Sorry to interrupt our normally scheduled programming, but I have to tell you a story. It's about my dad, and how, for six months, he sold the best acid in the world.
But what Stanley was to most people was summed up best in the first sentence of this New York Times obituary: a "prodigiously gifted applied chemist to the stars, who made LSD in quantity for the Grateful Dead, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Ken Kesey and other avatars of the psychedelic '60s."
Stanley was a modern-day alchemist. A self-taught genius who, with help from a girlfriend studying chemistry at UC Berkeley, developed a strain of LSD that was almost entirely pure. As a result, he (or more specifically, his product, which came to be known as "Owsley" and was distinguished by the lavender owl on each tablet) became famous.
Stanley's first "freak out" happened in a seaside lodge south of San Francisco during a Jerry Garcia solo. It was witnessed by none other than Tom Wolfe, who later recorded the event in his second book, the era-defining The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Around the time that Stanley was freaking out (that would be 1965), my father was coming of age in Washington, D.C. After a brief stint as an anthropology major at George Washington University, he dropped out and joined a group of medics assisting Vietnam demonstrators, an organization that would become one of the precursors to Doctors Without Borders.
Burned out by the war protests and his next job as the co-director of a methadone clinic, my dad soon fled D.C. for the following places, in order: a cabin in the woods in Nova Scotia, Guatemala, Mexico, and then San Francisco, where he and a girlfriend lived in a junkie friend's house while she anguished over whether or not to reconnect with a child she'd given up for adoption.
Peggy Pfeiffer My father--drug dealer, menace to society, and hopeful jury-duty avoider--recording what I think was a reading from his poetry book, in 1989.
(It's at this point that I feel I should tell you that my formative years were nothing like my dad's. In fact, compared to him my upbringing is like looking in a funhouse mirror: sheltered home life, college with friends, predictable post-grad jobs. God, I was a boring young 20-something. But back to our story . . . )
It was in a coffee shop in Haight-Ashbury, the epicenter of the counterculture, where my dad literally ran into the man who would become his connection. He can't remember much about him. Just that he was young, like him, and ran his operation out of a trailer in the country.
After driving back to D.C., my dad started getting boxes in the mail with a return address from a California gun dealer. Inside the boxes were softball-sized bundles of tablets, each emblazoned with the little owl.
My dad says he bought 1,000 hits at a time. Each hit cost him 78 cents, which he then marked-up and resold to American and GW students for a dollar a hit, a 22-cent profit that was his exclusive source of income.
"This is really confessional, isn't it?" he said in a phone conversation this afternoon.
My dad says he had a hard time getting his business started. In early '70s D.C., acid was no longer the it-drug. Students were more interested in Quaaludes, which were still legal at the time. But eventually he found enough clients to unload his entire package, notwithstanding the hits he kept for himself.
"Oh gosh, I must've tripped three times a week," he says. "I believed in the product. It was a clean product. Within the limits of experimenting with a psychotropic drug, it was the safest experience that I'd ever had."
(It's important to note that all of these details come from the brain of a man who's already confessed to extensive drug use. My dad's disclaimer: "You should put brackets around all of this that read 'FROM WHAT I CAN REMEMBER.'")
My dad was certainly not the only Stanley believer. From Rolling Stone's authoritative 2007 profile, written 40 years after the Summer of Love:
During this period, the Dead wrote "Alice D. Millionaire," a play on words from a headline about Owsley in The San Francisco Chronicle that read, "LSD Millionaire Arrested." In concert, the band regularly dedicated "The Other One" to him from the stage. At the end of Hendrix's live version of the Beatles' "Day Tripper," recorded at the BBC studios in 1967, he can be heard calling out, "Oh, Owsley, can you hear me now?" In 1976, Steely Dan burnished Owsley's myth by recording "Kid Charlemagne": "While the music played/You worked by candlelight/ Those San Francisco nights/You were the best in town. . . ."
Despite my dad's enjoyment of Stanley's hits, and the money they were making him, he stopped selling them after only six months. One day he says he went to meet one of his connections and totally forgot the package, which he took as a sign. "I wasn't stoned or anything," he says. The next time he got burned, sending his $780 check but never receiving the hits in return. It was then that he decided he'd had enough of drug dealing.
When I heard about Stanley's death, it triggered in me a memory of fishing with my father years ago, the first time he told me this story. Asked why he'd let me repeat it again today, on a blog, for everyone in the Internet-connected world to see, he gave me a simple reason: He's just been called to jury duty. And, well . . .
"I can't afford it," he says. "Last time I was called I was foreman and it took two months. Maybe if they read this I'll get out of it this time. So put it out there!"