As fascinated as humanity is by drugs, and as much we desire them, we understand painfully little about them. Worse yet, we have no idea how to handle them as a society in a practical manner. Outside of The Netherlands and a few other countries, governments continue to let millions of people die from largely preventable drug overdoses rather than provide local health officials and users with drugs like Narcan to counteract overdoses. Drugs are a ghost in this country and much of the world. Everyone does drugs, only no one talks about it, at least not in IRL. And it's a problem.
A parallel could be drawn between the lack of useful drug education and the battle at the federal and local level over practical sex education and reproductive health, which is opposed by conservative and/or Christian politicians and community members who'd prefer an abstinence-only educational model over one that would prevent teen pregnancies. Despite having good intentions in the sense that they believe they are upholding Christian morality, their activism tends to be corrupted by big interests and their money. One can't help but notice the puritanical foundations of the country dovetailing nicely with big pharma in giving birth to Generation Adderall and other drug addictions that start in doctors' offices. After all, a cursory look at this country's history with drugs reveals one of the most misguided governmental campaigns of all time. Our justice system criminalizes addiction rather treating it as the illness it is, filling prisons with drug addicts in need of real treatment. Meanwhile, drug education efforts still focus on prevention, an educational approach that fails to provide any real real-world value. In analyzing the failure to establish comprehensive sex and drug education, the general line of reasoning against practical education plays on a fear that such an education would give a tacit seal of approval to students to engage in some far-fetched drug and sex orgy (while potentially excluding the 1% from profiting off of the black market for drugs as they do off of legal narcotics).
A big part of the reason for our failings regarding drug education is that we don't really have a way to intelligently and theoretically talk about what drugs really are and why we desire them. Scholarship on the history of drugs is rife with essential reads, but most books I’ve read gloss over the millions of drug users and how their lives are forever changed by their addiction, treating them instead as numbers within drug use and deaths statistics. Though such great reads as Whiteout by Alexander Cockburn and Strength of the Wolf by Douglas Valentine aren't cultural histories per se, they suffer from possessing any real curiosity about the the drug cultures they are historicizing, which are rife with absent stories that would otherwise help color in the broader historical outlines drawn by such 'big picture' historians. Additionally, these histories often lack any theoretical insight to add nuance to their top-down historical model as agency is granted to a few privileged players. It is against this staid backdrop that Jesse Jarnow, a hands-on and research-enamored journalist existing outside of the academy, represents an attractive alternative. The immersive methodology deployed in his most recent book, Heads, manages to get at certain broader abstract truths and uncover new historical details by allowing its subject matter to guide the author's research rather than lean on any predefined theoretical or scholarly agenda to set his lysergic line-up.
Cultural movements centered around sex, drugs, art, and other core human behaviors are just that: human behaviors in motion. Accordingly, such histories are inherently difficult to circumscribe within a particular geography, both material and metaphysical, as the narrative is advanced via desires and flights of whimsy expressed by us all. "Who are the main characters?" becomes a relative question to a degree, as often the same story will be lived countless times by innumerable individuals. Approaching such a daunting topic with the goal of achieving a histoire totale is a fool's errand (or often guided by a teleological metanarrative as seen in much of the work of the Annales School), but there is something to be said for at least attempting to account for some of the individuals accidentally or otherwise swept up into the vortex of a cultural movement.
Drug culture and its many subcultures permeate every single stratum of civilization and thus there are stories buried within every facet of American society. A drug and its user form an abusive relationship that touches on masochism, childhood trauma, feelings of insecurity, and so much more, shaped by the particular socio-economic conditions and other contextual variables. Whether or not Jesse Jarnow, author of Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America, believes this or has any real opinion on the philosophical nature of drugs is unfortunately not on the agenda for this work. Inherently fluid histories, like that of America's history with psychedelics, could benefit from a theoretical toolbox of sorts, one that at least provides the author and the reader with some conceptual and semantic foundation upon which one can delve into psychedelics, head culture, and both of their roles within the greater American cultural underground.
While I am in no way condemning Heads for not pursuing deep truths about the nature of psychedelics and how they relate to the American pathos, he does create a bit of a semantic-conceptual hole for himself through the two words he places at the center of his history: "psychedelics" and "heads". Regarding the former, Jarnow appears to hew to Humphry Osmond's original psychiatric definition of the term "psychedelic," borrowed from the ancient Greek, as meaning "mind-manifesting," while demonstrating little desire to provide a twenty-first century update of the concept (instead pivoting the conversation towards the contemporary focus on "spirit-manifesting" entheogens without really adding anything to the discourse beyond surface-level narration). Regarding the term "heads," Jarnow first sticks to primary sources for meaning by pointing to a 1952 Time Magazine articles in a which an eighteen-year-old woman states that "everybody's a head now." While acknowledging both the word's general association with different classes of drug users and opening it up to refer to anyone traveling along the American psychedelic underground, Jarnow correctly asserts the polyphony of meaning attached to the term while seemingly excusing himself from nailing down the term's many semantic tentacles. Especially considering the fact that the word is no longer popularly associated with drug use, this could have been an interesting semantic area for Jarnow to have explored, tracing its evolution over time from being a stand-in for "druggie" to now referring to some enlightened breed of fanatic (I most often hear the term used as a sign of respect amongst music nerds.) But having wrote the book on indie rock with Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock, Jarnow can't help himself from locating the nexus of his story amongst the music makers and the weavers of dreams, which would be fine if he looked beyond one musical movement.
Much like his previous work, he inserts himself right in the middle of the action, writing from the perspective of someone who's spent his fair share of time wandering around the various lots and shakedown streets of modern festival culture in a gooball-induced fog, which goes some way to providing Heads with a hipsterfied take on Gonzo journalism. Jarnow gets us close enough to the action for his history to feel "authentic" in its interviews of many former acid manufacturers and dealers. But as pretty much the entirety of his Jarnow's interview subjects are more or less retired from the acid trade and scene, he might have benefitted from embedding himself with a group of today's psychedelic merchants, such as wookies, a class of drug-inhaling nomads who Jarnow understandably, yet regrettably avoids. After all, these modern-day acid zombies are a fascinating echo of that first sheet of LSD to enter American culture at large. But for all of his traveling along the psychedelic underground in America with ample opportunity to uncover new territory for research, his work is undermined by Jarnow's rather traditionalist decision to locate the bulk of the story with The Grateful Dead's own cultural biography. From the book's first page to its last, Jarnow chains the "story" of psychedelics in America to The Grateful Dead's long-lasting vapor trails in such a way that for those coming for a book that takes in the full breadth of psychedelic America might be left wanting.
Jarnow begins his introduction by (correctly) entertaining the hypothesis that America has entered another psychedelic renaissance, a concept modeled by the Educational Psychology professor Thomas Roberts that manifests in four ways: medical neuroscientific, spiritual religious, intellectual artistic, and mind design. Seeing that the medical neuroscientific branch has been the only one to truly thrive in the twenty-first century, with the other three each evolving at a fine clip, Jarnow looks back to when such a renaissance first became possible following the escape of chemically-engineered psychedelics from government-controlled laboratories in the 1950s. In doing so, Jarnow reasons that "if one wants to learn how psychedelics might change American society, it is only necessary to study the second half of the twentieth century how they already have." The other half of Jarnow's "fun exercise" comes in "set[ting] forth on a local anthropological expedition" to seek out followers of the Dead, the country’s "largest psychedelic cult."
For Jarnow, the Grateful Dead are the embodiment of the American Psychedelic underground and to a great extent, there's a deal of truth in this hypothesis. After all, for a large section of American psychedelic-using population, the Dead are presented as the band to listen to on acid, the modern shaman of the 60s and onward guiding generation after generation of psychedelic traveler to lands hitherto unknown. They created the soundtrack to an endless number of acid trips and helped to guide this nascent culture from its beatnik and early hippy roots into a full-blown industry. From a research standpoint, the band is a perfect nexus point through which to explore especially the glory years of the psychedelic renaissance stretching from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, and not just for rhetorical purposes.
One of the principal beliefs amongst its proponents is that LSD and other psychedelics have the power to "turn on" individuals to whole new modes of thinking and being and open their mind's eye to the interconnected nature of humanity. However, as Jarnow notes, the psychedelic "old guard" of Aldous Huxley and Colonel Al Hubbard had "the cream of society" in their cross hairs, hoping to dose the decision makers and thought leaders of the time and improve the whole of humanity in the process, from the top down. Like many ancient societies before them that used substances like peyote in sacred ceremonies, they represented the belief that only a select section of the populace could likely handle such an experience. An affinity of sorts can be found in the CIA's Project MKUltra in which agents dosed a select group of unwitting test subjects--one of many significant events in the history of Psychedelic America that Jarnow pays little mind to, though Valentine's Wolf does. What both instances demonstrate was that LSD-25 was never intended for the masses. But once Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, and the Merry Pranksters took their acid evangelist show on the road, Schrödinger's Cat was out of the bag as people now could access a hitherto unreachable logic that could comprehend the synchronous and diachronous natures of time, often at the same time (it's a hell of a drug, man). Thus, in Jarnow's narrative, the Dead became the populist torchbearers for a formerly esoteric culture, wielding a considerable amount of aesthetic influence on the emerging psychedelic culture in America. And as Jarnow shows, the Dead served as the primary conduit through which the underground LSD trade traveled. After all, Owsley Stanley AKA Bear, one of the fathers of the acid movement, was an early investor in the dead Dead, becoming their patron and sound man alongside many of the key players of the early Acid Test, including Ken Kesey
But as the author himself notes, this is a story largely featuring and told by middle-class white men and while the author cites a twenty-year old statistic as proof that black people don't consume psychedelics in nearly the same volume, or really at all, the question of their absence from so many black communities, alongside the question of why some people do get into them, is an unfortunate story Jarnow decides not to tell. This is especially frustrating as he does touch on the racially diverse and LSD-fueled disco scene of NYC in the 70s and 80s, but doesn't really give it the attention this paradigm shifting nightlife movement deserves, as discussed below. Even more contemporary examples in the contemporary rap world with artists like acid rappers Chance the Rapper, Flatbush Zombies and Denzel Curry espousing the creative spigot that LSD allows them to reach new creative heights are completely ignored by Jarnow. Nonetheless, for the bulk of the book he seems more inclined to talk to his own musical heroes and legendary drug bandits than really explore this oft-marginalized section of psychedelic America who didn't create the particular historical narrative he is telling but whose absence is just as important in painting the type of three-dimensional historical narrative that is generally lacking in our cultural understanding of drugs and psychedelics.
But before writing off Jarnow’s work prematurely, let’s dive into its merits. Jarnow locates pretty much the entirety of Heads' narrative within Humbead's Map, a cultural artifact from the time that reconfigures the world map. He does so along with the belief that, as E.D. Denson wrote in the Berkley BARB in 1968, “What’s important is people, not distances, and now for the first time we have a map recognizing this.” With the map as his guide, he embarks on his "ethnographic comic book history" where a handful of narrative strands lie for him to pick up and weave together a cogent narrative from story lines that always seem to connect with one another, no matter how impossible-seeming. The author diligently tracks his many subjects' scents, which include LSD chemists, Central Park residents, thought leaders of the psychedelic movement, members of the Dead's inner camps, and many other oddball characters. Such a wide-range of subjects is only natural when traveling through the cosmic vortex of the psychedelic black market, where it was, and still is, a matter of who you know and how you know them to get what you need. And in this case, Jarnow is fixing for some first-hand information about the psychedelic underground that, after a brisk trip through the time and space of Humbead's Map, he locates in the camp of the Grateful Dead and their widespread network of Heads.
The book opens up with the illustrative anecdote of Holy Modal Rounders' co-founder Peter Stampfel dropping peyote for the first time one afternoon in Greenwich Village. Soon after, we're moving forward at light speed as Jarnow spends a few pages running through the socio-cultural-historical background of the past fifty or sixty years that led to psychedelics going from ritual sacraments to something you could pick up at the Dollar Store in the West Village in the early 60s. In the book's first chapter, Jarnow succeeds at bringing his narrative to life as each densely-packed paragraph contains a thread that will extend through much of the book, each weaved together from a seemingly endless source of "heads" (which could refer to hop heads, meth heads, beatniks, etc.) and the network they established through cities frequented by psychedelic travelers (Berkley, San Francisco, the Village, etc., all of which are on Humbead’s map). While Jarnow treats Humbead's map a bit like dogma, his guide to uncovering the scattered strands of psychedelic history as found in the locales on the map, often validating a certain location by virtue of it being on the map. It's here where one starts to wonder whether Jarnow isn't giving a little too literal reading of this cultural text. Nonetheless, this works admirably for the book's first part as Jarnow leaps from rainbow lilypad to lilypad in his quest to connect the disparate psychedelic nexus points that eventually lead him to Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters, the Acid Tests, and the band at the center of it all: The Grateful Dead.
Over the book's next few hundred pages, Jarnow's research into the far-reaching implications of the Dead's psychedelic culture on modern society becomes increasingly riveting before devolving into a rote retelling of a band's rise and fall, and the culture which mirrored that movement. Nonetheless, Jarnow clearly relishes diving headfirst into his subject matter as he puts forth one of the first histories that makes the argument, and provides the evidence, for the cultural acceleration that was enabled by LSD and a host of other drugs during this period and beyond. From charting back the rise of high fidelity concert taping through the stories of Marty Weinberg and Dick Latvala to the history of Renaissance Fairs (see Sunshine Daydream) being rooted in head culture to chronicling how the internet was born in part to facilitate the trading of information about the Dead, Jarnow is right to locate so much of his story within the camp of the Dead as they were the trendsetters of so many of the styles and practices within head culture. Looking at individuals like Mark McCloud, a blotter artist whose collection is scattered throughout this article; Chad Stickney or LSD-OM, the famed graffiti artist who spearheaded a whole generation of graffiti writers; and Sarah Matzar, a Mayan quilter who became an LSD chemist and plenty more, Jarnow sheds lights on these psychedelic warriors who would otherwise be passed over by history. It is through their direct and indirect connections to the Dead that Jarnow has shed a light on these intriguing individuals and in turn, he makes a strong case for centralizing so much of the American psychedelic narrative with a band. But when he begins delving into the business dealings of the Dead's personal record label, it becomes clear that Jarnow might be hear for the music, not the drugs.
As he moves in the 80s when the Dead were on hiatus, things start to get really strange, and not in a good way. For whatever reason, he chooses to largely ignore the single-greatest federal crackdown on drugs that came with Reagan's Drug War. It is during this period that Jarnow begins to start charting the Dead's influence over a whole new generation of noodling guitarists and middle-class kids tuning in and joining the circus, be it with the Dead or their Vermont-based kin, Phish. He regretfully segues into their birth via the story of Richard Wright's psychedelic discovery of his true name, Nancy Bitterbug Voodoo Coleslaw, during the then-student's time spent on the campus of Vermont's Goddard College, the school attended by his friends who would go on to become the band Phish. As Jarnow spends page after page detailing Nancy's gradual blossoming, one can't help but assume that this being 2016, he is going to draw some parallel between psychedelics and our changing perceptions of gender and sexuality. In fact, he's just showing off his bountiful jamband knowledge by providing the historical foundation for a famous bit of Phish mythology. Unlike his detailing of the ripples of cultural change that emanated from the Dead's camp, his choosing to stay on tour rather than investigate the other psychedelic scenes he briefly mentions. For instance, while Jarnow acknowledges the psychedelic punchbowls of NYC's The Loft (founded by the recently deceased David Macuso) and the DJ Larry Levan's LSD-fueled Paradise Garage sets, he doesn't really account for these scenes' long-lasting reverberations in contemporary dance culture's relationship with drugs. Sure, he discusses Alexander Shulgin's monumental discovery of MDMA and draws a quick through line from the Dead to the legendary Furthur Festivals in Wisconisn headlined by the likes of Aphex Twin and a then-maskless Daft Punk, but seems far more concerned about how America's love affair with rave culture links up with the Dead's legacy than assessing it on its own merits. And this is just one glaring omission amongst many.
This frustrating pattern of briefly mentioning or totally ignoring the other psychedelic movements that began to emerge during the 80s and 90s reaches a boiling point in his accounting of the comedown for many of the original acid dealers and the Dead scene as a whole in the chapter entitled "The Tour from Hell." In it, Jarnow zooms past some of the 90s more fascinating psychedelic outposts--which jumps from Wired magazine and the philosophy of shareware to the rise of the Zippies and cyberdelia--and even cruises briskly through such fascinating acid busts as Operations Looking Glass and White Rabbit, disposing of the details in an apparent rush to get to the musical changing of the guards. By the time of Garcia's death in 1995, Jarnow is left with the far-less riveting story of the late 90s and 00s jam band scene, We do get a half-hearted account of the break-up of one of the last major acid manufacturing rings that took place in a silo and was run by LSD chemist Leonard Pickard alongside his questionable partner Gordon Todd Skinner, Jarnow meekly gives this wild tale a mere few paragraphs as he declares the details "riveting but irrelevant." How these details of one of the biggest acid bust of the past twenty years don't factor into the biography of psychedelic America is one of the many logical trapdoors that spring up due to Jarnow's fixation on the Dead over telling seemingly-essential histories that Jarnow assures us are outside of the scope this work. That the book's final chapter on the current resurgence in psychedelics is titled "Jerry Gets Hip Again" serves as a frustrating reminder that for Jarnow, there exists a direct equivalency between the Grateful Dead and the entirety of psychedelic-taking America. And it doesn't take a n00b to know that just ain't true.
And look, I wouldn't be this heated if Jarnow didn't make a respectable dent in a topic that tends to sit behind an opaque curtain of which most academics steer clear. Despite his choice to equate America's psychedelic biography with that of the extended network surrounding and cultural impact of The Grateful Dead (and their countless offspring), he still manages to write a partial page-turner for those readers fascinated by how psychedelic culture in America took on the form it did and the reasons behind the Dead's far-reaching influence on a new generation of heads who weren't, at first, looking for personal enlightenment, but got it in spades. Jarnow succeeds at clearly illustrating that what was so significant about the heads is that they represented the first breaking with millennia of tradition regarding psychedelics, transforming ritual into recreation. The author dives into the trade routes and practices of early LSD networkers to recreate the culturally dominant manifestation of psychedelic use as told by those orbiting around the Dead, the center of their universe. But he fails in providing a more conceptual take on what exactly defines a head and just what it is they represent, a discussion that would have made a far more interesting segue out of the Dead's glory days into Generation Phish. Despite this fundamental misstep, which does go a long way in undercutting the force of Jarnow's narrative, the book can still be considered a success in its willingness to travel along the country' psychedelic ley lines and see what new truths he can discover about the first psychedelic renaissance in this country. And it paves the way for smart asses like myself, who are also seeking to expand our practical and theoretical understanding of drugs, to pursue our own research into the cultural reverberations of drug use.
Nonetheless, drawing such a rigid parallel between the story of the Grateful Dead and the surge in psychedelics in 60s and 70s America leaves Jarnow stranded in the lot that Phish, the String Cheese Incident, the Disco Biscuits, and so many others came to fill. His mistake lies in is staying there with the jambands rather than seeking out the other ways LSD and similar drugs bore their way through other subcultures in the 80s, 90s, and today, making this a story largely about white, middle-class men.
Nonetheless, just as the first psychedelic renaissance's influence in still felt within our culture, Heads will almost assuredly become a touchstone in the literature on drug cultures and rightfully so. For while he never gets off the bus and thus to the off-beaten paths left unexplored, the roads he does travel he does so in a way to truly place the reader in that time and place, making for a book that is as rewarding as it is frustrating.