Are They Really Dancing?

Grateful Dead bears have become some of the most recognizable and well loved symbols associated with the band. They"ve continued to be cool all these years even though they"re so cute as to seem almost corny. Somehow they"ve retained their hip status despite the warm fuzzy feelings they create, probably because of their association with the mind expanding music and culture of the GD scene.

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It"s been said that the Grateful Dead bears first appeared as a design on Owsley"s blotter acid but I was under the impression that he sold his acid in the form of pills that resembled small barrels. At least that"s what I read somewhere, I could be wrong, probably only he knows for sure.

Owsley is, of course, the famous "LSD millionaire" who was the sound engineer for the band when they first started out. A man of many talents, he was both a chemist and the sound wizard involved with the creation of the Dead"s famous PA system - the "wall of sound". It"s said that the massive amounts of high quality acid he produced in his lab were largely responsible for the beginning of the summer of love and the whole San Francisco scene in the Sixties.

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It"s well known that Owsley"s nickname is Bear. He was given this moniker by his friends in his childhood because he grew a lot of body hair at a young age. The name stuck and people still refer to him as Bear to this day. I"ve read that Owsley developed a very unique form of dancing at concerts while high on acid. Supposedly his friends dubbed it the "dancing bear" and this is where the term originates from. Whether any of this is true - I really don"t know. There"s always been a lot of mystery surrounding Augustus Owsley Stanley III.

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The first official appearance of the Grateful Dead bears as we know them was on the back cover of the album Bear"s choice. They were created by Bob Thomas - an old friend of Bear"s who was an accomplished artist and musician in his own right. He also created the "Steal Your Face" - the Dead"s well known skull and lightning bolt logo - and painted the cover for the album Live/Dead.

Bear"s Choice was a tribute to Pigpen who had recently passed away and all the tracks were selected by Owsley. He also recorded the music and produced the entire album. In keeping with the album"s theme Thomas incorporated bears in the cover art. He was inspired by a generic lead slug for a bear he found in a printer"s box of fonts.

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There"s five different bears - each one is a different color and drawn in a different marching position. They are arranged in a certain order for the marching positions to flow naturally. The proper order is purple, green, yellow, orange, red. If you lined them up in a flip book and flipped through them quickly they would look like they were actually marching along. I discovered this when I had all the images in one folder on my computer and I quickly clicked through them. I thought the effect was pretty cool - and yes, I know, I"m very easily amused...

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On the back cover of the album the bears are seen marching in a circle. I say marching instead of dancing because on Owsley"s website he states "...the bears on the album cover are not really "dancing"...their positions are quite obviously those of a high-stepping march." If you go to Owsley"s site you can see a picture of the actual printer"s slug, given to Owsley by Thomas before he died.

Whether they"re marching or dancing, Grateful Dead bears have found a permanent spot in American pop culture. If you have any interest in the music of the Grateful Dead or classic rock at all, you"re probably familiar with them. They"ve come to represent more than just the Dead and the counterculture, practically joining the mainstream. They can be seen everywhere from posters, stickers, key chains and coffee mugs to shirts and even neckties. Several companies have been producing limited editions of stuffed Grateful Dead bears and it appears they"ve become quite collectible.

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If you"re interested, you can find many of these extremely cool and collectible bears at Amazon.com.