“I just wanted to know the dose and purity of what I took into my own body,” he told Rolling Stone magazine in 2007. “Almost before I realized what was happening, the whole affair had gotten completely out of hand. I was riding a magic stallion. A Pegasus. I was not responsible for his wings, but they did carry me to all kinds of places.”
Working at first from a makeshift bathroom laboratory in Berkeley, Mr. Stanley produced at least 1 million doses of LSD between 1965 and 1967.
A stubborn, fast-talking perfectionist, he discarded any batch suspected of impurities and soon gained a reputation for producing reliably pure and powerful LSD. His customers were rock stars, Haight-Ashbury hippies and an ever-widening circle of people who wanted to be part of the hallucinogenic era. It made him a fortune.
“Without him, there simply wouldn’t have been enough acid for the psychedelic scene of the Bay Area in the Sixties to have ignited,” the Grateful Dead’s biographer, Dennis McNally, wrote in 2002.
“Owsley” became a brand name for Mr. Stanley’s drugs and then, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a synonym for any high-quality acid.
He provided the drug to Kesey’s Merry Pranksters for the experiments recounted in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” and to the Beatles and Steely Dan, who sang about Mr. Stanley in “Kid Charlemagne.”
Guitarist Jimi Hendrix sampled Mr. Stanley’s product, as did the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones and Pete Townshend of The Who.
“The thing about Owsley is that when he gave you something, he would take it too. Just to show you,” Townshend told Rolling Stone. “He must have had the most extraordinary liver.”
When he wasn’t making the multicolored acid tabs known on the street as “White Lightning,” “Blue Dots” and “Monterey Purple,” Mr. Stanley was working with and for the Grateful Dead. An early and enthusiastic fan, he provided band members with all the acid they could drop, paid their rent before they were famous and served as their sound engineer.
As finicky about audio as he was about acid, he worked for years to develop the Dead’s “wall of sound,” a 40-foot-tall bank of more than 600 speakers whose output could be controlled by the musicians on stage.
He plugged in a tape recorder at nearly every one of the Dead’s early sound checks, rehearsals and performances, creating a historical record of the live shows that helped turn the band into a cultural phenomenon. He also helped design the Dead’s widely reproduced skull-and-lightning logo.