'King of LSD' Owsley Stanley's Colorful Legacy

Millions of acid hits and Grateful Dead albums later...

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Sixties icon Owsley Stanley--a pioneer of the LSD movement and a fixture in the early Bay Area counterculture scene--died in a car crash over the weekend at the age of 76. The Kentucky-born eccentric was one of the first people to mass-produce acid, eventually making millions of doses of LSD in his lifetime after discovering the recipe in the Journal of Organic Chemistry in the U.C. Berkeley library in the sixties.

An early manager and pioneering sound engineer for the Grateful Dead as well, Stanley made LSD for people like Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, and Ken Kesey and became a kind of cult figure as the drug provided the chemical inspiration for the psychedelic movement. Some eccentric highlights from a strange and visionary life:

Songs Referring to Him
"Purple Haze," was purportedly inspired by a batch of acid he distributed at the Monterey Pop music festival in 1967. The Grateful Dead's "Alice D. Millionaire," Steely Dan's "Kid Charlemagne," are both songs where he's directly referenced. Jimi Hendrix can be heard at the end of his cover for BBC of the Beatles' "Day-Tripper," saying "Oh, Owsley, can you hear me now?" reports Rolling Stone.

Entries in the Dictionary
One: "Owsley" is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary as a noun for an "extremely potent, high-quality type of LSD."

Doses of LSD Produced
Most estimates range upwards of one million. The San Francisco Chronicle puts the number at 1.25 million, produced by his company "Bear Research Group" between 1965 and 1967 (you could legally produced acid in California until 1966, but the materials were only available to serious researchers, explains Rolling Stone.) The Wall Street Journal only credits him with producing "thousands" of doses, but acknoledges the actual number may be much higher. The New York Times says that "conservatively tallied" Stanley produced more than a million doses, and up to five million according to some guesses.

Total Jail Time Served
Two years in Federal Prison, which he spent working in the kitchen and learning metal-working and jewelery making--hobbies that he later used to support himself in Australia.

Near-Religious Belief in a Bizarre Diet
Stanley rigidly believed in an anti-vegetable, all-meat and dairy diet, which he maintained until his death. According to his profile in Rolling Stone, when Stanley and the Dead moved into a house in Los Angeles for a six-week series of "acid tests," he made them adhere to the diet as well. According to The San Francisco Chronicle, Stanley blamed a heart attack he had a few years ago on the broccoli his mother had made him eat as a child, and credited his survival of throat cancer to his glucose-free diet.

Worst Drug Trip
Robert Greenfield tells of an acid freakout Stanley had during a Grateful Dead show at the Muir Beach Acid Test in Marin County, chronicled in Tom Wolfe's the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test:

The sound of Jerry Garcia's guitar grabbed hold of Owsley, and he freaked out on acid for the first time....[In the book] Tom Wolfe described how Owsley completely lost control of himself, dissolving into "gaseous nothingness" until he became nothing more than a single cell. "If he lost control of that one cell, there would be nothing left," Wolfe wrote. "The world would be, like, over." "I lost control of that cell as well," Owsley says. "They were all gone. That was the initiation. The price I had to pay to get through the gate. Ego death. I thought I was going to die, and I said, 'Fuck it.' And that was good." Running out a side door during his freakout, Owsley leaped into his car, gunned the engine and promptly ran into a ditch. When he finally returned to his physical body and found it mostly intact, Owsley was horrified by the way Kesey and the Pranksters were messing with people's minds.

Technological Innovation
Stanley played a role in pioneering various sound systems that helped create the big stereo sound that fueled the generation's live concerts. According to Rolling Stone, Stanley "was one of the first people to mix concerts live and in stereo," a concept far ahead of its time, as well as the Grateful Dead's legendary "wall of sound" speaker system--forty-feet high, 604 speakers, 26,400 watts of power. As Rolling Stone says: "Without his technical innovations ... the band [Grateful Dead] might never have emerged from the San Francisco scene."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.