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Steely Dan, The CIA and the acid anthem of ‘Kid Charlemagne’

@TomTaylorFO

It seems very un-1960s-like to mention admin, but in 1963, the patent for LSD expired, and a lot of the culture thereafter spun out from that tie-dye three years where mind-bending was basically legalised. It wasn’t just the hippies at it either. The CIA, an organisation that has seemingly welcomed more well-manicured arseholes than every one of Hugh Hefner’s pool parties combined, were dabbling in its kaleidoscopic properties to no end. Somewhere from this melee of psychedelic mania derives the Steely Dan acid anthem ‘Kid Charlemagne’. Be forewarned before you trip down this rabbit hole things get fairly strange, dude.

In the opening stanza of the track, Donald Fagen sings, “On the hill the stuff was laced with kerosene, but yours was kitchen clean.” There was only one place in the San Francisco valley where you could get acid of that purity — enter the protagonist of the song, the famed acid chemist Owsley Stanley: the premiere acid man of the east coast.

Augustus Owsley Stanley III, to give him his full name, was an American audio engineer by day and a clandestine chemist also by day, night and sometimes morning. In perhaps the most 1960s tale ever put to print, Stanley became soundman for the Grateful Dead after he met them at one of Ken Kesey’s (author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) acid parties. Aside from mixing the wall of sound that blasted ‘The Dead’ gigs into a sonic maelstrom and assisting in the design of their now-iconic logo, Stanley was also the first known individual to casually begin manufacturing LSD en masse. 

During his time on the acid run, it is believed that Stanley produced at least five million doses of some of the finest wall shifting tabs to ever grace the market. The musical Heisenberg basked in the good times of legality as he, his girlfriend Melissa Cargill, a skilled chemist and scion of the uber-wealthy Cargill-Macmillan family, and a leg-man dubbed Scully, brewed up LSD in a Californian basement. During this time, there are many questions as to why it took three years for legislation to be passed making the substance – that Charles Manson and many others who stepped one toke over the dabbled in to a debauched degree – illegal.

What’s more, not only did he enjoy the dealer’s boon of an administrative oversight, but once criminality was imposed in 1966, Stanley and Cargill simply shifted production to a lab in Denver, Colorado, and began brightening the daydreams of counterculture kids once more. Their new headquarters were stationed across the street from Denver Zoo and tales are bountiful in the region’s subterranean realms of old acidheads staring agog at a gibbon or some other higher simian and having evolutionary epiphanies whizz into their addled minds, while funky gibbons looked on wondering why the hippy who just shat his pantaloons had been staring at them for hours. 

Alas, the famed zoo trips are a side note that have nothing to do with Steely Dan. But the question of why the kids of the counterculture were able to freely get high on Stanley’s wicked acid supply remains a pertinent one. It has been posited by many that the answer comes from the time when Stanley was finally arrested in 1970. “You watched that high of the hippie thing descend into drug depression,” Joni Mitchell once said. “Right after Woodstock, then we went through a decade of basic apathy where my generation sucked its thumb and then just decided to be greedy and pornographic.”

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Woodstock was in 1969 and, in many ways, it was the last hurrah of counterculture. As Mitchell suggests, thereafter things became commercialised and flower power fell into the comedown of a reflective dirge. The prelapsarian dream was over and with it, acid was largely traded for less cerebral substances. But for a while it had a good run, it just perhaps embarked on one trip too many. Whether the acid-drenched demise of the anti-establishment movement had anything to do with the establishment itself tactfully turning a blind eye to dealings while routinely finding out that it wasn’t a substance to be messed with in their own experiments (ie giving 297mg of LSD to an elephant and almost immediately killing it) is a tinfoil point for another day. 

However, one element that requires less judicious scrutiny is just how many folks in Stanley’s milieu succumbed to the sad aftereffects. Stanley himself absconded to Australia in 1982 fearing that the Northern Hemisphere would imminently be rendered uninhabitable owing to a rapidly accelerated climate crisis. And aside from Stanley, you can hardly find a single member of the Bay Area movement who didn’t suffer some tragic fate, controversial circumstance or fade into strange obscurity as though whisked away by the piped piper of trailer parks. 

Alas, the sixties were over when Steely Dan decided to tackle the zeitgeist in 1976, in fact, it had crumbled like Charlemagne’s Roman Empire. While the lyrical verse of a car running out of gas might form a nice metaphor for this in the song, it also hints at the arrest of Stanley after his car ran out of fuel and the police discovered substances scattered around it, proving Fagen and Walter Becker’s eternal love for an allegory or double entendre. And the brilliant duo suture this wild tale up, with its unfurling welter of connotations, in a jazzy jam that sees guitarist Larry Carlton produce a solo that he claims is his career-high. There’s also plenty in the welter when it comes to ‘The Dan’.