Monkey business: Inside some psychedelic experiences at Stanford

Kesey’s arrival in La Honda coincided with the beginning of the Acid Tests. The house band for these events was none other than the Grateful Dead. At some music festivals in the 1960s, the LSD was provided by the Grateful Dead’s very own, a sound engineer named Owsley Stanley. 

Stanley was one of the masterminds behind the “Wall of Sound,” a stage-based sound system tailored to Grateful Dead concerts. The first prototype of the system debuted in 1973 at Stanford’s very own Maples Pavilion. 

Although Stanley became an impresario for the band, he was one for LSD first. The smashing success of Stanley’s first trip lit a fire under him. He and his roommate Melissa Cargill, a chemistry major, became hell-bent on home–brewing LSD of a quality that rivaled that of pharmaceutical companies. Stanley hit the books in the UC Berkeley library to learn chemistry. And thus began his prolific career cooking LSD. 

To fund LSD production, though, Stanley first made methedrine in the ad hoc space of a Berkeley bathroom (but maybe with more sophisticated equipment than Hermione Granger used to whip up Polyjuice Potion in “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”). Even recently, one could place bids on some of the lab instruments Stanley used to crank up batches of acid.

Many of his doses were distributed free of charge. To the counterculture event Human Be-In in 1967, Stanley provided a colossal 300,000 hits of an LSD strain he dubbed “White Lightning.” Later that year, he distributed another 100,000 tabs of purple variant called “Monterey Purple” at the Monterey Pop festival, allegedly sparking the Grateful Dead song “Purple Haze.” 

Tabs were one method of LSD consumption in the 1960s, in which pieces of blotter paper were soaked in LSD and covered in illustrations. Owsley himself printed a “dancing bear,” a quintessential Grateful Dead symbol, in honor of his stage name “Bear.”

“Owsley LSD” was renowned for its purity and potency the Bay Area over. He found the optimal LSD dosage to be 150 to 200 micrograms, so he was floored when Kesey insisted on taking 400-microgram doses of his wares. Estimates as to how many doses Stanley concocted during his reign as a lord of LSD range between one and five million. Some of Owsley’s clientele reportedly included Stanford alumni like Ben Collins, who claimed in an interview to be “happy customers” of Stanley.

Kesey and Owsley were perhaps two of the era’s de facto LSD evangelizers, spreading its psychedelic gospel through Merry Prankster activities and music festivals, respectively. According to Greer, Kesey and the Pranksters had thousands of people in attendance at their “Acid Test” extravaganzas, which were “multimedia festivals in which guests were offered ‘electric kool-aid,’ a sugary beverage laced with LSD.” Although some may say that these events are what spawned the iconic expression “drinking the Kool-Aid,” it is more commonly attributed to the Jonestown, Guyana massacre.

GB, a chef at Stanford, worked for a company that provided catering service during Grateful Dead concerts. According to her, the chefs cooked a variety of dishes for the musicians, but “the bands really loved smoked meat. Smoked duck, smoked whatever.” 

She says she did not know what LSD would have truly looked like back then, but added “I never witnessed them taking [LSD]. That’s got to be in their dressing room, private[ly], I’m assuming.” 

Even among concertgoers, GB recalled witnessing more natural drugs. “[Deadheads] are very loving people. Granted, they’re all on drugs,” with said drugs typically being marijuana or magic mushrooms.  

Many of the verses lyricist Robert Hunter penned for famous Grateful Dead songs are said to have been fueled by LSD trips. Dennis McNally said he was the Grateful Dead’s official historian and publicist, speaking to some of the members’ relationships with LSD, chiefly Hunter and frontman Jerry Garcia.

According to McNally, around 1961 or 1962, “Hunter saw a notice about the drug testing going on at the Menlo Park VA,” and took the job up, earning “$10 a trip.” McNally said that “it wouldn’t be until 1965 when Garcia took it for the first time.” According to McNally, Garcia reportedly remarked, “suspicions confirmed” after taking the drug. McNally said that “[Garcia]’s first experience was quite wonderful and most of the rest were too.”

LSD consumption also had somewhat of a coalescing effect on the band’s musical creations. According to McNally, there was “a profound affinity between taking LSD and improvisational music,” because consuming the drug facilitated the group members’ entry into “a group mind where they listened to each other so profoundly and so well.”

Originally posted 2023-05-28 18:03:38.