May 12, 2016


Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America. By Jesse Jarnow. Da Capo. $27.99.

     Fans of the Grateful Dead will be delighted to learn that they are the most important cultural influence the United States has had in the last half century. At least that is the impression that Jesse Jarnow offers in Heads, an exhaustively researched and often entertaining look at America as Psychedelic Central that starts from the premise that the members of the Grateful Dead – and the band’s followers – were and still are at the epicenter of pretty much everything societally interesting. “The Dead’s music makes a particularly good soundtrack for long highway miles as groupminds get together and keep the cosmic fire aflicker and the joints lit, because there’s something coming. There’s always something coming.” That pretty much encapsulates Jarnow’s thesis as well as his style, the latter being so determinedly with-it that it sometimes hovers on the edge of self-parody: “The biggest city in psychedelic America is a portable bopping skyline on the horizon. The little municipality moves from town to town, bringing drugs and access points to numerous alternative social networks.”

     Jarnow takes the Dead very seriously, and he truly believes their impact is omnipresent, even attributing today’s use of emoji to Dead influence and what Jarnow deems to be the victory of the psychedelic revolution. That this is over the top goes without saying – well, not really, since Jarnow says it, but it is often as entertaining as it is overdone. Jarnow does a really fine job as a pop historian of figures both well-known (Ken Kesey) and known well only in limited areas (Owsley Stanley [“Bear”], 1935-2011, Bay Area audio engineer and central mover of the San Francisco hippie movement in the 1960s). Heads sprawls by design and sometimes, it seems, of its own volition, as Jarnow probes the interrelationship of psychedelic drugs and Grateful Dead music with American culture as a whole and the birth of the Internet in particular. The book’s very casual voice belies the clearly careful research that Jarnow has done, including a genuinely impressive number of interviews with key figures in the psychedelic movement in general and the Dead’s milieu specifically. Jarnow in fact comes across as so committed a Deadhead that anyone not within that particular purview is likely to be confused or put off from time to time – actually a lot of the time, since the book is crammed with insider language, references clear only to those already in the know, and a general sense of hipster cool that you either share before reading or will find it impossible to acquire within these 468 pages.

     The fact is that a lot of Heads reads like a stoner memoir, with Jarnow writing as if he has been up all night while sampling a variety of the substances he is writing about – and whether this is true or merely his authorial persona is beside the point. The style is the substance here, to a great degree, even if Jarnow seems never to have heard of Marshall McLuhan (he never mentions him, in any case). Thus, the frequently revelatory cultural analysis is available only to readers who are willing and able to accept Jarnow’s meandering, discursive, tangent-filled narrative at face value and, um, “go with the flow.” There is so much of the Dead here that Jarnow’s forays into discussing intriguing and less-known elements of psychedelia-spawned culture get short shrift. It would have been nice, for example, to know more about New York’s street-art-focused Parkies and the use of psychedelics by many of the founders of what is now the technology-permeated Silicon Valley. The fact that Jarnow brings up these elements of the psychedelic subculture (or culture) at all is a strength of the book; the fact that he passes over them rather lightly, while dwelling at such great length on all things Deadhead, is a weakness.

     It is absolutely necessary to accept and revel in Jarnow’s trivia-and-reference-packed style in order to get the most from Heads. “Spinning is their meditation. The lyrics of Robert Hunter, as passed through the soul of Garcia, are their texts. But even more fundamental is Garcia’s guitar playing, his note-clusters direct translations of the Logos, as valuable and real as what Terrence McKenna speaks of when describing his DMT experiences. It’s Jerry, the Spinners know.” To those for whom this sort of writing is immediately comprehensible and even profound, Heads will be revelatory and immensely involving. To those for whom it is abstruse, self-indulgent and preoccupied with minutiae, Heads will come across as much ado about – well, not “nothing,” because there is really a great deal of information here, a lot of it fascinating, but much ado about much less than Jarnow strives so mightily to deem deeply significant.

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