Before “Breaking Bad,” back in the good old days of Berkeley, the drug everyone talked about was bubbled and cooked in glass beakers and was called LSD. The best LSD on the market was called Owsley, named for the man who made it refined and pure and popularized it through the Grateful Dead.
Owsley Stanley is gone; he died in a car accident in Australia in 2011. He is recalled in a memoir, “Owsley and Me: My LSD Family,” by his former partner Rhoney Gissen Stanley, who remembers him both fondly and fairly. Gissen Stanley’s blunt and witty prose recalls the tumultuous 1960s in Berkeley and Richmond, as well as her own participation in the manufacture of the drug that symbolized the decade.
Gissen Stanley and co-author Tom Davis describe the kaleidoscopic experience of tripping on acid while having sex with “Bear,” as Owsley liked to be called. The real trick of a memoir is for the author to reveal herself with one hand, keeping the reader focused on the other, looking always into the heart of the story. Gissen Stanley is not a great magician; the woman telling the story is the star of the show, and Owsley is just the sideshow moving in and out of the narrative with a sheet of tabs and an undying libido.
The result is not enchanting; it is instead a litany of name-dropping. According to the authors, Jimi Hendrix was a “dybbuk.” Janis Joplin palmed off her tiresome lovers. Jerry Garcia was “a bodhisattva.” The passages are also typical of any drug user’s diary: “I felt like a character living in Van Gogh’s Starry Night, part of the firmament. My self had shattered like an exploding star, and I was afraid.”
Despite its shortcomings, “Owsley and Me” is an occasionally enjoyable timepiece of the Berkeley that was. Gissen Stanley was involved in the requisite number of communist, anarchist and lesbian separatist groups on campus. She recalls her family’s involvement with the music and art of the period and how drug culture both informed and was informed by those media. She is neither generous nor vindictive with the memory of the late Owsley. She describes Owsley with an odd remoteness for a longtime companion and lover but conveys their intimacy with the level detail of their mundane cohabitation. He was an entrancing wizard of chemistry and an amateur philosopher; he hated all vegetables and carbs; he chased other women; he smelled like patchouli; he used astrology to decide when to begin his acid brew. Despite the details, the man himself does not emerge. He remains a legend, something glimpsed in a pipe dream.
Owsley and Gissen Stanley were not married; she adopted his surname for anonymity and because of their shared son, Starfinder. The discussion of illegal drug use and nontraditional family structures is handled with a cheerful lack of moral posturing. Gissen Stanley tells the story without shame and seemingly without regret. She even depicts Owsley and herself diminishing through aging, fading away, becoming squares and dentists and parents. It is the way of all things, but it is safe to say none of the great hippie luminaries saw it coming.
Rhoney Gissen Stanley is one of the numinous few who clustered around the swirling social centers generated by Owsley, Harvard researcher Timothy Leary and the rest of the kooks and chemists who fueled a revolution with an eye dropper. However, the best stories of sex, drugs, and rock and roll will never be told. This story of Owsley Stanley is complete but imperfect. The rest of these stories disappeared with the burning out of bright, beautiful stars and are locked in the memories of people who cannot recall them through the haze.