Jesse Jarnow – ‘Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America’ (2016)

This entry is part 17 of 19 in the series Countercultural History

Jesse Jarnow – ‘Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America’

Jesse Jarnow – ‘Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America’

(El Capo Press • 2016 • USA)

A valuable addition to the countercultural canon written in 2016 by music journalist Jesse Jarnow. ‘Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America’ documents the sprawling American psychedelic underground over the last half-century or thereabouts.

Basing its premise on the loosely connected individuals and groups gathering around rock band the Grateful Dead and their concerts, ‘Heads…’ details how the band and their fans became inextricably linked to LSD distribution from the 1960s through the 1990s.

Jarnow’s background is worth a mention at this point. As well as being a writer (published by The New York Times, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Vice, Village Voice and Wired) and radio DJ, he began his career writing about the Grateful Dead for Dupree’s Diamond News, before spending almost a decade researching ‘Heads…’. Perhaps crucially, his father is longtime ‘Sesame Street’ animator Al Jarnow, through whom young Jarnow Jr. initially encountered several of the individuals mentioned in the book.

We’ve all the usual stories here about the early LSD adopters in the tech world (e.g. ARPANET, John Perry Barlow, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak) and the Freaks (e.g. Ken Kesey, Owsley), but Jarnow chooses to detail initially unlikely and lesser-known facets of the scene too, weaving in more obscure actors such as bootleg tape traders and the graffiti artist cliques of Central Park.

Wearing the author’s love of the subject without coming across as slavish, the book draws primarily on first-hand interviews with subjects including members of the Grateful Dead ‘Family’, LSD chemists, distributors, historians, artists, activists and other Freaks to create a fascinating oral history. Jarnow’s work is consequently refreshing in that it gives voice to many of the ‘unsung heroes’ of the acid scene, preferring to detail hitherto unnoticed players over self-appointed (and over-valued) representatives, such as Tim Leary. However, there is a noticeable lack of coverage of any non-white psychedelic groups, so the book is not to be considered as a comprehensive historical overview of the time.

Nevertheless, having consumed much of the available literature on this and related subjects in my time, I can honestly say that ‘Heads…’ is an undoubtedly well-researched work, with its 480 pages offering in-depth critical analysis alongside some rather juicy bits of drug scene gossip and obscure trivia that I’ve not heard before. Animatedly and enjoyably interconnecting all kinds of collaborating strands of subcultural history, the book’s sweeping narrative draws the reader into an absorbing world of principled idealists, entrepreneurs, religious nut-jobs and utter weirdos!

If you’re into further exploration of this area of the global counterculture, ‘Heads…’ goes on my shelf as a welcome companion piece to other essential works such as Albert Hofmann’s ‘LSD – My Problem Child’ (written by the discoverer of the drug), Andy Roberts’ enthralling ‘Albion Dreaming’ (focusing on the UK scene), Jay Stevens’ ‘Storming Heaven’, Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shain’s ‘Acid Dreams’ and Rhona Gissen Stanley’s ‘Owsley & Me: My LSD Family’.


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