Get Along, Kid Charlemagne
Published: December 28, 2011
If you want to understand about half the reason nice middle-class white folks shit themselves in the ’60s (the half that was not related to civil rights for African-Americans), it will help you to remember that Augustus Owsley Stanley III was the financial force, sound engineer, and acid dealer behind the Grateful Dead, and that he also supplied the LSD that stoked the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, fueled Ken Kesey’s band of Merry Pranksters, aided Hunter S. Thompson’s (and, by extension, the Hell’s Angels’) brand of bad craziness, and inspired Jimi Hendrix.
He made at least a million doses of the stuff, by various estimates. Maybe 5 million. As Rolling Stone asked in its 2007 reprisal of that time, “Would the Summer of Love have ever happened without Stanley . . . ?”
Stanley, who was known as “the Dancing Bear” to the Dead and its army of followers, and (in the Steely Dan lyric) as “Kid Charlemagne,” began life in Kentucky in 1935, the grandson of a U.S. Senator. His parents divorced and were living a continent apart when he got himself thrown out of Charlotte Hall, a military prep school in Maryland, for smuggling booze into the homecoming soiree. He spent some time in a mental hospital, then studied engineering at the University of Virginia, where he’d sell his textbooks back to the store at full price a week after their purchase—having, he said, memorized their contents. He was a radio operator and, for a time, a ballet dancer.
In 1963, Stanley moved to Berkeley, Calif. He sold pot and other drugs before scoring some Sandoz Laboratories acid in 1964. Three weeks later he’d figured out how to make it better than the venerable Swiss lab, and a legend was born.
But making the purest LSD was not Stanley’s only trick. He also joined the Grateful Dead as a sound engineer, building some of its equipment, designing its lightning-bolt-with-skull logo, and shaping the famous “wall of sound” that brought throngs to the band’s shows. Stanley’s early recordings of the band are still being released.
Stanley and the Dead eventually parted company, and his eccentricities were known to cause rifts—like Stanley’s insistence that the band only eat meat. Stanley believed that vegetables were toxic. He claimed he ate only meat for 50 years or more, and that the diet helped save him from throat cancer.
Famously reclusive, in the 1980s he moved to the Australian outback to work on his jewelry, a trade he learned during a two-year prison stint in the early ’70s. “I don’t want my life exposed publicly,” he told Rolling Stone. “I’m interested in the work I’ve done and the things I’ve discovered and in some of my philosophical stuff, because I think it’s of value, but I’m not into being a celebrity, because I think celebrityhood has no value to anyone, least of all to the celebrity. I’ve watched wonderful people get destroyed by it.”
Stanley was, himself, destroyed when his car went over an embankment on March 13. His wife survived the crash.
And the philosophical stuff? Stanley had said he moved to Australia to escape a coming ice age he expected would envelope the Northern Hemisphere. His view of things beyond was inspired by The Kybalion, a book of ancient wisdom he read decades ago. The book, he told Rolling Stone, “was perfect because it put into total context all the things I had experienced on acid. The universe is a creation entirely within a being that is outside time and space, and dreaming what we are. Everything is connected, because it’s all being created by this one consciousness. And we are tiny reflections of the mind that is creating the universe.”
> Email Edward Ericson Jr.