March 18, 2011
Electric Kool-Aid Marketing Trip
By: Michael Walker
The New York Times
Augustus Owsley Stanley III, who died on March, 13, 2011, at the age of 76, had synthesized and sold over a million doses of LSD by 1967. This article discusses how Owsley almost single-handedly created the market for LSD and in so doing helped fuel the growth of the psychedelic culture.
Originally appearing at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/19/opinion/19walker.html?_r=1.
NOW that the 1960s are commodified forever as “The Sixties,” it is apparently compulsory that their legacy be rendered as purple-hazy hagiography. But that ignores an inconvenient counterintuitive truth: Relatively clear-thinking entrepreneurs created some of the most enduring tropes of the era — not out of whole paisley cloth but from their astute feel for the culture and the marketplace. And no one was better at it than Augustus Owsley Stanley III.
Entrepreneur? Mr. Stanley, who was killed in a car accident last Sunday in Australia at the age of 76, is remembered chiefly as a world-class eccentric — his C.V. lists Air Force electronics specialist and ballet dancer — who after ingesting his first dose of LSD in Berkeley in 1964 taught himself how to make his own. In short order, “Owsley acid” became the gold standard of psychedelics.
But Mr. Stanley didn’t stop there. He started cranking out his superlative LSD at a rate that by 1967 topped one million doses. By mass-manufacturing a hallucinogen that the authorities hadn’t gotten around to criminalizing, Mr. Stanley singlehandedly created a market where none had existed, and with it a large part of what would become the “counterculture.”
At the time Madison Avenue was at sea about how to reach the so-called youth market. “House hippies” were deputized as cultural ambassadors but didn’t prevent travesties like Columbia Records’ infamously clueless “The Man Can’t Bust Our Music” ad campaign. Which made Mr. Stanley’s effortless grasp of his peer group and its appetites — he was, after all, an enthusiastic consumer of his own product — seem all the more prescient. When his lab in Orinda, Calif., was raided in 1967 — thanks to him, LSD had been declared illegal the year before — the headline in The San Francisco Chronicle anointed him the “LSD Millionaire.”
Mr. Stanley shared several qualities with another entrepreneur who, a decade later, would imbue his company with a hand-sewn ‘60s ethic that persists today. To compare Mr. Stanley to Steve Jobs, the co-founder and chief executive of Apple, purely on the basis of their operating philosophies is not as big a leap as it might seem.
Like Mr. Jobs, Mr. Stanley was fanatical about quality control. He refused to put his LSD on pieces of paper — so-called blotter acid — because, Mr. Stanley maintained, it degraded the potency. “I abhor the practice,” he declared.
Whereas the formulation and provenance of most street drugs was unknowable, Owsley LSD was curated like a varietal wine and branded as evocatively as an iPod — “Monterey Purple” for a batch made expressly for the 1967 Monterey Pop festival, which may have factored into Jimi Hendrix’s chaotic, guitar-burning finale. (Relentlessly protective of his brand, Mr. Stanley seemed insulted that many believed the Hendrix song “Purple Haze” was about the Monterey LSD — far from inducing haze, he sniffed, the quality of his acid would confer upon the user preternatural clarity.)
And like Mr. Jobs’s mandate for creating products he deems “insanely great,” Mr. Stanley’s perfectionism had the effect of raising standards across an industry — or in this case, a culture. He became a patron of the Grateful Dead and helped transform them from inchoate noodlers into the house band for a generation. Noting the dreadful acoustics at their performances, Mr. Stanley drew on his electronics background and designed one of the first dedicated rock sound reinforcement systems, thus making plausible that highly lucrative staple of the 1960s and beyond, the rock concert. (Ever the perfectionist, he later designed an upgraded version, the legendary Wall of Sound, that towered over the band like a monolith and prefigured the immense sound systems at stadium shows today.)
It is said we are living through times not unlike the 1960s, the catalyst being not rock ‘n’ roll and its accompaniments, sex and drugs, but the communications and information revolution made possible by the Web. Among the movement’s many avenging nerds, Mr. Jobs alone epitomizes Mr. Stanley’s unhinged originality and anarchical spirit — before founding Apple, Mr. Jobs and his partner, Steve Wozniak, sold illegal “blue boxes” that allowed free long-distance calls and later proselytized so persuasively about the latest Apple gizmo that he was said to project a “reality distortion field.”
Augustus Owsley Stanley III knew a thing or two about that.
Michael Walker is the author of “Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood.”
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