R.I.P Owsley Stanley/ Kid Charlemagne

Another great NYT obituary, this one for Owsley Stanley, “Artisan of Acid:”

Owsley Stanley, the 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, died on Sunday in a car accident in Australia. He was 76 and lived in the bush near Cairns, in the Australian state of Queensland.

Owsley Stanley, left, with Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead in a 1969 publicity photograph.

Mr. Stanley, the Dead’s former financial backer, pharmaceutical supplier and sound engineer, was in recent decades a reclusive, almost mythically enigmatic figure. He moved to Australia in the 1980s, as he explained in his rare interviews, so he might survive what he believed to be a coming Ice Age that would annihilate the Northern Hemisphere.

Once renowned as an artisan of acid, Mr. Stanley turned out LSD said to be purer and finer than any other. He was also among the first individuals (in many accounts, the very first) to mass-produce the drug; its resulting wide availability provided the chemical underpinnings of an era of love, music, grooviness and much else. Conservatively tallied, Mr. Stanley’s career output was more than a million doses, in some estimates more than five million.

He briefly attended the University of Virginia before enlisting in the Air Force, where he learned electronics. He later worked in Los Angeles as a broadcast engineer for radio and television stations. He also studied ballet and for a time was a professional dancer.

I am not sure if I knew of Stanley… probably I’d read references to him but they didn’t stick.  As is typical of NYT obits, this contains some amazing/weird/funny little details.  My favorite:

Mr. Stanley remained with the band off and on through the early ’70s, when, according to Rolling Stone, his habits became too much even for the Grateful Dead and they parted company. (He had insisted, among other things, that the band eat meat — nothing but meat — a dietary regimen he followed until the end of his life.)…

Mr. Stanley, who became an Australian citizen in the 1990s, was treated for throat cancer in 2004. In the Rolling Stone interview, he attributed his survival to his carnivorous diet. (A heart attack he had suffered some years earlier he ascribed to eating broccoli as a child, forced on him by his mother.)

Wow.  Of all the things mothers get blamed for, this has to be one of the most unfair.

I was fascinated to learn that Stanley is the “Kid Charlemagne” of Steely Dan’s fantastic song (which Kanye West samples on “Champion”):

Amazing lyrics: “Did you feel like Jesus/ On the hill the stuff was laced with kerosene/ But yours was kitchen clean/ Now your patrons have all left you in the red/ Your low rent friends are dead/ All those dayglow freaks who used to paint the face/ They’ve joined the human race…/Clean this mess up else we’ll all end up in jail/ Those test tubes and the scale/ Just get them all out of here/ Is there gas in the car/ Yes, there’s gas in the car/ I think the people down the hall/ Know who you are…You are still an outlaw in their eyes”

Well, chalk up a Steely Dan lyric that used to be absolutely opaque to me that now makes some sense.  Now it can be added to the ranks of great songs about drug dealers: “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “Doctor Wu”, “Pusherman”…actually can’t think of too many more offhand but I’m sure there are a lot.

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One Response

  1. On further reflection, the song was always obviously about a drug dealer… I guess I’d just never thought about it much or read the lyric sheet.

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