At the tail end Steve Jobs’ now-infamous commencement address at Stanford eleven years ago, he cited an obscure but indispensable publication from his youth.
Jobs noted The Whole Earth Catalog “was all made with typewriters, scissors and Polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along.” The New York Times first reported on it in 1971, noting “It is a lexicon of arcane and practical wisdom telling how to order from the Walter T. Kelly Bee Supply Super Market, where to get ‘The Cultivators Handbook of Marijuana’; how to build a log cabin, play the autoharp, construct a working digital computer for less than $5, and bury the dead. It is both the sorcerer and the apprentice.” Tom Wolfe wrote of its founding by Stewart Brand, “And then one day Brand took some LSD right after the Explorer Satellite went up to photograph the earth, and as the old synapses began rapping around inside his skull, he was struck with one of those questions that inflames men’s brains: Why haven’t we seen a photo of the Whole Earth yet?”
Stewart Brand is one of the first Heads we meet in Jesse Jarnow’s well-researched and crisp volume, Heads. It may not be surprising that The Whole Earth Catalog played a central role in the development of psychedelic culture during the latter half of the twentieth century, but if you agree with the thesis of Heads, which I do, psychedelic drugs played a significant role in the shaping of the entire American landscape. Virtually every area of our lives has been touched by the ritual and sometimes not-so-ritual consumption of psychedelics.
Heads is the endlessly fascinating story of how the distribution of one chemical changed American history. Heads is the story of the Grateful Dead, graffiti, comics, The Internet, and a huge cast of capital H Heads. Last year Rolling Stone reported that an increasing number of Silicon Valley tech workers are taking microdoses of LSD on the job. Not exactly what you think of when you imagine a Head. Have no fear, Heads is full of characters like Owsley Stanley, the longtime sound engineer for the Grateful Dead, and the man who decreed that LSD would forever be cheap. Better yet, free. We have repeated visits from Dealer McDope, the mythological and maybe real source for virtually all LSD for a span of decades. We have Nancy the cross-dressing lyricist for Phish. We have yogurt-makers and scientists, rug weavers and punk rockers, suburban kids and street toughs, academics and drug addicts, and of course the god damned Grateful Dead.
Jarnow’s writing veers from wild spirals of prose to effortlessly simple exposition on every page. Here he is introducing a Head who plays a recurring role in the book: “Sometime around 1983, in a former squat in San Francisco’s Mission, the Institute of Illegal Images does not incorporate, open, or at all announce its existence. Like a fiction of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges–a countryman of the institute’s nonfounder–the strange museum in a three-story Victorian becomes a locus for improbable activity and characters, perhaps the center of underground psychedelia in the 1980s. The collection expands and shrinks at the whims of its proprietor, a flamboyant rogue scholar on the rise named Mark McCloud, who has the tendency to sometimes eat his objects of interest.”
Jarnow’s long career as a music journalist has already seen him publish Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock. (Full disclosure: Jarnow was my editor a few years ago.) Here’s a description of a particularly notable version of the Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star”: “thirty-one minutes of shining free-flight flowing through gentle modal waves and intricate piano runs, shifting and swelling scenes of fiefdoms aflame and high-speed pursuits down wormholes, all brushed in Garcia’s soft-hued wah-wah guitar.” And Jacaeber Kastor’s peyote trip: “Within the hour, all turns sparkling. Suddenly, the peyote is not only easy to find; it’s everywhere, veritably glowing like some strange seabed creature. It’s a splendid night in the desert, and whenever Jacaeber feels the need, he cuts himself another slice of peyote and keeps on a-suckin’. Wonders occur. At one point, Jacaeber leans back and watches the sky as the stars communicate with each other, shooting zaps from one light-point to another, until all of a sudden one zaps earthward and hits Jacaeber Kastor in the head.”
Steve Jobs himself noted “Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life. LSD shows you that there’s another side to the coin, and you can’t remember it when it wears off, but you know it. It reinforced my sense of what was important—creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as I could.”
Heads fits comfortably on the same shelf as Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History or Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses. It is a book for anyone who has ever taken LSD or read a Philip K. Dick novel or felt a strange glow while listening to John Coltrane or gazed amazed at the glowing lights of a strange city. It would be impossible to reference all the illustrious characters in Heads in one article, so know that many more await you between its covers. Like history or an acid trip, Heads is a living organism with each chapter presenting virtually endless opportunities to blesh with existence. As each Head takes his or her turn spinning history, the thesis of The Whole Earth Catalog rings truer and truer: Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.