R.I.P. Owsley Stanley

By the time I reached Haight-Ashbury in the magic summer of ’67 things had already started going downhill. Superspade had been murdered the week before I arrived and it was all the talk on the Street. Some said the cops killed him, others blamed the Angels and a bad meth deal. The place was crawling with underaged runaways and semi-shocked tourists. We had all arrived with flowers in our hair but those flowers were pretty limp by August. Nobody had told me how cold the night air can be in San Francisco. I claimed a big green bedspread at the Digger’s free store and it became my coat and my robe and my bed. Somehow I had inherited a sixteen year old girlfriend and we crashed a couple of doors up the hill from the Dead House in an abandoned apartment with no running water. I was forced to learn to roll my own joints. Nothing was quite like they said it would be in Time Magazine.

The whole Hippie thing was new to me, as it was to everyone, even the ones who were inventing it as they went along. The counter-culture had as many faces as the number of reporters who were trying to describe it. I looked at myself as one of these reporters. I hadn’t quite made up my mind whether or not to identify myself with the movement but I had three years of journalism experience by the time I was 18, so I felt comfortable in my role as an observer. These were also the days when young writers like Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe were putting a new face on journalism, one where objectivity was no longer the prime virtue. It was no longer enough to report the game from the press-box or even the sidelines; we now wanted our reporters to be suited up and on the field.

I had begun my research into the counter-culture movement in 1965 when I read about a drug that students were taking to expand their minds. I was a bright-eyed young reporter in his junior year of high-school attending a journalism conference in Ft. Worth. Bill Moyers and Dan Rather were the headliners at the conference and during the Q&A session after they spoke, someone asked what they thought about this new drug that was all the rage in California, called LSD. I had never heard of it. so I immediately sought to correct this deficit in my cultural awareness. This began a two-year-long journey through the annals of chemical mind expansion. I read everything I could get my hands on, gnawing my way through Huxley, Leary, Alpert, Watts, Crowley, Coleridge as well as Gurdjief, Freud and Burroughs and such examples of the new underground press as reached the bleached plains of West Texas. The subject had captured my imagination. From today’s perspective, I can’t believe how naive I was. Now any twelve-year-old can tell you what ‘acid’ is.

But this was 1965 and I lived in a town with three faith-based universities. I was a young Republican who wasn’t quite sure about the Beatles yet. Certainly there was no peer pressure on me to try LSD, none of my friends or anyone I’d ever met had tried it. The vivid words of Aldous Huxley describing his experiences with mescaline were the proximate cause in my decision to experiment on myself. My head was full of science-fiction and the Playboy Philosophy and like many of my contemporaries who were reared in the beige, repressive Eisenhower decade, I was the perfect loam to nourish the seeds of a cultural revolution. I knew that something was seriously missing from my life and I suspected it had to do with spirituality. I had already satisfied myself as to the fraud of organized religion but my spiritual quest was only beginning. The possibility of a glimpse into the hidden world of the mind was too much for me to resist.

By the time I found myself in the dog days of the Summer of Love I had taken a half-dozen LSD trips. Upon debarking the VW van that had brought my friends and I to San Francisco, one of the first things that I heard was the sotto voce of the dealers whispering ‘Acid’ as you passed them on the street. And some of them were saying something else as well. They were saying, “Owsley.” Apparently the king of the underground drug cooks, the one whose very name was the gold-standard for LSD, had issued a new batch of acid. Owsley was already a legend by that time. His product was cheap and pure and it was everywhere. With the distribution network provided by the Hell’s Angels and the publicity machine created by the Acid Tests and the Grateful Dead, he had made millions, according to the folklore. Naturally it was my duty as a responsible reporter to try it.

I think they were calling it Yellow Sunshine, but truthfully, it is hard for me to remember; there were so many colors and brand names for home-brewed drugs. I have invented several myself. I remember that it was good acid. I lolled in Panhandle Park and listened to Big Brother and Quicksilver play from the stage of a flat-bed truck while the Hog Farmers passed out free sandwiches. Owsley had cooked the drugs that were in my head and also had designed the sound system through which the bands were playing. For this I owe him a very pleasant afternoon.

So, I was sad when I heard that Owsley Stanley had died last week. ‘The Bear,’ as he was called in songs by the Dead, was one of the most influential personages of the hippie movement. Owsley didn’t invent LSD, he wasn’t even a chemist. He found the formula for acid in the basement of the UC chemistry library in Berkeley and followed it like a recipe for fudge. “Somebody had to do it, so I did,” he said. But he did it very well and more importantly, he did it at just the right time. Our culture was ripe as a pinata and acid was just the stick to pop it.

Owsley died in his adopted home of Australia at the age of 76, not of a drug overdose or the cancerous residual effects of benzine chemistry, but in an auto accident. After his imprisonment in the States in the early seventies, not for LSD but for pot, he had gone downunder to avoid further legal predation in this country. In his later years he espoused the benefits of an all meat diet. The Poet’s Eye always gets misty when one of the true iconoclasts passes to the next level. I’m getting misty now. It looks like a Purple Haze.

Purple haze all in my brain
lately things don’t seem the same
Acting funny and i don’t know why
excuse me while i kiss the sky–Jimi Hendrix

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