Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America by Jesse Jarnow, Da Capo, 2016
There is something existential about the Internet. Its essence is exactly what it is while you are using it. Turn away for a few moments and it changes, leaving few traces that it was ever anything else. I taught a course recently that involved placing the Internet in a historical context. The students, most of whom can’t remember a world without smartphones let alone the web, were nonplussed. It used to suck and now it rocks while continuing to move from sucking to rocking. It is almost as though the technology somehow erases its own past for fear that the endless novelty of it all will be revealed. No past, no future. This isn’t like those other inventions that got old and boring, weighed down by their tedious histories. This one will stay young forever!
But the Internet is no different to the printing press, the telegraph, or television. It does have a history with real people and actual places. It will get old. Possibly the most striking feature of Jesse Jarnow’s new book, Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America, is the decidedly historicist take on cyberspace.
History occurs when chronology meets geography. When stuff happens, it happens where it happens. In the mid 1960s, the Pentagon invited the top US academics in the burgeoning computer science field to decentralize the vast amounts of security and sundry information in their increasingly important computer systems. The result was something called the Arpanet that was set up to get the various mainframes talking to each other. So, that was the thing that happened. The ‘where it happened’ is the good part. Berkeley University, mid sixties. While Mario Savio was outside talking about actual revolution, the virtual one was starting inside. Over in Haight Ashbury, across the bridge, Wavy Gravy, Peter Coyote and the other Diggers were challenging received ideas about private property, sexuality, and personal hygiene. And, most significantly according to Jesse Jarnow, Timothy Leary was getting stoned. Really stoned. Oh, and a garage band called The Warlocks were playing their first gig at a pizza place in Menlo Park. More about them later.
Narcotics were popular long before 1965. Nineteenth century Romanticism was fueled by opium, twentieth century Modernism ran on coke. Jean Paul Sartre took so much mescaline that he was having flashbacks involving talking lobsters for years. But in 1943, Albert Hoffman, a Swiss chemist, came up with something he called LSD. He took some, got on his bicycle, and rode, hopefully not in traffic, into history.
Jarnow begins with Hoffman and Aldous Huxley, who was more of a mescaline man but did take a tab on his deathbed. He died on the same day as JFK and CS Lewis, which must have made things very trippy when he got to heaven. A couple of years later, Ken Kesey, in a spectacular act of procrastination while trying to follow up One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, went on the road with The Merry Pranksters. The bus was called Further and was driven by amphetimised motormouth and Beat hero, Neal Cassady. Somewhere along the way to the New York World’s Fair, they stopped at a lake and dropped acid. It’s in the documentary, Magic Bus, and it is funny. Kesey had already tried LSD, of course, as a guinea pig at the Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital. There’s footage of this too. Also funny.
Eventually, Kesey and crew returned to California and began running ‘Acid Test’ parties. A party needs music and The Warlocks, fresh from their tour of suburban pizzerias, were available. They had a new name though because another band, on the east coast, was called The Warlocks. The new name was The Grateful Dead. The other band changed their name too. They became The Velvet Underground.
At the Acid Test and subsequent hallucinatory soirees, The Grateful Dead became acquainted with the man behind all that LSD. Oswald Stanley, a would-be ballet dancer from a posh Kentucky family, produced an estimated 10 million hits of acid in his long career. He also became the Dead’s soundman and archivist. The ‘Bear’, as he was known, is the reason there are so many pristine live Dead recordings from the late 60s. But it is also true to say that an LSD revolution needs a lot of LSD. He did his best and has been called the ‘Henry Ford of hippies’.
Back in cyberspace, things were changing too. In 1969, a student at UCLA sent the first email to Stanford University. The message read, ‘lo’ instead of ‘login’ because, naturally, the system crashed after two letters. Stanford, at the southern end of the San Francisco Bay or ‘Silicon Valley’, was a hot bed of computer science activity at the time. The researchers were really young, really smart, and really keen on tripping. They were listening to The Grateful Dead too and this is where the going started to get weird, as Uncle Hunter might have put it.
As the acid drenched, paisley shirted 60s drifted into the Watergate drenched, leisure suited 70s, these computer dudes (with occasional dudette) took shelter in what Jarnow calls ‘Deadland’, the Grateful Dead’s breakaway state of narcotic bliss. The computer scientists now had the technology to communicate in cyberspace. And what did they talk about? Yes, their favourite band. Many early emails included messages like ‘Are you guys still seeing them at Winterland next month?’ They also involved requests like, “Can you send me the Fillmore East tapes?” Free music on the Internet? Impossible!
In the mid seventies, SAIL (Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory) sought to create an operating system where information could be organized through associative key words to enable ‘online’ searches. Obviously, this was the right direction and the first thing to be ‘posted’ was the complete lyrics of The Grateful Dead. Many of SAIL’s researchers were Deadheads and more than few were hardcore trippers. Down the road in Palo Alto, two guys named Steve were working on something big. They liked acid too but preferred Dylan to the Dead.
But what does it all mean, man? The web has come, at least in theory, to represent an egalitarian network where ideas (and a lot of free music) are shared. That sounds like a Grateful Dead show, doesn’t it? You can make new friends, shop, talk, complain, fall in love, and build a unique identity. That’s what Deadheads did. And do.
Jesse Jarnow is making a case for the LSD community, in general, and the Deadhead community, in particular, as prototypes for the contemporary Internet. It’s a huge call but he builds his case magnificently here. If you are shaking your head skeptically as you read my blog, I promise you won’t be after a couple of hundred pages.
You’ll notice that I have carefully negotiated my way around the phrase ‘long strange trip’ so far but Heads is an epic. Jarnow starts with Hoffman on his bicycle in 1943 and finishes up with the Occupy movement nearly 70 years later. His tone is agreeably wry. LSD is a funny drug and odd things happen when people take it. He is thus more in the school of Wolfe than the Malibu mansion of Didion here.
Heads is a fun book, if predictably loopy at points. It’s not really about music despite the focus on the Dead. His interest in the band seems to be mainly cultural. He spends far too much time on Dead wannabes like the tedious Phish and on charlatans like Terrence McKenna but these are minor quibbles. If you are looking for the link between LSD and the Internet or have ever been curious about the whole Grateful Dead thing, you must read this book. If you’ve already joined the (micro) dots, know how many times they played Dead Star, had a stall selling crystals on Shakedown Street and see your life in terms of pre and post 1995, then you are probably quoted and don’t need to read it.
Teaser: Too many Dead connections to mention. Keith Haring, Al Gore, a café in Katoomba, 9-11, Bernie Sanders, Wikileaks. It’s all the same story, man.
The Grateful Dead on the Festival Express Tour, somewhere in Canada. This is an old blues song. The Dead’s 40 minute ‘space jams’ can be a bit ponderous for the uninitiated. They are at once an overrated and underrated band. This is lovely moment where their folk side is on full display.
This, however, might be more representative!