Owsley, Sixties legend and LSD maker takes last trip

Dave Masko's picture

EUGENE, Ore. – “He turned the Beatles on, man. Heck, he turned on an entire generation,” says Eugene Hippie local Stan “the man” Saitz when describing the legacy of Owsley “Bear” Stanley, the famed Sixties LSD icon who died in what his family called a “terrible car crash” near Canberra, Australia, this past Saturday.

John Lennon once called Owsley “the doctor of LSD,” when the Beatles were “influenced by him.” Renowned LSD chemist Augustus Owsley Stanley III, known universally as "Owsley" died March 12 out of the lime-light due, in part, to the world being focused on the crisis in Japan. Still, Saitz and other former “Hippies” in Eugene, say the ongoing events in Japan and the rest of the world are like being on some of Owsley’s “Acid” that this famed Sixties icon handed out to a generation who chose to “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”

Lennon was such an admirer of Owsley that he was asked to be around for the Beatles in April 1969 just prior to the band’s dissolution. It was during this period that “Abbey Road” was released on Sept. 26, 1969, with Abbey Road’s legendary cover being a “suggestion” of Owsley, stated Lennon in a Rolling Stone interview.

Owsley remembered in Eugene and Haight-Ashbury for his acid

“During the day, Stanley was a core figure in the drug scene that underpinned hippie culture, producing an estimated one pound of pure LSD - enough for roughly five million trips. He was the Sixties for many of us,” said Cherie, a friend of Owsley’s from Eugene.

“He would come up to Eugene from San Francisco to get away. He would hang out with Ken (Kesey) and liked the beach. He was an out of this world king of guy,” adds Cherie who put flowers in a Eugene park in memory of the chemist.

In fact, she said his pioneering role made the name "Owsley," a popular slang term for the drug.

According to a San Francisco Chronicle interview with Stanley from 2007, “Owsley stood firm in his belief that the drug was beneficial to society, despite serving two years in prison in the early 1970s. ‘I wound up doing time for something I should have been rewarded for. What I did was a community service.’”

Ken Kesey, who had been turned on to LSD by a Veterans Administration hospital experiment in 1960, wrote “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and later met Owsley down in the Bay area for what was documented in Tom Wolfe’s prose in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

“Freak freely was the idea: drop acid, smoke grass, eat speed, whatever drug was around, paint your faces, paint your scene, change everything, go after cosmic unity and tool up for some incredible break-through,” wrote Wolfe of Kesey and friends Timothy Leary and, of course, Owsley, while asking: “Either you’re on the bus or off the bus.”

Kesey, a Eugene area legend, often went to Owsley because he was viewed as the master of the psychedelic.

“Expert chemists like the Bay Area’s Owsley, who set up underground laboratories and fabricated potent and pure LSD tablets in the hundreds of thousands, were not it just for the money; they kept their prices down, gave out plenty of free samples, and fancied themselves dispensers of miracles at the service of a new age – ‘architects of social change with a mission to change the world,’ in the words of Owsley.’ Toward which end Owsley helped, for example, to finance the Grateful Dead,” writes the Sixties expert Todd Gitlin.

Owsley pioneered Sixties sound and thinking

It’s no secret that lyrics sung by The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa reference Stanley and his brushes with the law, underlining his influence.

Moreover, “Stanley produced an estimated pound (half a kilogram) of pure LSD, or roughly 5 million "trips" of normal potency of the hallucinogenic drug, after enrolling in 1963 at the University of California at Berkeley and becoming involved in the drug scene that underpinned the hippie movement,” according to family and friends who produced a farewell message about his life this week in the wake of his sudden death.

The tribute – sent to select friends – noted how Owsley was an accomplished sound engineer who worked for the psychedelic rock band The Grateful Dead and inspired the band's dancing bear logo.

"His death is a grievous loss to his family and the tens of thousands of people from the '60s on who were influenced by his work with The Grateful Dead," said San Cutler, a friend of Stanley since 1970 when Cutler became The Grateful Dead’s tour manger.

Stanley, who adopted Australia as his home country in the early 1980s when he became convinced that the Northern Hemisphere was destined for a new ice age, was the son of a U.S. government attorney and his namesake grandfather, Augustus Owsley Stanley, was a Kentucky governor and U.S. senator.

Stanley was driving a car that swerved off a highway and down an embankment before hitting trees near the town of Mareeba in Queensland on March 12. His wife was treated for minor injuries from the crash. He was 76.

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