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I’m always up for a good yarn about someone’s psychedelic adventure. There’s been many a night I’ve spent with other psychedelic rangers that have turned into the intrepid trippers version of a bunch of drunks at a bar trading stories. For those who know of what I speak, you know what I mean. Bad trips, good trips, and crazy trips and so on, the well-told LSD tale can be anything but boring. This means, of course, that they can also be boring. Jesse Jarnow, in his new book Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America, is both. There are moments in the text that are intriguing and well-told and there are moments where the mind drifts, wondering why the author is spending as much time as he is on the subject.
To be fair, Jarnow is undertaking a very big task in this book. Trying to chronicle a scene as broad and diverse as that suggested in the title means some aspects will either not be covered or not covered with the same depth as others. Jarnow is no exception to this general precept. Consequently, Heads focuses primarily on the aspects of the history he knows the best. Like other books on the subject of LSD and the culture around it (Jay Stevens’ Storming Heaven being my favorite), Heads lays the groundwork at the beginning of the text by discussing the discovery of LSD, a growing awareness and experimentation with psychedelics by the scientific, intelligence communities and Hollywood, and providing context regarding the subcutlures growing around their use, Jarnow spends most of the rest of the book talking about the psychedelic community centered around The Grateful Dead. While it is probably true that more LSD was bought and sold in the Grateful Dead “world” than any other subculture the past fifty years, there were still a lot of people tripping who had no use for the band, its music or its fans. Still, it’s a great and engaging tale put down in these pages.
In telling his story, Jarnow reaches into the world we now call cyberspace, tying those developers and computer geeks who were also acid-eating Deadheads into the community of heads he is describing. He also writes about the New York art world connections to the scene and the role played by a small community of New York graffiti artists. Consistently apolitical in his approach, the only politics that come through in the text are at best libertarian in the computer geek sense of the word. In other words, what began as an attempt by individuals to create a culture based in mutual aid became one often more interested in selfishly getting high and rich. While I believe this detracts from the completeness of the history, the fact is that many LSD outlaws and Deadheads do not perceive themselves as political in the sense of joining a leftist sect or even voting that often. Indeed, neither did many of those known as Beats and hippies. Consequently, Jarnow’s perspective may ultimately be more accurate than those of us who tell the history through an obviously political viewfinder.
Returning to the first paragraph of this essay, I want to remind the reader that everyone has their own version of how the shit went down. Jarnow’s book is one version. There are incidents and moments he writes about where my memory is almost the same. There are other times when my understanding could not be more different. There are personalities he describes that sound like people I knew and know from the community of heads chronicled in the book. These could be the same folks or they could be someone completely different. Given the fluidity of people’s names in the subculture of LSD dealing and use, this is no surprise. Most dealers and producers I knew never used their given names. After all, numerous law enforcement agencies were after them and their business.
As I note above, the story begins like many other tales of mind expansion in the twentieth century: Albert Hoffman and Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, to name just a few. The emphasis at that point was on the spiritual and psychological, the discovery of human potential and the joy of life. By the time the story is over, much of it has become one of excess and profits. Like the history of the band most identified with psychedelic use in the United States if not the world—The Grateful Dead—the history of those who dispensed the elixir of the festivities is one where the capitalist pursuit of profit becomes much more of the story than the ethos of community, ecstasy and the exploration of the mind it began with.
Buzz Poole brings us back to the time before capitalism consumed the counterculture; the musical and cultural moment when the Grateful Dead reluctantly accepted the mantle as the horse pulling the wagon full of hippies, freaks, outlaws and others through the darkness of the world of power, war, and greed. His little book, which is part of Bloomsbury’s excellent 33 1/3 Series of texts dedicated to individual albums and songs by rock, jazz, blues and country artists, is titled Workingman’s Dead after the Grateful Dead album of the same name. Poole, a rock critic and journalist who discovered the band in the early 1990s, has put together an intellectually astute explication of the album. Briefly introducing the historical circumstances of the time it was released—in the greater world, in the counterculture, and within the band itself—Poole discusses the musical and lyrical sources that inspired the band’s work. From the hollers of Appalachia to the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; from the ballrooms of San Francisco to the Illinois Central Line with Casey Jones, from Odin to Owsley, the Grateful Dead pulled their tales from a wealth of legends, myths and experiences—earthly and otherwise.
Poole does an excellent job in pulling together the diverse and multiple musical, folk and literary influences apparent in the songs on Workingman’s Dead (and most other Dead albums, too.) In his discussion he also provides the reader with insight into the various doings of the band members and the crew. Naturally, there can be no exploration of any band with the Dead’s influence at the time that did not at least mention the cultural and political turmoil: the war in Vietnam and the movement against it, the racial conflict, the authoritarianism of the US and California governments, and even the serial killer known as the Zodiac Killer. Poole weaves this context into his song-by-song explication of the album Hunter S. Thompson wrote about in his classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “If the Grateful Dead came to town, I’d beat my way in with a fucking tire iron, if necessary. I think Workingman’s Dead is the heaviest thing since Highway 61 and “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
Together, these two texts open a door to a subculture and its consciousness. Between Jar now’s detailed reportage and Poole’s insightful analysis, the reader cannot help but come away with a better understanding of an important and oft-disparaged late twentieth-century subculture and the primary musical entity that informed, responded to and entertained it.