Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America by Jesse Jarnow

Indeed, when the phrase “psychedelic renaissance” is uttered, it acts (in part) as linguistic incense that might cloak the hairy, unchecked madness of the sixties. It carries the promise that this generation will be different (Jarnow 2016: x)

heads-jesse-jarnowJesse Jarnow’s Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America (2016) begins by taking some issue with the well-trodden mantra ‘the psychedelic renaissance.’ Often used to implicitly bypass the past, it tends to cast the machinations of cultural psychedelia as a failed 20th century social experiment. According to the author, however, the renaissance began not with 21st century laboratory work but when psychedelics began first escaping them in the late 1950s, and certainly post psychedelic illegality. LSD and its chemical friends shaped and maintained a novel American culture, head culture, and during the scientific wilderness years, LSD’s renaissance—like its more famous namesake—was in music, art, literature, and technology. Indeed, it is the drugs and their socio-cultural effects that map psychedelic America.

The book artfully plays with the idea of narratively plotting a sort of psychogeographical history. It begins with ‘Humbead’s Revised Map of the World’ which was created by Rick Shubb and Earl Crabb and published in early 1968. The illustration shows a central continent split into five main territories—San Francisco, Berkeley, Cambridge, New York City, and Los Angeles—with a small island off it entitled ‘Rest of the World.’ The narrative plays with these locations, and revises the map as the flows of heads and LSD ebb this way and that, occasionally spinning into cyberspace, or flicking across to New Albion. The effect is to ground both heads, the people, and the book in an LSD psychogeography of culture’s own making.

In the 1950s, Jarnow notes, there was a lot of ‘mind-manifesting’ going on in America, but he begins his history with the folk musician Peter Stampfel buying peyote in a shop in the East Village, Manhattan in 1959. This cultural exchange underlines the ‘heads’ focus of the book—the folk story of LSD, or perhaps the story of folk who took LSD and what they did next. The characters involved in this story are myriad; New York graffiti artists and ‘parkies,’ the emerging tech and computer world of Silicon Valley, Stanford and MIT; New Age movements; the psychedelic luminaries, and of course some chemists. Jarnow moves deftly through these many threads as they come in and out of focus in his narrative, beautifully held together by the LSD experience. Indeed, tying together so many seemingly disparate elements is one of the great strengths of this history.

Yet as various subcultures, with multifaceted interests, developed during the early sixties, it is the emergence of the Grateful Dead and their legion of followers that drives the narrative focus of the book—and centres the heads, so to speak. This is laced through three entwined layers. Firstly, their music being created and performed for the ritual of tripping on acid: “By 1979, with the ritualization of “drumz/space,” the Dead’s whole performance structure—both the music and the breaks—is now an acid trip condensed into a sequence of creative moves. It is both exquisitely conceptual and plain useful for those on psychedelics” (Jarnow 2016: 147). LSD rituality emerged as a cultural form in psychedelic America, a new Eleusis if you will; a sacramental process which many thousands undertook.

Secondly, the Grateful Dead’s close association with LSD chemists and the ‘families’ that dispersed them was an intrinsic component that kept the heads culture alive after the substances were made illegal. Just as the band created the common rituality, the chemists were the ones who performed the grand alchemical ritual in creating the sacrament itself. One of the most illuminating elements of Heads is the way in which it tackles the question of LSD availability over the years, measured against chemist busts and the elusive individuals who sourced the precursor chemicals for the magic. Never bogged down in statistics or myth-busting, Jarnow neatly corresponds the ebbs and flows of the heads along with the ebbs and flows of LSD and its creators.

And thirdly, the so called ‘hip economy’ which was centred around Dead tapes, LSD supply, and the ideology of the San Francisco diggers. In many respects, the early chemists’ belief that LSD should be supplied without monetary profit, and with the intention of reinvesting in the cultural backdrop through which it manifested, helped enable this self-sustaining economy. On the one hand, there was the renaissance in artistic endeavour, but it was also intimately tied with a flourishing in forms of exchange which, on the surface at least, offered a way of being for heads that marked out their psychogeographical territory. Indeed, through music, chemistry, and economy, heads culture established itself as a formative socio-cultural enterprise throughout the latter half of the twentieth century.

As a ‘biography of psychedelic America,’ Heads is both a history of American culture’s engagement with LSD, but also a kind of frank love note from Jarnow to the bearers of this culture—written with humour and friendship, but not without a sense of perspective. The narrative is fast-paced, playful and steeped in lore, and Jarnow’s ability to weave so many facets of psychedelic America together is testament to both his skill as a writer, and the skills of all the LSD chemists who left these trails to be uncovered. Quite frankly, it was an inspiring read… now where’s the Ergotamine tartrate at?

Robert Dickins

Robert Dickins is a historian, writer and editor. He is the founder of the Psychedelic Press, co-director of the Psychedelic Museum, and is currently undertaking his PhD at Queen Mary, University of London. His research interests focus on the history and literature of psychedelic substances, and the role of writing in spiritual and magical traditions during the 19th century. He is also the author of the novel 'Erin', and has occasionally be known to perform a poem or two.

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