June 2nd, 2016
[Editor’s note: The following excerpt from Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America, by Jesse Jarnow, relays the never-before-told story of Sarah Matzar (above), a Guatemalan quilter and groundbreaking LSD chemist. In the 1980s, Matzar was living in the US, making quilts and working to get her master’s in Anthropology, when a revelation hit her. Her story serves as a counter-narrative to the all-white, all-male patina often given to psychedelic culture.
Photo by Marc Franklin, excerpted from Franklin’s Psychedelic Pioneers, a transpersonal portrait series featured in Heads.]
Sarah Matzar is dosed and looking up at the ceiling of the Grateful Dead’s Front Street rehearsal hall in San Rafael when she figures out what she’s going to do with the crystal LSD. Besides make money, that is. Sarah is in her mid-twenties and no utopian, though she likes acid well enough and loves the Dead.
But Sarah just wants to support her family. Desperately. She is in a fix.
By life circumstance, here she is tripping at Front Street, looking up at the fixture over the fluorescent lights with its patterned plastic bubbles undulating across the surface. And she realizes that the indentations are the perfect shape to serve as molds for LSD gel tabs.
An early ’70s graduate of Pacific High, the experimental institution outside Palo Alto where students built geodesic domes and interacted with monks, Sarah is well placed in the Dead world and already has her reasons for being around Front Street in the early ’80s. She asks Dead roadie and Front Street manager Kidd Candelario where he got the light fixture, acquires one, and brings it back to her new residence in Berkeley.
Along with her Pacific High chemistry classes, she picks up further specialized knowledge from Melissa Cargill, Owsley’s lab collaborator and LSD pioneer. Sarah and Melissa have been friends for a few years, bonding over textile design, which is Sarah’s true passion.
“Melissa was like, ‘You go girl!’” Sarah laughs. Cargill, out of the acid game since the ’60s and working for George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic on Raiders of the Lost Ark and other projects, suggests that Sarah grease the plastic bubbles with aerosol-butter Pam. It works like a charm.
Sarah Matzar isn’t like other acid cooks. For starters, she is a woman, which—besides Melissa Cargill and Rhoney Stanley of Owsley’s lab and scattered others in the UK—is rare in LSD chemistry circles. Sarah is 4’10” and possesses a lacerating wit. She is starting her own textile business and getting her master’s in anthropology at UC Berkeley, studying Mayan art. She is not here to save the world.
“Do I believe in LSD? Yes, I do,” she says, “but it’s not for everybody.” She is doing this for her family, lowercase. She is doing this to send money back to Guatemala, where she belongs. She’d spent part of her childhood in the States and part in Central and South America, where her mother is from. “Sometimes where you’re born isn’t where you’re from,” she notes.
“Art is my God,” she says, and her God manifests in the form of intricate Guatemalan quilt making, symbols and systems colliding. “My Guatemalan color sense combined with my psychedelic color sense,” she says. In her quilting she attempts to “break out of the block,” the traditional division in pattern making, and does so, the fabrics continuing their conversation across rippled quilted surfaces.
She is not in the United States by choice, which is where the urgency comes from. In the late ’70s, Guatemala’s decades-running civil war grew too turbulent, so she and her family—her mother, brother, sister and she—are living in a condemned house in Berkeley, near the Ashby Flea Market.
One of the other squat residents is a Deadhead from New York, who has a line on grams of crystal LSD, fresh from a European chemist. And, just like that, Sarah is pulled into the upper-middle-class Grateful Dead scene she’d known during her high school years in Palo Alto. She re-establishes old connections, partially for business’s sake. She always did love the Dead, though, and acid, too, but this is pure economic opportunity. In time, much of her family will return to Guatemala, but Sarah will support them.
The psychedelic world had always at least presented itself as classless. But in addition to being a woman in the LSD scene, Sarah finds herself as an outsider in the hippie-bourgie Dead scene. She uses the LSD and her not inconsiderable natural intelligence to bootstrap herself into business and, in short, into the upper echelons. In that regard, the psychedelic world becomes an access point, a place with its own social ladder with its own skills.
In the Berkeley squat, Sarah experiments with various methods before landing on the gel tabs. They’re a hit, and the plastic light fixture technique becomes a standard manufacturing method in the chemical underground. There are perhaps dozens of other chemists like Sarah, picking up crystal from various sources, usually European, and converting it into marketable doses.
“A lot of people learned how to do it,” she says. “But a lot of people learned how to do it badly.” There is one acid cook she knows who works exclusively in gas station bathrooms. He rolls up, plugs in a portable dehumidifier, lays the crystal into consumable form, and is out within an hour and a half. He is not the most precise operator, though a memorable character. They come in all stripes, as do the European chemists. The one who supplies Sarah’s supply is an idealist of the old-guard Owsleyian sort.
Sarah makes all kinds of LSD besides the gels, including blotters, from unmarked squares to intricate designs she creates herself. Sometimes she works for hire, but usually she’s in charge, alongside a few partners. When it gets going, about half of her vast business is with the Dead world, and about half elsewhere. She spends some time hanging out among the Talking Heads’ art-punk circles in New York in the early ’80s, too. She’s got plenty of connections, is fun to talk to, and the product moves well.
She feels inherent sexism in plenty of interactions, customers expecting they’d be able to talk her prices down. But her resolve is strong, and fuck them, she’s got a family.
Read more from The Influence:
A group of associates forms around her, about half women, unusual in the psychedelic world, as well. The crystal LSD market in the early ’80s is big on speculation, she recalls later. People will often sit on good supplies for years before converting it.
She wires money home, no more than $600 at a time, and makes $40,000 in less than a year. And though she doesn’t move LSD at shows or on tour, she is absolutely part of the Grateful Dead’s extended family and—since before she was in the acid game—friends with Owsley himself.
“He was a total textile freak,” Sarah says of their early bond. They have long conversations about how the Jacquard loom was the first computer.
Sarah estimates that there are perhaps a half-dozen heads at her level of acid manufacture moving in and out of the band’s inner circle. Though cordial with most, she wouldn’t characterize any as “Grateful Dead Family.” Not since the days of Owsley and Goldfinger could anyone make that claim, she says. But there is Grateful Dead and there is Family and there is acid, sometimes brought back from Europe by old friends who know.
She travels with the band from coast to coast and goes to shows. Sometimes she sells her quilts, but rarely. Owsley shows her the ropes of the alternative business structures that are starting to thrive around the Dead. “He definitely operated in penny-ante kind of world,” she says. “I would believe that he never had a real bank account.” He teaches her about hip economics, even still using the exact phrase.
One time, out on tour somewhere, at a rest stop perhaps, someone offers Sarah Matzar her own acid gels.
“It’s really good,” she is told. Sarah declines.
[You can read more on Sarah Matzar’s adventures in LSD cooking, including a prolonged encounter with the American government in Heads]
Excerpted from Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America by Jesse Jarnow. Copyright © 2016. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Jesse Jarnow is the author of Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and The Rise of Indie Rock. His writing on music, technology, and culture has appeared in the Times (London), the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Wired.com, Relix (contributing editor), Dupree’s Diamond News and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and hosts The Frow Show on the independent Jersey City radio station WFMU. He tweets via @bourgwick and @HeadsNews.