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“Trips Festival” (from Bear: The Life and Times of Augustus Owsley Stanley III)

Robert Greenfield | December 20, 2016

Journalist Robert Greenfield the author of numerous books, including Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out and Dark Star: An Oral Biography of Jerry Garcia, returns to the San Francisco music scene of the 1960s with his latest work, Bear: The Life and Times of Augustus Owsley Stanley III. Born into Kentucky political royalty and the namesake of his paternal grandfather, who was a congressman, senator and governor, Stanley became the chemist who supplied LSD to Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters at the Acid Tests. His reputation soon extended across the globe and included accolades from Dr. Albert Hofmann, the first person to synthesize the drug.

Greenfield’s book, which is full of anecdotes and insight, tracks Stanley’s life from his early days in the South through his final years in Australia. The following excerpt explores the onset of his relationship with the Grateful Dead, when he became the group’s patron.

On many levels, the psychedelic ‘60s truly began at the Trips Festival held at Longshoreman’s Hall at 400 North Point Street in San Francisco on the weekend of January 21, 22 and 23, 1966. Stewart Brand, who would go on to create the Whole Earth Catalog, came up with the original concept along with a musician and visual artist named Ramon Sender. With Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters as the featured attraction, by far the wildest of the three events took place on Saturday night.

Kesey, who had just been given a six-month sentence on a work farm as well as six months of probation for his marijuana bust at La Honda, had made front-page news in San Francisco two days earlier by getting arrested yet again along with his companion Carolyn Adams, aka Mountain Girl, for smoking a joint on the roof of Brand’s apartment in North Beach.

No doubt, in part, to show their continuing support for Kesey, somewhere between 3,000–5,000 revelers, who were stoned out of their heads on LSD that Owsley had provided, jammed a hall that was only supposed to hold 1,700 people. In the words of Grateful Dead biographer Dennis McNally: “There were simply more people tripping in a single room… than anyone had ever seen before.”

As Jerry Garcia would later say, “It was total insanity. I mean total, wall-to-wall, gonzo lunacy…. Everybody was just partying furiously. There were people jumping off balconies onto blankets and then bouncing up and down. I mean there was incredible shit going on. Plus, it was like old-home week. I met and saw everybody I had ever known. Every beatnik, every hippie, every coffeehouse hangout person from all over the state was there, all freshly psychedelicized.”

What, with Hells Angels punching out members of other motorcycle clubs in the hallways as one of the Pranksters tried to force Big Brother and the Holding Company off the stage after they had performed just one song, the scene was so crazy that no one could control it. Which did not stop Bill Graham, who had only just begun putting on shows at The Fillmore Auditorium and had been brought on to help run the event, from doing all he could to stop the Pranksters from letting people in for free.

After running all over the hall with a clipboard in his hand in search of Kesey, Graham finally found him standing at the back door letting in a constant stream of bikers. To keep the law from knowing he was there, Kesey was attending the event in a silver space suit with a helmet. After trying, in vain, to get Kesey’s attention, Graham finally lost control and began screaming at him. Without saying a word, Kesey simply flipped the visor of his helmet down and went right on doing as he pleased.

As Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead would later say of Bill Graham that night, “We were with the Pranksters and the buzz was, ‘Who’s that asshole with the clipboard?’” Aside from Jerry Garcia, with whom Graham would forge a lifelong bond on Sunday night by trying to put Garcia’s shattered guitar back together so the Dead could play (which they never did), the only other person at the Trips Festival who understood what Bill Graham was all about was Owsley.

“It was completely out of control and he was trying to control it, and of course he couldn’t, because the harder you tried to grab it, the more slippery it became. I was real stoned when I came into contact with Bill, and I could see right through all the bullshit, and I realized he was half-terrified by what it was and was doing everything he could to control it, and to suppress the realization that there was something special going on there besides something that was obviously making money.”

Owsley brought Tim Scully with him to the Trips Festival. Then 26 years old, Scully had skipped his senior year in high school to begin attending the University of California at Berkeley, where he majored in mathematical physics. Having already built a small computer in middle school and a liner accelerator in high school, Scully had left the university in 1964 to work as an electronic design consultant.

A few hours after having mailed in his tax return on April 15, 1965, Scully had taken LSD for the first time. Possessed by the notion that acid was a better solution to society’s problems than technology, Scully then spent months tracking “down the source of his dose,” who was of course Owsley. After spending weeks carefully checking Scully out, Owsley brought him to the Trips Festival to see how he would react, and the two then began working together on assembling state-of-the-art sound equipment for the Dead as well as the wholesale manufacture of high-quality LSD.