were moved to Alembic studios when I went off to jail. I came back and found them on a huge pallet in the middle of a storage room with some other stuff.
    Tapes were missing. I've never recovered some of them. I'm now missing other tapes that were around for a while. I'm missing Fleetwood Mac and Thelonious Monk, both from the Carousel. I'm also missing the original tape of Johnny Cash from when he appeared there.
    If any of these tapes turn up, they will be easy to identify, as I recorded the vocals in the left channel and the instruments in the right, Beatles style."
    (What's interesting here is that the missing tapes he mentions seem to be included in the Foundation's list of bands, so perhaps those tapes were recovered. It's also notable that the Big Brother show now released also has the vocals & instruments in separate channels, so it seems he taped all the Carousel shows that way - though he did NOT mix the Dead like that later in '68.)

    He said he always recorded the other bands that played with the Dead, "unless they had an objection. Even when they had an objection, I still wanted to tape them...but I sometimes had to give them the tapes afterwards."

    As often as possible, "I always tried to do simultaneous recordings on cassette [and reel]... There were a lot of shows that I couldn't afford tape for and neither could the band, so all we've got is cassettes."
    [This probably refers mainly to 1969 Dead shows. Deadlists starts noting cassettes in December '68; so I don't know if Bear was using cassettes at the Carousel in early '68.]

    Bear warned, "I had a little early stereo Concord that turned out later to have begun gradually running more and more slowly... Some of [the tapes] were running up to 10, 15 percent slow... [It can be fixed, but] you have to want the music real bad if you are trying to clean up an old cassette."

    He notes that sometime in late '68 he started using Ampex reel tape, but it had a major preservation problem:
    "The adhesive that was used to glue the oxide particles onto the backing turned to snot over the years, and would rub off on your hands. Subsequently, there were many tapes that you couldn't play. Somewhere along the line, someone discovered that if you heated them up to about 130, it would reset this adhesive for a while, but not permanently. [This is 'baking' the tape, a common technique for this problem.] Of course, high temperature randomizes the particles, so you're basically erasing the highs off the tape while you're cooking them, reducing the highest frequency sounds while recovering the rest... Mistakes made now may not be apparent until much too late. I later decided I didn't really like the Ampex product and returned (thank God) to Scotch. So almost all of my later tapes are OK, like Old & in the Way and the 1970 Fillmore East shows."

    "I've got lots of nice Airplane tapes, good and even great shows, but they always turned all the amps up to ten. As a result, there was very little dynamic action in their performances, and a lot of the mikes were overloaded. These tapes are basically fuzzy and unusable for making records... The Airplane always had problems hearing their monitors."

  4. My problem with Bear's tapes, at least those before 1970, are his mixes -- specifically his horrible habit of leaving Jerry and Bob in dead center, but for some reason panning Bill and Mickey left and right. Except for Drums, when some stereo separation is obvious, everything sounds almost like it's in mono. DP16, DP26, and RT4:1 all suffer somewhat because of this IMHO. Happily, he appears to have seen the light in time for the Feb. 70 Fillmore East shows, because they have a quite decent stereo mix. I wonder how that change came about, though. Switching tape brands from Ampex to Scotch wouldn't have had anything to do it.

  5. One thing not often studied is that Bear changed his mixing approach from time to time.
    From '66 to mid-68, he used the "early-Beatles-mix" of vocals on one side, instruments on the other. This is discussed a lot in the liner notes of the new Big Brother release - but what they don't mention is that this recording was one of the last examples of this mix.
    When he started working with the Dead again in mid-68, he changed mixes, and the late-68 tapes have more regular stereo mixes.
    A lot of '69, as you note, is mostly mono except for the drums.
    But in early '70, Bear switched again to a wider stereo separation, which I think is his finest work. Unfortunately, that's just when his taping had to be curtailed. (Some of Bob Matthews' 1970 tapes are also pretty much mono, for whatever reason.)
    I haven't done a comparison with Bear's late-72 mixes, though (when he started recording again) - but my guess is his mixes kept evolving over the years. It's something worth studying sometime.

  6. I'm veering off topic here, but what I've always found interesting, in addition to inexplicable mono or mono-like mixes of both Bear and Matthews from the 69-70 time frame -- the Harpur College electric set being Matthews' most notorious example -- are the inexplicable decisions on where to put Bobby and Jerry in stereo mixes. Usually Jerry is panned left and Bobby right, reflecting, I have always supposed, their positions on stage (ditto Billy left and Mickey right). On the odd occasion, though, you'll find Jerry on the right and Bobby on the left. Jerry's even on the right in the 2-14-68 Carousel show on RT2:2 -- which was recorded on 8-track and mixed down only recently.

    1. I never paid much attention to that. Sometimes on tapes from, say, '73 where Charlie Miller has patched different sources together, the guitars will flip sides now & then because the patches have different mixes. That's kind of interesting to hear.
      Possibly on a lot of the show copies we listen to, the L/R sides have already been flipped by well-meaning traders.

      I tend to prefer Jerry in the middle, actually!

      It struck me that the Fillmore East crew tapes from 1970 were mixed very similarly to Bear's 1970 tapes.

  7. Actually, it seems like the February 1970 Fillmore East tapes from Bear might have been something of an anomaly, at least in terms of a change of form from the mono-like '69 mixes. I was just listening to the June 1970 Fillmore West shows, and they sound a lot like the '69 Bear. What's funny is that in between Easy Wind and Mama Tried at the 6-5-70 show, Bobby starts chanting at Bear to "get it together," and then Pig threatens Bear that there isn't going to be "another fucking word from this stage until them got dam monitors work." All that, taping the shows, and less than two months from a stint in the federal joint. Poor Bear!

  8. Yes, Bear got lots of abuse from the band at 1970 shows!

    But, going through the 1970 tapes, there's actually a lot of variety in the mixing.
    The Fillmore East tapes from Jan & Feb, of course have wide stereo mixing. Which is interesting since most of Bear's other tapes from Jan '70 are more mono-like, as you say.
    Bear's Fillmore West tapes could sometimes be closer to mono, but there are many exceptions like 2/5 & 2/8, 6/4 & 6/7, or 4/12 (and 4/15 Winterland).
    And Bear's last 1970 tapes from 7/14 & 7/16 are also in wide stereo.

    While most of Bob Matthews' tapes from early '70 are in mono, some are in wide stereo, like 6/13 or 3/24.
    Matthews also had an odd habit of taping the acoustic set in stereo and the electric set in mono (as on 5/1, 5/2 and 5/14). Wonder why?

    So there's definitely no hard & fast rule about how they set the tapemixes that year - it could vary from one day to the next.
    And I should add that many of Bear's tapes from '70, even when the instruments are mixed mostly in the center, have a pleasing sense of space in the recording - there are few of the truly mono recordings (mostly Matthews') that might as well have been one-track tapes.

    It's also curious, and probably not coincidental, that Bear's 1970 tapes had a much better survival rate than Matthews'. Save for a few shows like 4/10 and some Fillmore West fragments (something disastrous clearly happened to the Feb & April FW reels), we have almost every show Bear taped that year - whereas there are huge gaps in the tours that Matthews was taping.
    It may indicate who valued the tapes more...

  9. Why not start a kickstarter campaign?

  10. Apologies to all for not having any posts done in April. Other things just got in the way.... I promise to have a couple posts ready in May, though!

  11. I just read this post and checked out Foundation page. I will try to purchase as many of these releases as I can and if I like the band. The artwork is top notch for that Big Brother release. Thanks for writing about this LIA.

  12. fuck digitizing old tapes the only way to restore them is to make a another analog generation. Digital is just a picture of a copy of the original sound another generation would be the actual sound minus a few iron oxide particles.!!!!wake up people

  13. Might look up what Checksum is...

  14. The Owsley Stanley Foundation launched an Indiegogo today to rescue the tapes, and is hosting a listening station at the San Jose and Chicago anniversary shows in the Fare Thee Well non-profit section to preview some of the first transfers.

  15. Well it February 25,2016.Whats the update?This site has been going for years yet has it released anything that hasn't been heard somewhere else?Owsley worked with Blue Cheer who to this day,haven't had a live performance released anywhere of any quality.There are The Steve Allen recordings and one song on YouTube that has very poor sound.Yes,I'm a fan of the original power trio,the one that most people hated (or loved)and if they released a Blue Cheer recording,which they claim they have,I know a lot of people who would donate to the organization.Their one time roadie/producer/Jack of all trades Eric Albronda says he talked to Owsley just before he died and asked him if he had any tapes of. Blue Cheer.He told me Owsley said definitely not,"they were too loud" or some bullshit along those lines.(Being too loud is what I'm saying is bullshit,it would be easier to record I would assume)So either the foundation is lying or Eric is.........if in fact they do have live Blue Cheer,prove it by releasing one song;there's a Blue Cheer site and all of the members would be more than happy to buy,donate or whatever.I can only hope something is released before I'm dead,like the vast majority of the fans who were there......

    1. I don't know about Blue Cheer, but I also suspect the Owsley foundation would get more donations if they had more releases, or at least named specific shows/artists that could get released.
      But I imagine the permissions/rights negotiations process to authorize the release of any band is a lengthy one, and they're still in the early preservation stage.

      A good place to check for news is not their main site, but their facebook page:

      In particular, they mention the "Adopt-A-Reel" program:
      "We'll help you select a meaningful show or artist from the vault catalog, and then we'll prioritize its rescue. We’ll send you a photo of the reel with any of Bear’s notations, and we’ll include your and/or the gift recipient's name in all future credits as reel benefactor. Please note: this perk does not guarantee you will get the music on your reel. After preservation, we will begin the process of working with each artist to hopefully release their music to the public."

      They show a few specific reels which have been "saved" - the Fleetwood Mac New Orleans '70 shows, the Jerry jams from 7/28/68 & 10/28/69 - which are in "unofficial" circulation already, so I'm puzzled why they got picked first. They mention that they have over 20 reels of other Jefferson Airplane shows, but those may also be shows that already circulate.
      But anyway, if you want to specifically pick a band like Blue Cheer to preserve, it sounds like you can do it by contacting them.

      They take donations on Indiegogo:
      "A single reel costs about $250 to save, and there are more than 1,300 reels... We have raised more than $12,500 since the start of the campaign, which is enough to save 50 reels! ...We need to raise $312,500 more to rescue all 1300 reels...
      Tragically, these analog tapes are decaying and approaching the end of their known shelf­life. The lifespan of this media is fifty years if maintained in ideal conditions, and if preservation and digitization of the earliest of these recordings does not occur within the next five years, they will not be salvageable. All of them are continuing to degrade, and they could be lost forever. Time is of the essence."

      You can adopt a reel for $400: "You’ll select a reel from the vault catalog for priority rescue. Pick a show or artist, and we’ll prioritize the music you love most to the front of the queue."
      Looks like only a few reels have been "adopted."

  16. For those interested in Owsley's tapes -the Owsley Stanley Foundation has just completed their first release from the archive -a 7 disc box set of Doc and Merle Watson recorded at the Boarding House in SF in 1974. It won't hit stores until the end of June but can be purchased right now at their website: -Unbelievable quality!!

    1. Also, they're planning to release some of the shows on analog-to-analog, half speed mastered, 45 RPM 180g vinyl and 3rd gen reel-to-reel. For those who meh at plangent processed digital.

  17. Their facebook page has recently up'ed a colour photo from Pete Wernick of Jerry on stage with what looks like members of three different groups in Camp Meeker in 1963. On the left are the Fort Mudge Ramblers in band getup. There's a fiddler and guitar player (just possibly Dave Nelson?) in red waistcoats, clearly a band uniform. Jerry on banjo and what looks to me to be Eric Thompson on guitar are wearing street clothes.

    Chris 'ponderingpig' Newton's "The First Few Friends I Had" book describes this weekend but I don't have it so can't comment on that.