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Owsley Stanley: The King of LSD

Would the Summer of Love have ever happened without Stanley, the reclusive acid impresario who turned on the world?

March 14, 2011 12:24 PM ET
Owsley Stanley: The King of LSD
Illustration by Jody Hewgill

No one did more to alter the consciousness of the generation that came of age in the 1960s than Augustus Owsley Stanley (who passed away March 13, 2011). Long before the Summer of Love drew thousands of hippies to Haight-Ashbury, Owsley was already an authentic underground folk hero, revered throughout the counterculture for making the purest form of LSD ever to hit the street. Yet today, at seventy-two, he is all but forgotten.

Almost forty years to the day after he blew minds at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967, with a brand-new batch of "Monterey Purple," Owsley is checking out of a motel in nearby Carmel. Three years ago, he underwent extensive radiation for throat cancer, losing thirty pounds in the process. He is moving so slowly that someone from the front desk comes to the room to ask if he ever intends to leave. Ignoring the inquiry, Owsley roots through his bags for a large state-of-the-art conical burr grinder and a white funnel-shaped device to heat water so he can make coffee from beans he grew and roasted at home in Australia. As the water boils, he packs up a Braun food mixer and the vast array of other gadgets he carries with him.

This article appeared in the July 12-27, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

He puts on a pair of old bluejeans that are now several sizes too big and places a brown Thinsulate stocking cap on his head. With his dark-brown goatee and a gold hoop dangling from his left ear, he looks like an older, careworn version of the Edge from U2. Unable to swallow solid food since the cancer treatments, he laments that he can no longer enjoy dining out with friends. Suddenly, his eyes redden and he is nearly reduced to tears. Quickly regaining control, he says, "But, hey, I'm alive, right?" Without waiting for an answer, he stalks out the motel-room door.

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In the Oxford English dictionary, the word "Owsley" is listed as a noun describing a particularly pure form of LSD. But manufacturing acid is not the only accomplishment on Owsley's résumé. He was the Grateful Dead's original sound man and their initial financial benefactor. Without his technical innovations — he was one of the first people to mix concerts live and in stereo — the band might never have emerged from the San Francisco scene. And because he had the foresight to plug a tape recorder directly into the sound board during Dead shows, the music the band made at the peak of its power has been gloriously preserved in recordings still being issued in the series titled Dick's Picks, for which Owsley continues to receive royalties.

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While doing two years in federal prison in the early Seventies for manufacturing acid, Owsley taught himself how to make jewelry. He has parlayed this talent into a career, crafting belt buckles and pendants for everyone from KeithRichards to Jackson Browne that sell for as much as $20,000.

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For the past twenty years, Owsley has lived off the grid in a remote section of Australian rain forest. Until now, he has never been willing to speak extensively about his life. (He has also never willingly allowed his photograph to be taken.) "I'm not really interested in talking about myself," he says. "I don't want my life exposed publicly. I'm interested in the work I've done and the things I've discovered and in some of my philosophical stuff, because I think it's of value, but I'm not into being a celebrity, because I think celebrityhood has no value to anyone, least of all to the celebrity. I've watched wonderful people get destroyed by it."

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