While perusing the New York Times yesterday to see what notables had died, I came across a delightfully written obituary on Rock Scully. He managed the Grateful Dead band from 1965 to about 1985, “a long, strange trip that saw the Dead go from a makeshift sort-of-bluegrass band that played for nothing in San Francisco parks to one of the biggest, most remarkable acts in rock ’n’ roll history.”
I was interested to learn that Scully had been introduced to members of the band in 1965 by Owsley Stanley during an Acid Test, one of the drug-drenched, strobe-lit parties the author Ken Kesey staged in the San Francisco area in the mid-1960s. Stanley became famous among Bay Area aficionados for the exceeding pure LSD he produced in rather large quantities. When I was hanging around Berkeley in 1968-69, purple tabs of “Owsley acid,” as it was called, were particularly desirable.
Although it’s said that those who remember the ‘60s weren’t really there, I recall purple Owsley acid partly because it derailed a job opportunity I desperately needed. After a year of post-graduate countercultural life in Berkeley, I was running low of money. The San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley newspapers didn’t think much of applicants with nothing but a B.A. degree and no experience. I spiraled further and further out from the Bay Area without success.
Finally, I put a position-wanted ad in the California Newspaper Publishers Association bulletin and touted my Harvard degree. The boss of the Union Democrat in Sonora, a historic Gold Rush town in the Sierra foothills, called and said he was looking for a reporter for the 5,000-circulation paper.
I doubted the town’s scenic charms would outweigh the cultural isolation I knew I would feel. The jumping frog contest in nearby Angels Camp, made famous by Mark Twain, was the big social event. My girlfriend, who was gainfully employed and loved Berkeley, had no intention of heading for the hills. The proposed $100 a week salary was a blow to my Ivy League ego. Still, it would be a paycheck.
I motorcycled up to Sonora, about 125 miles east of Berkeley, on a hot summer day in 1969. The boss, a tall, husky, bald fellow, eyed my helmet dubiously.
“Berkeley, huh?” he said. “What have you been doing down there?”
From the tone of the question, I figured he didn’t want to hear about the People’s Park protests and demonstrations on Telegraph Avenue.
“Working on a novel,” I said, which had a smidgen of truth. I was thinking about writing one someday.
“You have any clips?”
I produced a short story I had written in college.
“Not much use for fiction on this job,” he said. “We deal in straight news. And I have to tell you, Sonora’s not at all like Berkeley. Folks don’t want it to be, either. They don’t want that drug stuff coming up here.”
The boss gave me a hard look that suggested I might be a radical intent on infiltrating his fine town. He then opened his desk, took out a small envelope and extracted a small pill, purple in color.
“Know what this is?”
Perhaps I should have feigned ignorance, but I thought a correct identification would establish my credentials as an astute young man.
“That looks like LSD,” I said brightly. “In fact, it’s probably Owsley acid.”
“Exactly,” he said. “Deputies nabbed some bikers from Berkeley with this garbage. They want to push that on our young people. And we’re not going to let them.”
I nodded in agreement with that noble cause. The interview ended and I motorcycled back to Berkeley. I actually thought things had gone well and expected to get the job.
The boss never called. I remain puzzled why he had that purple pill in his drawer.