In this episode of The Third Wave Podcast, we speak to Jesse Jarnow, author of Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America. Jesse talks about his experiences growing up with drug prohibition, psychedelic literature and the Grateful Dead. We hear about Jesse’s favourite moments in the psychedelic history of America, and we find out how musicians, artists and chemists contributed to the psychedelic culture of the 1960s and 70s. Jesse also gives us his opinion on the prospects of the growing psychedelic movement in America.
Jesse’s interest in psychedelics began in high school, with the music of the Grateful Dead and psychedelic literature such as Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Jesse’s parents were ‘counter-culture types’, so never discouraged him from using psychedelics; but knowing more about psychedelics than the average teenager made him more cautious about their use. Jesse could see right through the typical high school anti-drug propaganda, leading him to find the real answers in literature.
Jesse became interested in traditional psychedelic practices, such as the Ancient Greeks’ suspected use of psychoactive ergot fungus in secretive rituals; highlighted in Gordon Wasson’s The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries. Traditional Peyote use in Central America was another root of psychedelic history that Jesse became familiar with. Free access to psychedelics in North America started with the spread of Peyote in the 1950s, through improved interstates and postal infrastructure. Peyote was being sent around the country, but was also being sold over the counter in places like the Dollar Sign Café in the East Village, NYC, by a libertarian called Barron Bruchlos. Places like this became a hotspot for musicians and artists, and helped the spread of a new psychedelic community.
Peyote was also very influential in shaping the coming wave of psychedelic counter-culture; Aldous Huxley wrote ‘The Doors of Perception’ based on his experiences with the plant, before the word ‘psychedelic’ had even been coined. Huxley had a huge influence on the spread of psychedelics; and despite Huxley telling the Harvard researcher Timothy Leary that he thought psychedelics should be kept to a privileged few, Leary was instrumental in starting the spread of LSD across the US in the 60s.
Timothy Leary’s famous words (‘Turn on, tune in, drop out’), said as part of the transition of LSD from the Harvard research program to the mainstream, was a big turning point in psychedelic America. But the arrival of black market LSD did as much to turn the tide as Leary did. Owsley Stanley, the first producer of huge batches of LSD in 1965, was also the Grateful Dead’s first patron. This meant that Grateful Dead gigs became a mecca for anyone in the LSD community; where the Grateful Dead went, the wholesale LSD network went. By the early 1970s, the Grateful Dead were an ad-hoc national distribution network for LSD.
The psychedelic community that sprang up as a result of LSD availability was a strong community. Although that counter-culture may seem to be founded on rebellion or law breaking, it was more about spiritual validation and personal connection.
Jesse mentions some of his favourite stories of the psychedelic history of America. Firstly, a group of young graffiti artists and drug smugglers in New York – basically a group of runaway teens who were connecting the LSD black market to the East coast. It’s interesting that this undercurrent of youth culture was driving the psychedelic movement, even up to the 90s, without interruption. Jesse’s other favourite story involves Sarah Matzer, an ‘acid cook’, who was responsible for making LSD crystal consumable by putting it on blotter paper or in tablets. She was also connected to the art world, in that her cooking funded her textile art and her Masters studies in anthropology. It’s an interesting contrast to the typical opinion of the average drug supplier at the time.
Finally, Jesse wonders about the future of psychedelic culture. He thinks that the crypto-market will be an important factor in how psychedelics are seen, combined with the increase in information flow through social media. He foresees a large-scale liberation and a new civil rights movement, with more understanding and acceptance of many previously marginalised issues.
Jesse showed us an inspiring and hopeful view of the psychedelic culture in the US, and it gives us reason to believe that the future is bright for The Third Wave of psychedelics.
Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America – Jesse Jarnow’s exploration of the psychedelic culture in America.
The Grateful Dead official website – The band that became the mainstream of psychedelic counter-culture.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test – Tom Wolfe’s account of Ken Kesey’s psychedelic club in the 1960s.
Gordon Wasson’s The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries – discusses the Ancient Greek’s possible use of psychoactive plants in a secretive initiation ritual.
Stephen Siff’s ‘Acid Hype: American News Media and the Psychedelic Experience’ – an account of media coverage of psychedelics, tracing the public shift in attitude between the 40s and the 70s.
Aldous Huxley’s ‘The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell’ – published in 1956, this was one of the earliest Western accounts of the psychedelic experience, before the word ‘psychedelic’ came into being.
More information on Timothy Leary – former Harvard researcher, he became a figurehead of the counter-culture movement and was instrumental in the spread of LSD.