For decades, a great piece of counterculture history was wedged behind a bed in Merl Saunders’ San Francisco home.
The crude pipe looks like something a teenager might have cobbled together at summer camp, but according to art historian Steve Cabella, it’s basically a religious object. A so-called “spirit pipe,” this particular pot contraption was made by LSD pioneer Augustus Owsley Stanley for Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia, and it’s been MIA for decades.
“I’ve bought party pipes from rock people before,” says Cabella – owner of Californian antiques shop The Modern i – Rolling stone. “It’s just funny things; they have no history to them. No lost story. No lost connections. It is a different object. It’s kind of a holy grail in a lot of ways because, of course, when [Jerry] smoked this pipe, he was playing music at the time and that’s where he got the spirit from – the creativity from.” Rolling stone reached out to the group for comment, but did not hear back.
The Grateful Dead and Owsley’s history is as intertwined as, well, drugs and rock & roll. Stanley – whose name is officially in the dictionary describing a kind of pure LSD – was the band’s original sound man and financial backer. He developed their signature Wall of Sound, helped design their logo, and of course kept them level with LSD. The band even immortalized Stanley in song: 1967’s “Alice D. Millionaire,” a spin on a headline about the arrest of the so-called “king of acid.” Although he was tight with the whole group, Stanley was especially drawn to Garcia. In a 2007 interview with Rolling stone, Stanley called the Dead frontman “the sun at the center of the solar system. Take out the sun, and the planets all go their separate ways. Garcia was the centerpiece. Once he stopped exploring, the whole scene stopped exploring.”
That arrest would not be the last of Stanley’s legal troubles; in the early 1970s, he eventually ended up in prison, where he honed the skills he would later use to make Garcia’s spirit pipe, along with other pieces of what he called “portable sculptures,” according to Cabella. Rhoney Stanley, Owsley’s ex and partner in LSD crime, recounts 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 other night,” she says. “He always had to have the best material. He was an artist. I was so impressed he found that outlet to get through prison.”
Although Rhoney says she never got a “spirit pipe” from Stanley, she says he made her one shaped like a whale, along with other jewelry. She also learned how to make portable sculptures, using the casting skills she gained in dental school. In her book, Owsley and I: My LSD Family, Rhoney describes Stanley who gave her that metal heart: “’I work in the shop, learn metallurgy, make jewelry. This is for you,’” she remembers him saying. “It doesn’t exactly lie flat. My first piece. I’ll get better.’” (He would later try to ask her $10,000 for a white Pegasus with ruby eyes.)
In Cabella’s opinion, Stanley never really got that much better. “If you look at Owsley’s early rock posters, they’re really cool,” he says. “They are like an eighth grader made them. They are very basic, as are his jewelry techniques. … [Jerry’s pipe] looks like someone with a few years of art school produced this and did the best they could. It looks like a hippie made it.”
“In my mind, Stanley was never a good artist,” he adds. “Copyed is not the right word, borrowed is not the word, stolen is not the right word, but he would use other people’s designs or have people make the designs he had in his head.”
Cabella has carved out a niche in the art world when it comes to Stanley; he says he first met him in a jewelry class at the College of Marin in the late 1980s, later acquiring a Stanley brass belt buckle shaped like the Dead’s 1976 album cover Steal your face from a poster collector. However, Cabella gained a solid reputation as a purveyor of all things death about 20 years ago when he came across a 1949 red Studebaker truck while archiving a jeweler’s estate in Berkeley. He got the truck for a song, but only later found out that it belonged to Stanley during the period he was doing sound for the dead. Nicknamed the Dread Dormammu – after a Dr. Strange villain — sold the truck to a private collector three years ago for about $24,000, which was basically what Cabella spent restoring it.
His experience with Dead Items – especially those related to Stanley – made Cabella a natural first stop for Merl Saunders Jr. made about a decade after he discovered Garcia’s pipe behind a built-in bed while renovating his father’s house after his death in 2008. Saunders Jr. sold it to Cabella for a few thousand, “basically my entire budget I had at the time to buy rare rock posters, but it seemed like a no-brainer,” Cabella says. Saunders Jr Rolling stone’s initial email confirming that it had sold the pipe to Cabella, but did not respond to follow-ups.
Cabella says Saunders Jr. told him that Garcia kept the pipe at his father’s house after the rock star was arrested in Golden Gate Park in 1985 with a briefcase of drugs. Boy, Garcia smoked the pipe when he recorded 1991’s Blues from the rainforest with Saunders – and on many other occasions.
“The pipe is a special thing. Merl Saunders’ son told me that [no one else smoked out of it],” says Cabella. “It was Jerry’s pipe. Just Jerry’s pipe. It was used, of course, but it never became a party pipe. That’s the only reason it still exists because it was lost and no one could find it. Everyone forgot about it.”
When Cabella first found the pipe, he wasn’t entirely aware of its history. Certainly, the letter from Saunders Jr. mentioned that it was “a personal gift from Owsley to Jerry,” but it took some digging to find out that it was actually made by Stanley – and why and when. Because of his history with Stanley’s work, Cabella was able to determine that the pipe was fashioned by the man himself—along with a strange skull made of God-knows-what that went with it. The pipe itself provided even more clues. First, there was an ivory medallion at the bottom of the pipe, containing a crudely carved image of a large cat sitting proudly in the center of a setting sun. The image is identical to the cover of the Jerry Garcia Band’s 1978 album, Cats under the stars. From there, Cabella could surmise when, approximately, the pipe was made.
And then there was a carved image of a crouching tiger on a hill. Again, although crude, this is a dead ringer for the inlaid design on Garcia’s famous guitar, Tiger, made by luthier Doug Irwin in the late seventies. (Irwin did not respond Rolling stone‘s request for comment.) Cabella thinks that the Tiger was Garcia’s spirit animal, as given to him by Stanley, and recalls the story of Tiger the guitar’s origin. When showing another of Irwin’s instruments, called “The Rosewood,” Garcia was taken with an inlaid image of a large cat on the electronic plate, leading to the animal’s prominent appearance on his now signature instrument.
“Owsley will anoint people with a spirit animal. Owsley’s first partner [Melissa Cargill] is called Owl, that was her spirit name,” Cabella says, suspecting that Garcia got his own spirit name and in turn a spirit pipe bearing its image. According to Cabella, Stanley’s widow, Sheilah, also has a pipe, but will not share images of it. “You don’t show it to people. You don’t show spirit pipes,” he says. “They are not a novelty. It is like finding some religious object; it becomes a historical object. There is a responsibility to that.”
Now, it seems, the onus has fallen on Cabella, who is loathe to sell the piece — which apparently still smells like burned drugs — or entrust it to any old museum. “I really like exhibition conservation and education. So the next place it lives can’t just be a pot museum. It’s more than that,” he says. “I don’t want it to end up somewhere where someone smokes it. It was Jerry’s job.”