BY HENRIK DAHL
It was January 2003 and I was making research on The Merry Pranksters and, in particular, the so-called Acid Tests they were staging in California. So I decided to get in touch with Owsley Stanley aka Bear, a legend in the counterculture movement of the 1960s.
Owsley built sound equipment for the Grateful Dead. At the time they were the house band at the Acid Tests, which were a series of multi-media events where the participants were given a strong dose of LSD. Owsley, together with his apprentice Tim Scully, also manufactured the acid that was used at the Acid Tests. I figured getting in touch with Owsley would possibly result in some valuable information on what was going on at the events. It’s safe to say the acid Owsley and his friend Scully made reached a huge number of people in America. Apart from at the Acid Tests, their LSD was taken at numerous rock concerts, music festivals and in city parks. Owsley’s acid lab was raided in 1967, and he was sentenced to three years in prison.
Today, Owsley is living with his family in the Australian bushland, making enamels, castings and other works of art. I found his email address through his web page, and sent him a few questions I was hoping he would answer. After reading about Owsley in various books and articles, I concluded that he would perhaps not be the easiest person to communicate with, coming across as a slightly arrogant person. Other sources have indicated that he is a reclusive man – e.g. very few pictures of him have been published in the media, and for many years he declined being interviewed. I assume keeping away from journalists in the Sixties, first and foremost had to do with safety. What drug manufacturer would want to be known to the police?
I am not, and never was, a “chemist”. I was soundman for a band, Grateful Dead, who were the house band at the Acid Tests.
Knowing this, I thought I’d better be as friendly and trustworthy as possible when getting in touch with the acid legend. I wasn’t even sure I would get a reply. After all he is known for keeping a low-key profile. But he did reply to my message. At the start his answers to my questions were short with a sceptical tone, but evolved into longer and more elaborate answers, especially when the subject changed from the Sixties counterculture to technical aspects of psychedelics.
My impression of Owsley is that he’s an intelligent man with a lot of integrity. Initially he did seem slightly arrogant and unfriendly just as I had feared, but I got the feeling he trusted me a little more after awhile.
I have to admit that my correspondence with Owsley was a bit of a disappointment. But when looking back at the interview, some of the answers to my questions were very interesting, especially his disapproval of Tom Wolfe’s writing.
I am also aware that I made some errors when preparing for the interview. In a lot of the literature where Owsley is mentioned, he is referred to as “Augustus Owsley Stanley III”, but I should have known that he changed his name in 1967 to simply Owsley Stanley. Another error I made was that I talked of the Grateful Dead as “The Warlocks”. They changed their name to Grateful Dead before becoming the house band at the Acid Tests. In hindsight I could have made a better start.
Below is a shortened, edited version of our correspondence. I’ve decided to only include the part of the interview that is dealing with the Acid Tests and The Merry Pranksters.
Dear Augustus Owsley Stanley III…
– First off there is no A… nor any III in my name. I am now simply OS.
I am well aware of Tom Wolfe’s book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and such, but first hand information is, of course, always preferable to solely relying on written accounts.
— Wolfe is a poor choice of information, since the Prankster’s were fucking with him.
Tom Wolfe’s book is considered a classic and I have never really heard of anybody criticizing it.
— It is not a good book for information, only entertainment, Wolfe is a good writer – if you can get past his negativity, tendency to denigrate any and all trips he has ever come upon, and the heavy sarcasm.
I remember Wolfe’s book as being very entertaining. I guess that is why people like it so much.
— I was not aware of people ‘liking’ Wolfe’s book. Like all of his work it targets a high-profile group with charisma and proceeds to dismantle and denigrate it with intense sarcastic writing. I thought his inane wrecking the reps of the astronauts in The Right Stuff was wholly uncalled for and it set me firmly against him as a writer.
Apart from obtaining knowledge about The Acid Tests…
— You will not find out much of anything about the Acid Tests, as there was a cult of never talking about it at the time, and now none of the participants will talk except in riddles and evasion. Wolfe is useless.
It’s clear Owsley isn’t much for nostalgia and looking back at the good old days of the 1960s. One could say he’s got a healthy attitude to what went down in the past. However, for someone making research on The Merry Pranksters and the Acid Tests, it’s all a little frustrating. After all, Owsley was there with Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, Babbs and the other Pranksters and already in the Sixties he was a legendary figure. But hearing Owsley’s view on Tom Wolfe and his bestselling book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was alone justifying the interview. It’s one of the very few books on The Merry Pranksters and if it’s true that they were “fucking with him” during the making of the book, one can’t help but re-evaluate it.
I make another shot at getting at least a little information about the Acid Tests.
Who should be given credit for coming up with the multimedia concept of The Acid Test events?
— I haven’t a clue, it was Kesey and the Prankster’s business.
I have made research on The Brotherhood of Eternal Love. A couple of weeks ago I got in touch with an old friend of yours, Tim Scully, who was very helpful, giving me elaborate answers to my questions. Were you at all part of the Brotherhood?
— I thought the Brotherhood was a mad mob of fools and morons, and stayed well away from them and their scene. I was right, as it turned out.
Who built the light equipment at the Acid Tests, and who was in charge of it? Who made the decor? Scully informed me that he helped build sound equipment for the Dead. Did you use this gear during the events?
— You have to be kidding! I haven’t a clue whether there was any kind of planning. I doubt there was. I think they simply got together a lot of gear and fucked around with it all night stoned out of their gourds. We had some experimental sound stuff based on a central unit. It did not suit the band and in the end it was gotten rid of.
Is the hi-tech rave circuit a modern day equivalent to The Acid Tests of the Sixties, or were they something else completely?
— I have never attended a “rave” since I don’t care for disco events, I prefer live music.
You were one of the major acid chemists of the Sixties, but apart from supplying the LSD, in what other way did you help stage The Acid Tests?
— I am not, and never was, a “chemist”. I am no more scientifically qualified in chemistry than someone who can bake a great wedding cake is. I was soundman for a band, Grateful Dead, who were the house band at the Acid Tests.
I called you a chemist because that is what you are referred to in most literature. Also, I assumed anyone making acid had to be a chemist, considering the fact that every time manufacturing is mentioned they always go on about how hard it is to produce it.
— Difficulty has more to do with reading ability and ability to precisely follow directions, so far as I can see. You need no knowledge of chemistry whatsoever, you just need to understand some basic principles as simple in concept as: water boils at 100C and freezes at 0C. Otherwise all published syntheses of organic and inorganic compounds can be reproduced successfully by pretty nearly anyone with at least average intelligence. I had only one semester of inorganic chem 11 years earlier. It took me just three weeks in a library to learn all the principles I needed to do what I had to do, including how to change standard glassware to make it work better. Simple really. Problems always have to do with availability of materials, not esoteric knowledge.
How important were The Warlocks for the outcome of the events?
— The Warlocks ceased to exist a month before the Acid Tests began. Grateful Dead were the AT band.
— Music is important for any party.
My attempt at getting Owsley to open up and share his memories of the Acid Tests was a failure. When thinking over his position in the American counterculture, his attitude and disinterest in my questions make sense. Here I am trying to find information on a social experiment carried out by The Merry Pranksters, the Acid Tests, and the one I’m hoping will tell vivid stories of the past is known as an unsocial, reclusive person that didn’t like to get his picture taken.
Owsley has been mentioned in numerous books and articles. Making LSD for the Grateful Dead and the hippie movement made him into a legend for a generation. But I have a feeling he would rather be known for his art than being a legendary manufacturer of acid.
When making the interview, Ken Kesey and several of the other Pranksters had already been dead for many years. I make a comment on the fact that many of them are gone, but Owsley’s answer doesn’t leave me any wiser.
The Sixties is a long time ago, and one is frequently confronted by the sad fact that there aren’t many people left who can tell their story.
— There really isn’t anyone who can tell you about the Acid Test, you are wasting your time. If you were not there, you have missed the bus.
By Henrik Dahl
Posted on May 9, 2009
Featured image: Acid Test handbill from 1965.
This article was originally titled A Correspondence with Owsley Stanley.