Book Review: Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America by Jesse Jarnow

I find it difficult to criticize this book because I can appreciate the good intentions of the author, but criticize it I must.  It could have been so much more than it is.  It purports to be a history of the psychedelic movement in America and abroad, but it really is a history of Grateful Dead fandom.  And that’s not even the main problem.

Why should I care? you might ask.  Well, I’ve made no secret in my books and essays that when I left Seattle for Santa Clara University in the San Francisco Bay area in the early 1970s, I plunged headlong into the hippy drug culture.  I went to Grateful Dead concerts in the city.  I smoked a lot of weed. I dropped acid and mescaline and psilocybin.  The drugs messed me up – messed me up bad.  I kept taking them, though, hoping that the temporary pseudo-enlightenment you get on some trips would somehow translate into a deeper understanding of the universe, life, existence – something.  Later, after a long gap during which I somewhat recovered, I had some more positive experiences with hallucinogens while traveling in the East.

The point is, I am always on the lookout for books that offer insight into the confusing era I lived through, and so when I read about this book online I ordered it immediately.  Unfortunately, it does not deliver as advertised.  It’s interesting; the author did his research homework.  But it does not offer any sort of comprehensive look at the psychedelic scene as it evolved in the United States.  It’s not thorough; it skips around too quickly from one snippet of information to the next.  It hardly gives a perfunctory glance at Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters; it mentions them only a few times in passing.  It scarcely deals with Timothy Leary and his influence either.  As I mentioned, it almost exclusively highlights the Grateful Dead and their influence on the psychedelic scene – which was not inconsiderable.  Many other sixties bands that were also of inestimable importance are not mentioned at all.

Even in the narrow confines within which the author has consigned it, the book is brim-full of fascinating information, but there is another problem.  It is told in present tense in an idiosyncratic hip style that obscures the clarity of the writer’s voice.  History does not work well in present tense, and this book is supposedly a history.  Additionally, complex material works best when it is presented in a simple, straightforward manner, and yet the convoluted, self-conscious voice in this narrative does nothing but obscure the content.  I really wanted to understand everything that the author was trying to present, but sometimes it was so hard to make sense of it, as if a lens I was trying to look through was all fogged up.  I almost gave up several times, but I persevered because I really wanted to read the story.

There’s one other problem: the flippant style gives the reader the impression that psychedelics are harmless fun, like snacks at a never ending party – but they aren’t.  They seriously messed up a lot of people.  Many Dead-heads ended up in prison as a result of dealing them.  Jerry Garcia, the lead guitarist of the Dead, ended up as a heroin addict and died young.  A lot of fans took heroin regularly too, to help them come down off the acid, and got addicted.  I can’t discount the possibility that psychedelics helped open up young people to the counterculture back in the 60s and 70s, but eventually the psychedelics themselves became the delusion, not the answer.

It’s a complex subject, and I am oversimplifying. Behind the flippant banter of the book’s narrative voice, however, it is clear that the head scene in America was not the idyllic wonderland that is ostensibly presented in this and other books and films.  It was a time of soul-searching and hope and aspirations and dreams, but it was also a time of delusion and confusion and violence and betrayal.  As the author brings out, most of those involved in the psychedelic scene were young white males.  Women and blacks and Hispanics and other racial groups and minorities had their own problems to deal with.

So, would I recommend this book?  For those into the Grateful Dead and the psychedelic scene, perhaps.  For those interested in the history of the psychedelic movement in America, though, I can’t help thinking that there must be clearer, more comprehensive books out there.

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