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Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America


Author: Jesse Jarnow

Publisher: Da Capo Press


Publish Date: March 29, 2016

ISBN-10: 306822555

Pages: 512

File Type: Epub

Language: English

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Book Preface

One fun activity to try at home is to declare a psychedelic renaissance. In the United States today, those words might conjure any number of university-funded research projects demonstrating the extraordinary power of substances like psilocybin and LSD to dissolve cluster headaches or treat posttraumatic stress disorder or provide spiritual well-being in the face of terminal illness.

Perhaps the phrase describes the spread of ayahuasca ceremonies into fashionable urban areas and the realms of cinematic satire. Maybe the words recall the annual slate of conferences and symposiums devoted to the mysteries of LSD, aya, mushrooms, ibogaine, DMT, 2C-B, and other substances, new and old. Or the annual conclaves at Burning Man and elsewhere that provide temporary physical community for a vast and learned psychonautical diaspora. Or new websites that condense the ancient and still mysterious substances into clean-seeming infographics, hashtags, and easily sharable quote-memes.

The phrase, too, is shorthand for the way the perception of psychedelics has gradually changed within American and global culture, transforming from drugs into medicine. The psychedelic renaissance comes supported by solid above-board scientists (no rogue Tim Learys here) and fashion magazines extolling the virtues of a good ayahuasca cleanse to achieve that extra glow, as Elle suggested in 2014. Indeed, when the phrase “psychedelic renaissance” is uttered, it acts (in part) as linguistic incense that might cloak the hairy, unchecked madness of the sixties. It carries the promise that this generation will be different.

Some no longer even use the word “psychedelic”—the term patched together by Humphry Osmond in 1957 from ancient Greek to mean “mind-manifesting”—preferring the nomenclature “entheogen,” spirit manifested within. Others like just plain “sacrament.”

In 2015, Thomas Roberts—the eminent professor responsible for the celebration of Bicycle Day, the anniversary of LSD inventor Albert Hofmann’s first trip—outlined a four-stage model of psychedelic renaissance: medical neuroscientific, spiritual religious, intellectual artistic, and mind design. And although vast strides have been made in all those phases since the turn of the twenty-first century, few outside of the medical-neuroscientific phase have been nearly as remarkable or on as broad a scale as what happened in the half century previous.

Real renaissances (or at least the actual Renaissance) are long. By the early 1970s, psychedelics had already significantly and quantifiably transformed American spirituality, art, music, technology, countless individuals, and society as a whole. Their wide arrival was also a powerful accelerator in the century-running culture war that continues to cleave the American population. To many, the world of psychedelics remains an irresponsible fantasy. Still, the threads have danced around one another for decades, and now Roberts’s four phases have started to align into unity for the first time since the drugs were made illegal in 1966.

Despite its attempt to bypass the past, the psychedelic renaissance didn’t begin when the government again approved laboratory trials for psychedelics in the early twenty-first century, but the moment in the 1950s when psychedelics escaped the laboratory to begin with, ready for open minds. For more than fifty years, psychedelics have circulated through the American body controlled not by doctor or shaman or government agent but by the independent desire of the users (and the ever-gurgling black market). They have never stopped or gone away so much as just taken a while to kick in—and sometimes out.

If one wants to learn how psychedelics might change American society, it is only necessary to study the second half of the twentieth century to see how they already have. Perhaps equally fun as declaring a psychedelic renaissance at home is to set forth on a local anthropological expedition to discover a practitioner or descendent of the United States’ largest psychedelic cult.

For three decades, the California band the Grateful Dead were not so much a religion as a doorway. They and their Deadhead followers provided the space that connected psychedelics to the mainstream narrative, visible evidence both of the drugs’ wondrous catalytic potential and their inherent dangers. This story is a narrative carried by many people, some individual, some in groups, some for short periods, some for long, some consciously, some not, but their codes remain understood among a large segment of the population.

As multiple surveys of American LSD users discovered in the early ’90s—the drug’s post-1960s peak—most are white, and perhaps up to 76 percent are male. That balance is mirrored somewhat in the long arc of the substance’s American history. Which isn’t to say the story of the heads is exclusively male. It was psychedelic-inspired longhaired communard-utopians who began the natural childbirth movement in the United States, for example, and it sure wasn’t the dudes who were responsible. Starting in the 1990s, especially as the psychedelic world came to encompass far more than LSD, the gender balance began to shift again.

Moment by moment, it is a story of how psychedelics—the actual substances—landed and circulated in the bohemian centers of San Francisco and New York, and of the complex secret society that emerged, the shadow economies that came into circulation, and the new sacred practices. And it is a story of how psychedelics—both the idea itself and the ideas they provoked—disseminated into the American consciousness long beyond the sixties, and how these ideas would eventually play out in the daily life of entire regions of the country.

Together, they make an ethnographic comic book history. Some episodes and characters overlap and directly intertwine, many don’t. Exploring the territory in approximated real-time, the inner maps of psychedelia are vast and alluring, but so are the outer ones.


Introduction: The Long Renaissance


1 Humbead’s Revised Map of the World

2 Dead Freaks Unite

3 Beyond the Whole Earth

4 Shakedown Street

5 The Burning Shore


6 This Everlasting Spoof

7 Day of the Dead

8 Wetlands Preserve

9 Through the Looking Glass

10 The Tour from Hell

11 Festival Season

12 How Jerry Got Hip (Again)





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