With Owsley’s death, will the 1960s fade even further into oblivion?

by David Alm on March 15, 2011

Owsley Stanley with Jerry Garcia, from Reuters

Throughout my childhood, in the early- to mid-1980s, LSD was considered bad news. We were sternly warned by teachers, parents, made-for-TV movies, and Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign never to try it. We were told that if we ever did, we’d likely do something fatally stupid — like attempt to fly out of a window — or go “legally insane,” a hotly contested concept among acid-trip veterans.

Indeed, LSD has had its share of casualties, many tragic. But it also had an indelible effect on American culture. Without acid, the 1960s, quite simply, wouldn’t have been the 1960s. And on Sunday, one of the key figures behind that prominence died at age 76, in a car accident near his home in the Australian bush.

Owlsey Stanley was the applied chemist who supplied the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, and countless others, both famous and non, with prodigious amounts of lysergic acid diethylamide. Popularly known by his first name alone, Owsley was said to have produced anywhere from one to five million individual hits during his years in San Francisco, broken up by arrests and one two-year stint in federal prison. In the 1980s he relocated to Australia to avoid the coming Ice Age, which he believed was imminent, and where he continued to live entirely on meat.

Owsley’s product was the acid in Ken Kesey’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. John Lennon reportedly contracted a lifetime supply of the stuff from him. And Frank Zappa referenced him in his 1967 song “Who Needs the Peace Corps” when he sang, “Think I’ll just drop out/I’ll go to Frisco, buy a wig and sleep on Owsley’s floor.”

That final reference was how I first learned of Owsley Stanley, in 1989, when I was 14. I loved the song for its irony, despite also enjoying the scene it so ruthlessly mocked.

Maybe someone else would have filled Owsley’s test tubes if he hadn’t, but we can’t be sure. And while lives have been destroyed by LSD — I had several friends in high school whose deaths, car accidents, and brain damage can be directly linked to the drug — significant aspects of American culture are tied to it.

And those aspects have been critical in shaping American politics, music, fashion, sexual and civil liberties, and just about everything else over the past 40+ years. When I was in college, in the 1990s, an entire course on the 1960s was offered for precisely that reason. It wasn’t written off as a decade defined by self-involved baby boomers, as it often is today, but acknowledged for what it was: a pivot al period in American history.

With Owsley’s death, I have to wonder how much longer that will be known.

mike moore March 28, 2011 at 11:32 am

In college I was curious about acid and had considered dropping a tab when a friend of mine showed up at my door at 2:30 in the morning in the middle of a bad trip. She had walked the 7 miles from town and had convinced herself that I was the only person who would protect her. She moved in and out of reality for the next 4 hours then went into what seemed to be a semi-comatose sleep that scared me. About the time I was getting ready to call an ambulance, she appeared in the kitchen and ate just about everything I had in the refrigerator.
She was a little ditzy to begin with and shortly after that she left town.
The next time I saw her was when she appeared in Playboy. Unfortunately, we were platonic friends…

Jeff McMahon March 28, 2011 at 11:55 am

Mike, that’s a good story. A friend of mine in college ate two ounces of psilocybin mushrooms. On minute he was sitting in his dorm room, watching reruns of the Lawrence Welk Show on PBS and shooting at the screen with a dart gun. The next minute he was gone. The police showed up around 4 a.m. and asked if any of us knew what was wrong with him. He had gone to the library, of course—which was open 24 hours on campus— removed his trousers, and spoke unintelligibly to a number of library patrons. They put him in a padded room until he came down to earth. He also left town soon after that.

David Alm March 28, 2011 at 7:45 pm

Yeesh. If I start going down the path of telling stories of acid casualties in my own life, I’ll never get to bed. Suffice it to say that, yes, the drug has not been kind to some people. But I also believe that acid, like many things, can be used for good as well as bad. And some people simply should never have taken it in the first place. They’re too susceptible, too fragile.

But thanks, Mike and Jeff, for two excellent stories of warning. Despite the teachings of Leary and Owsley himself, I still believe that one is better off never going near the stuff. After all, you never know how lucky you’ll be until you try it, and the stakes are a little too high to make finding out worthwhile.

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