When Owsley Stanley died recently, everybody recalled that he was an LSD millionaire and patron of the Grateful Dead back in the Sixties. Some knew that since the early Eighties had been a recluse living in northern Australia, where he had become a jewelry-maker. (You can check his website, which also sells rock recordings he made during his years as a sound engineer and hovering guru on the San Francisco scene and even offers some of his characteristic essays on psychedelics, human diet and ice ages.)
None of this captures the odd impressiveness of the man.
As the bios mention, his grandfather and namesake was once the governor of Kentucky, but the Stanleys were really a Virginia clan, and he grew up in Falls Church — his father, Owsley Stanley II, was a federal bureaucrat. He was bright and probably a little weird from the start, and also short, the kind of short guy who insists that he's "of average height" (as was Lermontov, Owsley would point out, having studied Russian when he was thinking of becoming a Russian Orthodox monk) but always wears elevator shoes. Put all this together for a kid growing up in a bland DC suburb, and it might explain his attraction to resolutely original, often science-fictional modes of thought.
And maybe his relentless, insistent manner. As Tom Wolfe put it in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," talking to Owsley could be like talking to a TV set. He was certainly hard to take sometimes.
Even so, I liked the guy. He was never predictable, and there was always something disinterested and nobly intentioned about his intense obsessions. The last time I saw him, he was working on the development of the ultimate bell metal, which would be able to make bells that would sound for minutes on end.
He was a bit of a fabulist and a spinner of weird theories, but he wasn't just a talker. He encountered LSD in 1964 (while he was rooming with me in Berkeley -- I was not the one who turned him on, I have to insist; that was the heiress of a famous leather goods company) and was suitably impressed. Characteristically, his response was to decide to make acid, and not just any acid but the strongest LSD around. He started with raw lysergic acid, rather than some earlier stage in the chemical synthesis, as was typically preferred by other psychedelic chemists because they figured it wouldn't draw any attention from the Authorities.
Owsley was much bolder and felt you were much safer just not giving the Authorities any thought, because they're basically looking for furtiveness. Through a fictitious Bear Research Group, he ordered huge quantities of raw materials from chemical supply houses, primarily Cyclo Chemical Co. in Los Angeles. One day in 1966, he showed me a letter from the president of Cyclo explaining that this would have to be his last shipment of lysergic acid because of a recent federal law. I was amused to see that the president's name was Milan Panic. A couple of years ago, I realized that was the same Milan Panic who later became the president of Serbia.
One time in 1967 Owsley took some of us to visit his favorite chemical glass-maker, who was about to retire on what Owsley was paying him to make some highly specialized lab equipment. "Oh, Owsley," the guy said, "some federal agents were here the other way showing me pictures of you and asking whether I'd ever seen this person. They were a rather good likeness. You were in them too," he added, nodding at a denizen of my current commune. About six months later his final lab was busted, and the San Francisco Chronicle ran a fine photo of Owsley being led off in handcuffs, bristling with defiance and resentment. When he was arrested, he told the officers, "I make only the purest drugs for my family and friends. Why aren't you out arresting criminals?"
That's the Owsley that sticks with me: maverick, purist, aggressive, sort of admirable when you think about it, and not that far from quixotic.
Perry, a food writer in Los Angeles and co-founder of the Culinary Historians of Southern California, is a former staff writer at Rolling Stone and the author of "The Haight Ashbury: A History." He wrote about Stanley in Rolling Stone in 1982.