Any thorough investigation of the use of psychedelics in America and the various subcultures, art forms and music associated with each scene would, by its very nature, be as different and unique as each individual trip. So wildly varying in terms of sociological and socioeconomic makeup are these disparate scenes—not to mention the sacred rituals of the country’s indigenous peoples—that attempting to create a definitive, all-encompassing work would take up far more space than most would care to inhabit, altered state or no.
As if tacitly acknowledging this, Jesse Jarnow devotes the majority of his analysis in Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America to one group in particular, namely the culture that sprang up in and around the Grateful Dead. By narrowing his focus, Jarnow here is able to craft an in-depth exploration of both the main players and fringe elements of the scene, giving equal share to the drugs and the music, art and culture they spawned.
By spending the majority of the book in and around the Grateful Dead, Jarnow’s definition of “psychedelic America” is decidedly narrow, yet still manages to loop in a number of key players in the evolution of the world of psychedelics within American society within the last 50 years. Yet like any number of the countless Grateful Dead jams alluded to and discussed in detail throughout, Jarnow’s prose tends to wander between moments of clarity and brilliance, relying heavily on insider lingo and hip references throughout. This casual voice and approach to the subject matter and its cultural ramifications places Jarnow firmly within the Deadhead camp and, for those not fully indoctrinated, this insularity can, at times, prove a bit off-putting.
Fortunately Jarnow is a gracious host and takes his time laying out the scene in a sort of docu-fictional approach that allows access inside the heads (no pun intended) of the titular heads as they traverse the intracranial landscape loosed with the aid of myriad chemical compounds. Sprawling and full of tangents and asides, Jarnow’s casual voice lends itself to the subject matter oftentimes a bit too well, with many of the passages reading like a prolonged, stoned late-night rap. He’s clearly well-versed on both the subject matter and its history and displays a great deal of enthusiasm for both; however his alternating between a hipper throwback street-level vernacular and serious sociological study can at times be a bit jarring.
While the story of the Dead and its followers has been told many times before, less so are the ancillary characters within their sphere of influence who went on to play a surprisingly large role in shaping our contemporary culture and society. Beginning with the Digger notion of a free or hip economy, Jarnow works his way up to the contemporary notion of file sharing and open applications that, at their heart, represent ideas stretching back to these early psychedelic explorers.
These moments time and again prove to be some of the most fascinating in their exploration of the cause and effect of significantly mind-altering substances on a select few true innovators. From the “Parkies” of New York who helped facilitate an entire subculture centered around street art and personal expression, to the founders of Silicon Valley who, through their own use of mind-expanding psychedelics, were able to envision a theoretical world within a world that eventually manifested itself as the Internet and all its myriad offshoots. At its heart, Heads is a sly cultural analysis exploring how psychedelics and the subcultures they fueled helped establish what we now know and accept as the modern, often decidedly straight, world.
Unfortunately, too many of these major figures in shaping the final years of the 20th century are granted rather short shrift in favor of the aforementioned extended raps on the Dead and their milieu. In this, the title comes across as a bit disingenuous. Had Jarnow opted to place an apostrophe ahead of the head in the book’s title, his sprawling exploration of the Dead and its subcultures would provide the reader with a better set of expectations. Over the course of the book’s 400 plus pages, nary a page goes by without mention of the Dead. To be sure, various subcultures birthed in acid are referenced here and there, but are rarely granted anything more than a passing mention.
Far from being a truly comprehensive exploration of psychedelic America, the land originally mapped out in the late-‘60s on Humbead’s map, Heads instead takes a more regional approach to its subject matter, sticking close to the familiar without venturing off into the wilder hinterlands of those other ‘60s psych groups, the neo-psych groups of the ‘80s and the assorted electronic music scenes that came of age following the establishment of the true psychedelic America. While ultimately failing to provide a complete biography, Jarnow’s book helps bring into sharper focus the sprawling influence of Deadhead’s who, knowingly or not, helped usher in the modern age, loosing their minds on acid-laced trips and returning with postcards from worlds previous unimagined. For that, we can all be grateful.
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