For decades, a a large piece of counterculture history was tied to the back of a bed in Merl Saunders’ San Francisco home.
The raw pipe looks like something a teenager might have joined at summer camp, but according to art historian Steve Cabella, it’s basically a religious thing. A “spirit pipe,” otherwise known as a “spirit pipe,” this unique pot device was made by LSD pioneer Augustus Owsley Stanley for Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia, and has been MIA for decades.
“I’ve bought party pipes from rock people before,” Cabella – owner of Californian antique shop The Modern i – reveals Rolling Stone. “They’re just funny little things; they have no history to them. No lost track. No lost connections. This is a different thing. It is a kind of holy grail in many ways, because, obviously, when [Jerry] he was smoking this pipe on which he was playing music at the time and that’s where he was getting the spirit from – the creative work.” Rolling Stone reached out to the band for comment but did not hear back.
The Grateful Dead and Owsley’s history is so intertwined with, well, drugs and rock and roll. Stanley – whose name in the dictionary officially describes a strain of pure LSD – was the band’s original sound man and financial backer. He developed their unique Wall of Sound, helped design their logo, and, of course, kept them flowing with LSD. The band even immortalized Stanley in a song: “Alice D. Millionaire,” in 1967, turned on a headline about the arrest of an “acid king.” Although he was tight with the whole band, Stanley was drawn, in particular, to Garcia. In a 2007 interview Rolling Stone, Stanley called the Dead Man “the sun at the center of the solar system. Take out the sun, and all the planets go their separate ways. Garcia was in the middle. Once he stopped searching, the whole scene stopped searching.”
That arrest was not the last of Stanley’s legal troubles; in the early seventies, he eventually ended up in prison, where he honed the skills he would use again to make Garcia’s spirit pipe, along with other pieces of what he called “sculpture” wearable,” according to Cabella. Rhoney Stanley, Owsley’s former partner in LSD crime, tells Rolling Stone that he gave her one of his first pieces when she visited him in prison: a metal heart with wings, a reference to the Hells Angels. “I just wore it the night before,” she says. “He always had to have the best ingredients. He was an artist. I was so happy that he found out that center was going through the prison.”
Although Rhoney says she never received a “spirit pipe” from Stanley, she says he made her one in the shape of a whale, along with other pieces of jewelry. She also learned how to make wearable images, using the casting skills she gained to get into dental school. In her book, Owsley and Me: My LSD Family, Rhoney tells of Stanley giving her that metal heart: “‘I work in the shop, learning metallurgy, making jewelry. This is for you,’” she remembers him saying. “It doesn’t just lie flat. My first piece. I’ll be better.’” (He would try to charge her $10,000 for a white Pegasus with ruby eyes.)
In Cabella’s opinion, Stanley never got much better. “If you look at Owsley’s early rock posters, they’re really cute,” he says. “They’re like the eighth grade they did. They are very basic, as are his jewelry techniques. … [Jerry’s pipe] it looks like someone with a few years of art school did it and did the best they could. It looks like a hippie did it.”
“In my mind, Stanley was never a great artist,” he said. “Copy is not the right word, borrowing is not the word, stealing is not the right word, but he would use other people’s designs or get people to do the designs he had in his head.”
Cabella has carved out a special place in the art world when it comes to Stanley; he says he first met him in a jewelry-making class at the College of Marin in the late eighties, later receiving a bronze Stanley belt buckle shaped like The Dead’s 1976 album cover Steal Your Face from a poster collector. Cabella gained a strong reputation as a dealer of all things Dead about 20 years ago, however, when he came across a red Studebaker truck in 1949 while investing in a jewelry estate in Berkeley. He got the truck for a song, only to find out later that it was Stanley’s during the time he was doing sound for the Dead. Nicknamed the Dread Dormammu – after the villain Dr. Strange – the truck was sold to a private collector three years ago for about $24,000, which was basically what Cabella spent on restoration .
His experience with Dead things – especially those related to Stanley – made Cabella a natural first stop for Merl Saunders Jr. about ten years after he found Garcia’s pipe behind a built-in bed while remodeling his father’s house after his death in 2008. Saunders Jr. sold to Cabella for a few grand, “basically all my budget was to buy rare rock posters at the time, but it seemed like a no-brainer,” Cabella says. Saunders Jr. responded Rolling Stonein the first e-mail confirming that he sold pipes to Cabella, but did not respond to a follow-up.
Cabella says Saunders Jr. told him Garcia kept the pipe at his father’s house after the rock star was arrested in Golden Gate Park on a drug charge in 1985. He gave up drugs shortly after the arrest, but, according to a letter from Saunders’ son, Garcia was smoking a pipe when he was recording in 1991. Blues from the Rainforest by Saunders – and many other times.
“The pipe is something special. I was told by Merl Saunders’ son that [no one else smoked out of it]”, Cabella says. “It was a Jerry’s pipe. Only a Jerry’s pipe. It was obviously used, but it was never a party pipe. That’s the only reason it is still there, because it was lost and no one could find it. Everyone forgot about it.”
When Cabella first received the pipe, he was not fully aware of its history. Yes, the letter from Saunders Jr. said. that it was “a personal gift from Owsley to Jerry,” but it took some sleuthing to figure out that it was made by Stanley—and why and when. Because of his history with Stanley’s work, Cabella could be sure that the pipe was designed by the man himself – along with a strange little skull made out of god knows what – what happened with her. The pipe itself offered more clues. First, there was an ivory base at the base of the pipe, which has an exquisitely carved image of a big cat sitting proudly in the middle of the sunset. The image is identical to the Jerry Garcia Band’s 1978 album cover, Cats under the stars. From there, Cabella was able to believe when, around him, the pipe was made.
And then there was a carved image of a crouching tiger on the side of a mountain. Again, though it’s rude, it’s a dead tool for the inlay design on Garcia’s famous Tiger guitar, made by luthier Doug Irwin in the late seventies. (Irwin did not answer Rolling StoneCabella believes that the Tiger, as Stanley gave him, was Garcia’s spirit animal, recalling the story of the Guitar Tiger. When another of Irwin’s instruments, named “The Rosewood,” was shown, Garcia was taken by the image of a big cat on the electronic plate, which led to the animal’s apparent appearance on his instrument. is now signed.
“Owsley anointed people with a spirit animal. Owsley’s first mate [Melissa Cargill] called Owl, that was her spirit name,” Cabella says, assuming that Garcia was given the name of a spirit herself, and, then, a spirit pipe carrying her image. According to Cabella, Stanley’s widow, Sheilah, also has a pipe, but she won’t share images of it. “You don’t show them to people. You don’t show spirit pipes,” he says. “They’re not a new thing. It’s like finding something divine; it will be a historical object. He has a responsibility. ”
Now, it seems, the onus has fallen on Cabella, who is reluctant to sell the piece – which apparently still smells of burnt drugs – or entrust it to any old museum . “I’m very involved in exhibit preservation and education. So this next place can’t just be a pot museum. It’s more than that,” he says. “I don’t want it to end up somewhere where somebody smokes out of it. That was Jerry’s job.”