Overweening Generalist

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Owsley and Me: My LSD Family, by Rhoney Gissen Stanley

He was reading about chromatography and with his wire-rimmed glasses and long hair, he looked like Benjamin Franklin with his balls hanging out. 
-p. 60, Rhoney Gissen Stanley describing the legendary LSD alchemist "Bear" Owsley Stanley in Owsley and Me: My LSD Family.

Now here's a delightful little memoir that was up my counterculture alley. I try to read every book that comes out on cannabis, LSD, psilocybin, ecstasy and other psychedelics, but it's getting difficult to keep up. Arriving in 2012 and co-written with Al Franken's old and now-dead sidekick, Tom Davis, Stanley writes about the mid-late 1960s in Berkeley as if it were last year, with novelistic patches of remembered dialogue that we just have to take her words for as being...fairly...accurate? 50 years later? Anyway, it was a fun read.

Rhoney Gissen was an upper-class east coast jewish girl who wanted to get as far away from her repressed family as she could, and majoring in English at Berkeley in 1965 did the trick. Her LSD "family" is largely a threesome, with Augustus Owsley "Bear" Stanley III, and Melissa Cargill. The extended family turns out to be quite large: members of Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, members of the Hell's Angels, Richard Alpert (about to go to India and become Ram Dass), other luminaries that many of you could guess.

Gissen Stanley appended Owsley's last name, but they were never married; Gissen took the last name "Stanley" when she went back to school to become a dentist, many years after Owsley took the rap for his entire operation and went to prison; after all, she had had a child with him. The book has a sincere yet odd tone: most of the time the well-educated Gissen is obsessively in love with Owsley, and he loves here too, but it's complicated, and Gissen suffers through much of her memoir in a sort of heart-on-her-sleeve schoolgirl's crush on the charismatic Brilliant Man.

                              Owsley in hat and shades; Jerry Garcia in beard 
                               photo by Rosie McGee

And oh my: Owsley was brilliant. This was the main reason I picked up the book: here's a guy who's known for making the best LSD ever, for turning on almost an entire generation (mostly for idealistic reasons), and he was self-taught. And LSD is notoriously very, very difficult to make well. The ideas many of us got about how much technical know-how went into making the vastly superior or "purest" blue meth in "Breaking Bad"? LSD appears to be more difficult than that to produce at the most pure levels. (In one scene a batch of Owsley LSD is tested in a lab at UC Berkeley and is found to be 99% pure.)

But Owsley was a true modern alchemist, and Rhoney Gissen relates scenarios a-plenty that illustrate the wizard-like aspect of Owsley, who, while making LSD was often seen pouring over thick chemistry textbooks at a kitchen table, all night, in the nude. Here's a scene from early on:

At Bear's house one day, I opened the door to the tall and handsome Richard Alpert. He could have just stepped out of GQ in his polo shirt, tan pants, and boat shoes with tassels. I took him to the kitchen where Bear was naked and totally engrossed in two large books open before him on the table: Electromechanical Metallurgy and The Emerald Tablet of Hermes. Richard and I waited for him to look up and acknowledge us.

"Is he reading those two books at the same time?" he asked. 

"At least." I motioned for him to take a seat. 

Richard sat and began talking to Owsley, who just added the conversation as a third object of his attention. "LSD is not enough to bring me to liberation and bliss. I always come back down into my thinking mind, this body, these clothes." Owsley looked up and uncrossed his legs, moving his balls out of the way with his hands.

Gissen says Owsley saw himself as a psychedelic Prometheus, "enabling mankind to choose to take a sacrament for transformation of mind and soul. His LSD was the purest. Purity of LSD was his raison d'etre." A leitmotif in the book is Owsley, backstage at rock concerts or other gatherings of psychedelic intelligentsia, administering his 99% pure God-Juice sublingually from a Murine bottle he carried with him.

We get one of the most vivid pictures of Owsley yet in this book: his off-beat but erudite ideas about how important it was to eat meat - especially steak - rare; why he ended up living his last decades in extreme biodiversity, off the grid in Australia: because a huge storm was about to hit the Northern Hemisphere and bring on an ice age and Noah's flood-like conditions. (see p.253 for details) About Owsley's love of comic books, ballet, that astrology had actual merit, that the tips of his right hand pinky and ring finger had been lost since childhood (Why, again? It's sorta mysterious: Gissen, noticing hair was growing out of the finger-stumps: "What happened to your fingers?" Owsley, laughs dismissively: "I was a kid. But they grafted skin from my belly. That's why hairs grow.") Gissen paints an Owsley who usually thought if an idea wasn't his own, it was probably wrong. And a lot of the time he was right. He was a gifted lover of women, hated tobacco, and probably didn't let enough people know how much in debt he was to his main squeeze, the gorgeous and ultra-brilliant Melissa Cargill, who did major in Chemistry at Berkeley, and probably deserves much more credit for the purest LSD ever.

While we can understand why such chemists would rather remain mysterious, with hindsight it's perhaps time to reassess the technical and intellectual contribution Cargill made to late 1960s/early 1970s psychedelic culture.

At the same time, Owsley deserves far more notice for his stellar work in acoustics and sound engineering (again: mostly self-taught). His determination to aid and abet the Grateful Dead in bringing forth a new cosmic consciousness via not only LSD, but a synergy of psychedelics in human nervous systems, plus new ways to organize and record live rock music? He still seems relatively unheralded here, eh? He tinkered with speaker placement, condenser microphones, live rock sound controlled by a mixer who was stationed amidst the audience, allowing the band members to hear each other and themselves...prior to Owsley, loud rock bands were very noisy live; the sound was chaos. He played as big a part in engineering concert sound as anyone. How many people are aware of this? Even his home stereo was avant-garde:

If I could not be at a live show, next best was listening to music at Bear's. He modified his home audio system by exchanging the components of the amp and preamp with precision parts he ordered from an aircraft manufacturer. He changed the type of cables and the wiring of the connectors. He had the best speakers  - JBLs with the cones exposed. He even altered these, adding a subwoofer to increase the amplitude of the bass. His placement of the two tall speakers was calculated to optimize the quality of the sound. I pulled out an LP of the Bulgarian Women's Choir. I placed the record into the turntable and dropped the needle. 

"Jerry Garcia loves this," I told Richard (Alpert)."
"Jerry Garcia is a bodhisattva," he said.

Later, Owsley is explaining to Gissen: "Nobody has figured out how to record live music. We can do it! We need time, and we have to get this acid tabbed, too. LSD is part of the alchemical equation and helps the music become transformative."

A word on Owsley's background: his great-great grandfather had come to Unistat on the Mayflower. His grandfather had been governor and US. Senator from Kentucky. His godfather was a Supreme Court Justice on the Earl Warren court, or so Rhoney Gissen says; I was unable to identify which Supreme was Owsley's godfather after at least fourteen minutes of Google searches. He grew up believing what his grandfather taught him: that Prohibition violated the Constitution: an adult person had the right to do with their own nervous system what they willed. This seems partly why, after his acid-team got busted in Orinda, just over the hills from Berkeley,  Owsley eventually decided he could take the rap for everyone and, using a stack of law books, defend himself - with counsel - and not go to prison. But of course, that's not the way things shake out in this Epoch, as you well know, my friends. Owsley did a stretch in many prisons in the California Archipelago, much as Timothy Leary did. (Owsley learned metallurgy in prison, and his belt buckles sell like gold to this day...)

Speaking of Leary, there was a point where it was thought Owsley's "Hobbit" house in Berkeley (HERE, see about 50% of the way down the page) might be hot - the Feds may have been on to him - so someone in his circle pointed out there was a house available in the Berkeley hills near the one that Leary owned, but he balked because he perceived Leary as someone who sought media attention, and Owsley wanted nothing to do with that.

For denizens of Berkeley and surroundings, Grizzly Peak, Telegraph, Bancroft, and Sproul Plaza appear; Marin and the Oakland hills and the great rock auditoriums of San Francisco (Fillmore West/Winterland/Carousel Ballroom) are characterized. Bill Graham and Owsley didn't get along. Also: Boulder and Denver (and unnamed Tim Scully), and Woodstock, Monterey Pop, and Altamont appear. Owsley and Gissen visit Leary at Millbrook but Leary's only interested in drinking and the Owsley crew get busted by Liddy's pals as they leave. There's lots of driving while high on LSD. There are anecdotes about Hendrix being recorded privately at the Masonic Hall in San Francisco whilst everyone was very high (read to see what turned out with the tapes!), a quasi-hilarious bad trip with Buddy Miles, and a harrowing bad trip with Robert Hunter, who, it turns out, did an insane amount of strong LSD, by accident. They visit the Hollywood Hills and meet George Harrison, Joni Mitchell, and David Crosby.

I liked this book.

A couple of extra notes: I find it striking how acid cognoscenti were aided by the children of the wealthy elite in Unistat. Famously, the Mellon family's children helped Leary; Owsley was greatly aided by these types too. However, I fail to see any sort of the conspiracy that some have: the elites, in conjunction with CIA, sent their children to derail the counterculture. I think rich kids sometimes have different values than mumsy and pop. Also: this book is yet another that draws a distinction between the renegade flavor of the psychedelic counterculture on the West Coast of Unsitat, with the more Asiatic-religion-influenced trippers on the East Coast of Unistat. I wonder how "true" this distinction really was; I've seen it recur in book after book. I suspect much of this distinction has been born of a meme that propagated well, and even had "them dat wuz there" believing it, years later, as they recalled their lives in, say, 1969, at age 23.

Finally: the most striking element of the book was, to me, the passages in which Gissen is tripping marvelously through her 1960s, stoned, immaculate, listening to Ravi Shankar...and then the sudden juxtapositions of technical language in exposition of the making of LSD, which at times seem almost Joycean. (See, for example, pp. 48-52; 54-61; 71-74 (making DMT); and 101-104.) A taste, to ride out of the too-long review here:

Melissa took a washed beaker, squirted acetone on it, and held it up for inspection.

"See how clean! Look, the beaker is dry. Every piece of glassware must have a final rinse of acetone."

"Oh, that acetone smells terrible. Anything that smells that bad can't be good for you."

"Acetone smells bad but the flasks are glad," Melissa responded. She blasted the beaker with compressed air. "This hastens the drying process." She examined the glassware; if it were wet and there were any streaks or spots, it would come back for a do-over. 

We fell into a routine: eat, sleep, and work.

We usually worked at night, and for this phase of the synthesis, columns clamped to rods were setup. Tim was in charge of packing them because he was tallest. The process is called column chromatography, or affinity chromatography, because the desired LSD - the iso-LSD - and the impurities have different affinities for the alumina adsorbent and separate out at different rates, or affinities, as they travel down the column. According to Bear, the trick was to get the mother liquor down the column without breaking off into crystals along the way.

When Owsley first started making LSD, he did not use column chromatography to purify the acid. He used vacuum dessication...

Here's Owsley talking about psychedelic effects interacting with sound equipment:


Anonymous said...

The last two posts (rants/raps) are
so great for the added video links.
The media following Marcuse around
thinking he's the source of the
general discontent. Just because
he was there. They just couldn't
face the truth that everybody who
was there was pissed about the way
of the world.

I've been reading Marcuse, the
Freudian interpretations are hard
to decipher but they were the best
available to him as a starting
point for speculations on society.
Once past that he is remarkably
insightful about society.

? Isn't there a chemical pathway
which converts to aromatics and
releases them through the skin.
If that's the case then you can
effect others. Musicians who then
alter their behaviors to burn out
an Amp. That's an Occams Razor
guess. Assuming you can directly
overload the electronics with
telepathy would require a lot of
proof but it would be easy to
assume. Once you face an unknown
your mind offloads its baggage
onto the problem.

East coast elite conspiracy may
be accurate, that doesn't become
nefarious sinister plotting in the
backroom with your elders.

Elders do influence their kids but
youth will rebel against anything
overt just as part of the dynamic
of growing up.

So you can't assume an agenda or
sinister plot, even though they
did steer the counter-culture.
The external society raved about
it being out of control, but never
said whose control it was supposed
to be out of. Sounds like a must
read book.

Eric Wagner said...

Terrific post. I love the line about Jerry as bodhisattva. I find it intersting how many technical people worked with the Dead, helping to evolve the sound technology of rock music, including Bear and the Alembic people. (Have you had any success enjoying listening to the Dead? The Dead haven't centered my listening experience for about eight and a half years, but I still love their music.)

I remember around 1976 - 1977 coming home from school and flipping the channels from Mike Douglas to Merv Griffen to check out the musical guests. I noted that the bass players from most one hit wonders played a Fender Precision or occasionally Fender Jazz bass on the way up and that they frequently purchased an Alembic bass before their appearance on the way down.

Have you read Baked Potatoes? I found that a very funny book.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...


The book sounds really cool, but it's not likely to be cooler than your review. I follow book reviews in several places, and I never heard of this thing until I saw your blog post. (It came out about a month ago -- I just checked.) What does that say about the culture? For that matter, what does it say about the culture that I'm reading your review on your blog, rather than a book review journal?

michael said...


Yea, the notion that the Youth were rebelling against the Establishment, so it must be because of "foreign influences" goes a looong way back in Murrrkin history. Marcuse was part of a group of extremely well-educated upper-middle class German jews who charged themselves with explaining how German high culture/civilization (by 1910 the Highest the world had ever seen?) had fallen so low. And they were afraid it could happen in their newly adopted country, Unistat.

"Our" youth wouldn't be rebelling against our great land on their own! Where did they get these ideas? Oh right: leftish academics and their near-impenetrable Critical Theory. Right.

Your last paragraph highlights one of the perennial Qs for me: of course the owners of society try to influence that culture which arises to challenge its hegemony (sorry: infected by Critical Theory a bit myself); the wonder is how few Murrkins ask why it is that the owners are allowed so many of their assumptions to go unchallenged.

michael said...

@ Eric Wagner-

Alembic is mentioned in the book. I agree: it seems really interesting to note the High Tech brainiacs who worked with the Dead, and not only Owsley.

I read Gissen-Stanley's book over a period of about 3 days, and in the middle I found an all-Dead channel streaming on iTunes, gdradio.net and enjoyed everything I heard, and sativa helped. I'm getting better at "getting" the Dead, I think.

I haven't read Baked Potatoes, but if you recommend it, it's probably gold.

michael said...

@ Tom-

Very kind of you. I'm miffed that books like this are ones I have to stumble upon; after I wrote the review I looked to see how well it had been reviewed by others (it came out 2 yrs ago). There were some reviews, but I thought overall the coverage was paltry.

I do find out about must-read books via your blog and a few other places. I like to put in "psychedelic drugs" as a keyword search in library databases that cover more than one library system: lots of stuff will come up that I haven't read, and I'm very often frustrated that I'd never heard of the book(s).

A lifetime goal: to read as many of the books and authors that RAW mentioned in his books and articles. Then I'll look in the bibliographies of THOSE books and get ideas...

There seems more and more in the scientific journals on psychedelic drugs and terminal cancer patients. This week I read an article on a study that showed how psilocybin inhibited processing of emotions in the amygdala that are strongly related to depression and anxiety. I think this is a huge deal, but the mainstream media will, by and large, see psychedelics as taboo for awhile still, and no way in hell are they ever going to seriously address all the positive, life-altering, "religious" effects those drugs have had.

Here's a link to the study I mentioned:

Here's a cool link that Richard Metzger ran at his Dangerous Minds blog fairly recently. The Bill Hicks bit is exactly what I'm talking about when I say there's no way the corporate media will ever address the transcendent aspects of psychedelics: