Monday, July 16, 2007

Reality Wedges (Updated 8/15/07)

I believe I met Owsley in 1967. At least I think it was him.

I was sitting on the grass in Golden Gate Park, dinking unobtrusively on my little tabla, when a smallish, neatly-dressed young guy came walking down the blacktop footpath. He had sandy hair, a well-trimmed beard, and glasses. He wasn't in a hurry, but he wasn't strolling either. He was on a mission, going somewhere.

"It's a pink wedge," he said, handing me a triangular-shaped tablet. "Careful -- it's two hits."

"Thank you," I said to his departing back, for he had many, many pink wedges of strong, pure LSD to distribute in the park that day.

Between 1963 and 1967, Owsley manufactured hundreds of thousands of doses of LSD and gave most of it away. At a time when supplies of clean, reliable pharmaceutical-grade acid had dried up, he perfected techniques guaranteeing a 99.9 percent pure product, and was single-handedly responsible for the shape, content and direction of the Bay Area "hippie" movement of the mid to late sixties.

A lot of his stuff ended up in the hands of people who sold it, but they sold it very, very cheaply.

In addition, Owsley Stanley was an innovative and ground-breaking sound engineer, responsible for the origins of the "wall of sound" approach to amplification, at a time when music and musical poetry were the most important vehicles of revolutionary culture, politics, and economics. His close association with Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead, and his financial backing of their most important decisions, were decisive in launching the sixties movement. It's not too much of a stretch to say that he was a major factor in shaping our current American culture.

Much of the neocon revolt and the wave of Christianized "movement" conservativism of the last 35 years has been at least in part a backlash against the sixties. If you don't believe me, read Pat Buchanan or any random issue of The National Review.

The main problem with what happened in the sixties is we forgot. We forgot that by the time those of us who are now over 55 were in high school, the American government-cum-military leviathan had become a machine, and the machine was out of control. It still is, only now it's worse. We forgot that the way of life we were and are living is an expression of insanity. We forgot that it's a way of life dependent on resources which will soon run out.

There was a time when these realizations and dealing with them were the stuff of daily life, but we forgot all that because we became first distracted, then consumed by jobs and families and insurance and 401K's and the illusion of security. Nixon was followed by Ford, then Carter by Reagan and Bush I, then came the false hope of the Clinton years, and we forgot.

But now I've noticed people are starting to remember, and maybe just in time.

Owsley went to jail in 1967, and was expatriated to Australia in 1996. He resurfaced in San Francisco earlier this year, and agreed to sit for an interview with a Chronicle reporter. You can read it here.

I was foolish with that pink wedge, by the way, and took the whole thing at once. It was a night to not remember, since I can recall only small bits and pieces of it, like snapshots from another world, leading to (as the song lyrics say) a jingle-jangle morning, sitting shivering with a blanket in the San Francisco fog, overlooking the bay from Telegraph Hill.

UPDATE: The raw material available to Owsley for his social experiment in "consciousness raising," his mission when he began manufacturing acid in the early 60's, was the youthful populations of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco and the student ghetto in the area of Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley.

As with Telegraph Avenue, many students from San Francisco State and USF flocked to the Haight, which was perfect for multiple roommate setups with its large flats and cheap rents. Marijuana was already commonplace there in 1963 and 1964 when Owsley came on the scene and began distributing his exciting new product. It was at this time that he began his association with Ken Kesey, who had a house in Palo Alto that was becoming famous for its non-stop parties (See Tom Wolfe's 1968 book "The Elecric Kool Aid Acid Test"), with music provided by the embryonic version of the Grateful Dead who played under the name, "The Warlocks."

It was about this same time that Sam Andrew and Peter Albin came together to form the beginnings of the band Big Brother and the Holding Company, and started playing in the basement of a house at 1090 Page Street in San Francisco, where they were soon joined by James Gurley and Janis Joplin. Not long after, in 1965, Jefferson Airplane had their first gig at the Matrix, near the Marina.

The main elements of the countercultural movement in San Francisco took shape quickly, and coalesced mainly around two elements -- the music, and the drugs. It was helped along by the general social malaise and alienation stemming from the Vietnam War.

Psychedelics were the drugs of choice, alcohol and heroin were on the outs, and Owsley acid was the rocket fuel that caused the movement to launch, culminating in the Summer of Love of 1967. That season-long event was enabled and encouraged by several high-profile events in late 1965 and 1966 that drew extensive national media coverage, publicizing the wild happenings in Haight-Ashbury world wide.

In 1965 Kesey ran several "Acid Test" parties at numerous locations in the Bay Area. They were publicized by garish, semi-legible posters, with the dates and locations of these bacchanalias hand-lettered in the lower right-hand corner. The mother of all acid tests, however, occurred in January, 1966, as a one-night component of the three-day Trips Festival at Longshoreman's Hall. Billed as an event that would simulate the drug experience, but without the LSD. Festival organizers of course had no way of knowing whether participants' minds were unaltered or blown to smithereens with Owsley acid, but it's a safe bet that most of the revelers were higher than the Sears Tower.

The Trips Festival was followed six months later by the one-day Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park, which drew 20,000, mostly stoned to the bone young people for a free concert featuring The Jefferson Airplane and Alan Ginsburg. This was the largest event of its type until Woodstock, three years later, and the press coverage was no doubt responsible for convincing many a teenage would-be runaway to forsake school, home, parents and siblings, and the boredom of Cedar Rapids, or Billings, or Victorville, and set off for the land of free love, free drugs, and liberation from all life's cares, in the Summer of 1967.

Owsley set out to transform the world by distributing free LSD to anyone who wanted it. He was convinced that if enough people got high, if consciousnesses were raised high enough, that Americans would recognize the futility of their way of life, and abandon it, and the world would change for the better.

The movement he fueled gathered publicity, and the publicity drew new recruits by the thousands. And when the Summer of Love was over, no one could really say whether the world had changed for the better or not. But following closely on that famous season, the Diggers, a Haight-Ashbury-centered social activist group which had opened a free store and a soup kitchen, staged a "Death of Hippie" parade on Haight Street in October, 1967. It was meant to signal the end of the movement which the Diggers and many other old-timers in the Haight felt had been co-opted, sensationalized, and cheapened by the mass media, and turned into television freak show and an irrelevant curiosity.

Owsley was arrested and jailed in 1967, and pure LSD, while still available, was no longer the norm. Harder drugs, especially speed, began to show up more frequently on Haight Street and Telegraph Avenue, and the violence and psychosis that accompany that dangerous substance began to replace the peace and love of '65, '66, and '67.

The Summer of Love was over, and with it, the countercultural movement.

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