PCS Blog

Owsley Stanley: The “Acid King” of the ‘60s

Posted by Kinsley Suer | 17 March 2011

Ken Kesey’s name has been frequently mentioned in the news the past couple of days, amid reports that his LSD “provider,” Owsley Stanley, passed away last weekend in a car accident near his home in Queensland, Australia. Nearly everyone familiar with the history of the 1960s has heard of Ken Kesey, the prankster who spread the gospel of psychedelics to the countercultural generation - and, of course, writer of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. But far fewer remember Owsley Stanley, a man who was arguably just as pivotal as Kesey for altering minds in the 1960s.


After studying engineering at the University of Virginia and completing a stint in the Air Force, Stanley relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area. He enrolled at UC Berkeley in 1963, just as the student protest movement was taking off. He got his first taste of LSD in 1964. "I remember the first time I took acid and walked outside," he told Rolling Stone in 2007, "and the cars were kissing the parking meters."
That experience convinced him that he needed a steady and trustworthy supply. He poured over chemistry journals at the university library, eventually piecing together a recipe. Then, with the help of a chemistry student named Melissa Cargill, he bought 800 grams of lysergic acid monohydrate, started a lab and began manufacturing a very pure form of LSD.  At the time, this was still at least quasi-legitimate venture; LSD was not outlawed in California until 1966.
Stanley was one of the first individuals to mass-produce the drug. His name quickly became synonymous with the ultimate high given by what Rolling Stone once called "the best LSD in the world." Even the Oxford English Dictionary contains an entry for the noun “Owsley” as “an extremely potent, high-quality type of LSD.” His most popular varieties were White Lightning, Monterey Purple and Blue Cheer. Conservatively tallied, Stanley’s career output was more than a million doses of LSD. Some estimates put the number of doses closer to five million.
However, Stanley always downplayed his influence on the psychedelic explosion, explaining that he began producing LSD only to ensure the quality of what he ingested. "I just wanted to know the dose and purity of what I took into my own body. Almost before I realized what was happening, the whole affair had gotten completely out of hand. I was riding a magic stallion. A Pegasus," he told Rolling Stone. "I was not responsible for his wings, but they did carry me to all kinds of places."
Stanley quickly fell in with the likes of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, as well as Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. 
Throughout the summer of 1965, in a big house in La Honda, California, Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters hosted wild parties with guests that included Hunter S. Thompson, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and various Hell's Angels. According to Rolling Stone, when Stanley showed up one day for the first time, he walked over to Kesey and handed him a couple of hits of acid. Because Kesey had his own source – a fellow Prankster known as "John the Chemist" - and was suspicious of newcomers, he did not seem all that interested in the gift.
After sampling it, he changed his mind. "For most people," Stanley said, "the proper dose is about 150 to 200 micrograms. When you get to 400, you just totally lose it. I don't care who you are. Kesey liked 400. He wanted to lose it." Thanks to Stanley, the Pranksters now had enough LSD on hand to begin throwing parties at which everyone could get a dose. Kesey and the Pranksters called these gatherings the Acid Tests, a series of mind-blowing events at which people tripping on LSD were exposed to flashing strobe lights and psychedelic music. Tom Wolfe immortalized Stanley as the "Acid King" in his 1968 book, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."

Just as Stanley supplied the LSD at Kesey’s Acid Test parties, the music was often supplied by the Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead soon forged a long-term partnership with Owsley, not only benefitting from his top-grade LSD but also from his technical genius. As the Grateful Dead's early sound engineer, Stanley almost singlehandedly changed the way rock bands are heard and recorded. Legend has it that while on an acid trip, he literally “saw” the sound coming from the speakers and thus began a lifelong obsession with improving the onstage sound of live bands.
             Owsley Stanley, at the sound desk onstage with the Grateful Dead
Owsley would record every concert he worked on, applying his theories of microphone placement and stereo imaging. His live recordings are still considered unrivalled in quality and definition. Today there are dozens of high quality live recording available by artists like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Gram Parsons and Janis Joplin, all because he had the foresight to make stereo recordings of shows. In 1974, he debuted a radically advanced sound system called the “Wall of Sound,” a three-story-high, 641-speaker, 26,400-watt sound system that needed five semitrailers to cart it between venues. However, it reduced distortion and enabled the musicians to mix from the stage and monitor their sound. 
   Owsley Stanley (left) with Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead
The Grateful Dead would also benefit from Stanley’s artistic skill. With artist Bob Thomas, Stanley designed the Grateful Dead's distinctive skull logo.
The media often described Stanley as an LSD millionaire, a status he vehemently denied. Regardless, this status did inspire the Grateful Dead song "Alice D. Millionaire." Stanley also was immortalized in a Steely Dan composition, "Kid Charlemagne," and in a Jimi Hendrix recording of the Beatles' "Day Tripper," in which Hendrix can be heard calling out "Owsley, can you hear me now?"
                      Pay extra attention around the 1:20 mark to hear the line!
One of his other major clients included John Lennon, who, according to The Beatles, a 2005 biography by Bob Spitz, contracted to pay Stanley for a lifetime supply of his wares.
By the early 1980's, Stanley and his wife had relocated to Australia, so that they might survive what he believed to be a coming Ice Age that would annihilate the Northern Hemisphere.  He was a fanatical carnivore who once said that eating broccoli may have contributed to his heart attack several years ago. In his later years he was mainly a sculptor and jeweler, and his works were sought by many in the music industry, including the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards.
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