At the New Yorker website, Hua Hsu write about Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America, a fascinating new book by journalist and radio DJ Jesse Jarnow. As Hsu notes, much has been written about the historical connection between California hippie culture and the libertarian capitalism of Silicon Valley. But Jarnow unearths a different lineage of hippie culture, one intimately connected to the liberatory potential of psychedelics. This lineage envisions freedom from work, the market, and government repression. Here’s an excerpt from Hsu’s piece:
“Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America,” a meticulously researched new book by the journalist and radio d.j. Jesse Jarnow, attempts to complicate and extend the history of psychoactive drugs in this country. Jarnow details the emergence of a psychedelic sensibility in the sixties and seventies, a sensibility given coherence by the music of the Grateful Dead, whose visions of a cosmic Americana would inspire religious levels of devotion, and by networks of LSD advocates and distributors. Jarnow builds this history as a ground-up affair, toggling between the boldface names and forgotten visionaries, low-level dealers, failed entrepreneurs, and Deadhead computer programmers. Jarnow himself was too young to experience the sixties firsthand, but this distance lends his investigation a kind of innocent verve. He is vigilant in his attempt to understand the idealism of the past on its own terms, and to regard the “head”—the archetypal, open-minded sixties explorer—as someone whose skepticism toward power structures and authority might still resonate with us today. It’s just that, back then, such an explorer might have found a little more help along the way …
Inquiries into the drug’s therapeutic potential have had something of a resurgence lately, as Michael Pollan wrote about for this magazine last year; just last week, researchers in England released images of the neural activity of patients who were tripping on LSD. And, of course, recreational use persists. Even so, as I read Jarnow’s chapter on the innocent, halcyon days of LSD experimentation, the mid-sixties started to feel further away than the seventeen-hundreds. It was easy to understand the central players’ ambitions—their visions of freedom aren’t so different from ours—but it was nearly impossible to imagine the world they found themselves in; I kept anticipating the nation’s inexorable tilt back toward its Puritan roots, its choice of law and order over mind expansion. Reading history sometimes requires us to briefly pretend that we don’t know what happens next, so that we can genuinely grasp that another future was once possible. This is hard to do. A sadly ominous feeling descends, for instance, when Jarnow describes a January, 1967, conference on psychedelics at San Francisco State University, which brought together scientists, therapists, and assorted idealists. The following year, LSD would be outlawed.
Perhaps it was entirely predictable that that spirit of adventure and communalism would be tamed. Jarnow discusses the tension between “hip economics”—the underground economy of barter and subsistence propped up by the drug trade—and “hip capitalism,” which borrowed the vibes of the sixties idealists in order to market countercultural cool. And he’s reluctant to give up hope on the former, even though the latter has emphatically triumphed: “Until a head can invent something so wonderful that it transcends money,” he writes, “American currency will act on the hip economy like gravity, keeping the new alternate universe tethered to the traditional United States and reality at large.” The most vivid thread that runs through “Heads” is the one that follows this divide, between the sometimes deadening rhythms of the real world and the enduring fantasies of something different.
Image: A dancer at a Los Angeles “acid test” in 1966. Via the New Yorker.