How Owsley ‘Bear’ Stanley Inspired Steely Dan’s ‘Kid Charlemagne’

“You were the best in town.”

By Nate Todd Jan 19, 2023 6:14 am PST

Counterculture legend Owsley “Bear” Stanley is most closely associated with the Grateful Dead. But he also inspired another famed rock band, Steely Dan, to pen one of their best songs, “Kid Charlemagne.”

“Kid Charlemagne” appears on Steely Dan’s 1976 album, The Royal Scam. One of the inspirational fonts of the band’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker came from the “aging hipster” archetype: cool cats who “had it all” but fell from their bohemian towers. Fagen and Becker were masters at imagining these figures (think “Hey Nineteen”) but sometimes they also drew inspiration from real-life characters. And Owsley Stanley was character incarnate.

Going hand and hand with his association with the Grateful Dead, another of Owsley’s claims to fame was as a manufacturer of LSD. But he was so much more than that. Born Augustus Owsley Stanley III on January 19, 1935 to a politically prominent Kentucky family, Owsley went on to study at the University of Virginia where he received good grades but like many bright kids wasn’t challenged and dropped out.

So Owsley would challenge himself. Despite not having a degree, he literally became a rocket scientist, which brought him out to California. He also enlisted in the United State Air Force where he picked up a lot of the electronics know-how that would serve him well in his role as the Grateful Dead’s audio engineer. He even dabbled in ballet.

In 1963, Owsley moved to the Bay Area and enrolled in the University of California Berkeley, an epicenter of the burgeoning psychedelic scene. Soon the renaissance man added another skill to his resume: chemist. Owsley began producing LSD for the movers and shakers of the counterculture like Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and the Grateful Dead.

It’s here where Fagen and Becker pick up the story. The first few stanzas of the song follow Owsley’s tale fairly closely, beginning with: “While the music played you worked by candlelight/Those San Francisco nights/You were the best in town.” There’s also that famous line sung by the backing vocalists: “Did you feel like Jesus?”

In his biography on the Grateful Dead and quoted in an article in SFist, Dennis McNally noted that “Without [Stanley], there simply wouldn’t have been enough acid for the psychedelic scene of the Bay Area in the Sixties to have ignited.” Called “The King Of Acid” by Rolling Stone, Owsley turning his talent “on the world” and turning “the world around” might give some insight into the title of the song. The eighth century ruler known as Charlemagne was considered the first “King Of Europe” and his reign as Holy Roman Emperor is pointed to as the birth of modern European civilization and culture. The parallels to Owsley’s role in the counterculture are apparent.

“Kid Charlemagne” references Kesey, the Pranksters and the Acid Tests in the line “Everyone stopped to stare at you technicolor motor home” as well as “You’d go to L.A. on a dare and you’d go it alone,” the latter possibly a reference to the Watts Acid Test as well as the fact that Owsley cooked in Los Angeles for a brief time.

But Owsley couldn’t “live forever” as “Kid Charlemagne” figuratively muses. “Could you see the day? Could you feel your whole world fall apart and fade away?” The third stanza speaks of the aftermath of the 1960s in Thompsonian terms. “All those Day-Glo freaks who used to paint their face/They’ve joined the human race.” After Larry Carlton’s outstanding guitar solo, the final verse is full of paranoia and the possibility of being caught.

“Clean this mess up else we’ll all end up in jail/Those test-tubes and the scale/Just get it all out of here.” Owsley was busted and did time on more than one occasion in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.

In a 2000 episode of VH1 Story Tellers, Becker and Fagen reveal how “Kid Charlemagne” is indeed loosely based on Owsley. Check it out at about the 8:30 mark in the video below followed by a live performance of “Kid Charlemagne.” Find the studio version of “Kid Charlemagne below as well:

Dan Belcher
Steely Dan (See 5 videos)

Although he died tragically in a car accident in 2011 while living in Australia, Owsley’s wizardry lives on in his “Sonic Journals” curated by the Owsley Stanley Foundation. Check some of the titles below:

Read More On Owsley “Bear” Stanley's Recordings
  • Stream ‘Bear's Sonic Journals: Tim Buckley Live At The Carousel Ballroom’ 1968

    Stream ‘Bear's Sonic Journals: Tim Buckley Live At The Carousel Ballroom’ 1968 

  • Owsley Stanley Foundation Readies ‘The Chieftains Live In San Francisco 1973 & 1976’

    Owsley Stanley Foundation Readies ‘The Chieftains Live In San Francisco 1973 & 1976’ 

  • Previously Unreleased Johnny Cash Live Album Recorded By Owsley Stanley Due In September

    Previously Unreleased Johnny Cash Live Album Recorded By Owsley Stanley Due In September 

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