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A Biography of Psychedelic America
By Jesse Jarnow
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Drawing on extensive new firsthand accounts from many never-before-interviewed subjects and a wealth of deep archival research, music writer and WFMU DJ Jesse Jarnow takes readers on a panoramic tour of a comic-book-colored American landscape. And with psychedelic research moving into the mainstream for the first time in decades, Heads also recounts the story of the quiet entheogenic revolution that for years has been brewing resiliently in the Dead’s Technicolor shadow.
Featuring over four dozen images, Heads weaves one of the 20th and 21st centuries’ most misunderstood subcultures into the fabric of the nation’s history.
HUMBEAD’S REVISED MAP OF THE WORLD
The cafe is identified by the monkeys in the window and the metal shape wrapped in tin foil dangling over the Manhattan side street. People around the East Village call the place the Dollar Sign. Peter Stampfel hears that sometimes the monkeys can be seen fucking in their cage, though he never verifies this. One day in late 1959, however, the young folk musician goes inside to determine the truthfulness of the sign advertising peyote for sale.
The hallucinogenic cactus has been around the Village for a few years, though not exactly available. “The cool thing to do when I got to New York was to take peyote and go see [the Brazilian film] Black Orpheus,” remembers Stampfel, then a fresh-faced twenty-one-year-old transplant from Wisconsin. He’d heard about the visionary plant from a classmate and soon read Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem Howl, written partially under the influence of peyote few years earlier. But Peter Stampfel had never been able to get any for himself. It is for this reason that both he and the Dollar Sign’s owner are pioneers, exemplars of two new kinds of humans: a modern psychedelic drug buyer and a modern psychedelic drug dealer. The advertised goods aren’t illegal, but, for the first time, they are on the loose.
Inside the cafe, Stampfel would believe the story about the monkeys. The proprietor is a large man, burly and bearded. Despite the fact that it’s November, the man is also barefoot. Stampfel remembers Barron Bruchlos as “a psychotic, crazed Ayn Rand guy.” Hence the tin foil–wrapped dollar sign. The owner splits a pay phone outside into three separate extensions, two for his adjacent cafes on East Sixth Street and one to his nearby basement apartment. The twenty-seven-year-old Bruchlos—a Harvard man, actually—is a true entrepreneur and right at home in Manhattan’s East Village, a neighborhood of freethinkers. The poet Allen Ginsberg’s place, a perpetual node on several dozen underground networks, is a few blocks away.
The hallucinogenic cactus peyote had surfaced several times in the Village since the turn of the twentieth century, usually leaving its mark in the form of one or two chaotic but isolated bohemian parties. After the gang at the San Remo bar discovered they could order it cash on delivery from a pair of companies in Laredo, Texas, it circulated semiwidely throughout the neighborhood. A legendary all-night Halloween bash ensued. It was through the San Remo crowd that Allen Ginsberg had turned on before writing Howl. And this is how the Dollar Sign’s Barron Bruchlos gets his peyote, too, mail ordering from Laredo, grinding it up, and repackaging it for sale like the enterprising fellow he is.
From Bruchlos, Peter Stampfel purchases a bundle of the molasses-colored double-O capsules—one peyote button per cap—brings them home, and splits them with his roommate. They hang out for a while and eventually Stampfel lies down. “I hadn’t really closed my eyes up to this point,” he says. Then he does.
“The closed-eye hallucinations were the most beautiful shit I’d ever seen in my life. I was very fixated on the combination of blue and green, and had a long period of blue and green interactions which were of an awesome, devastating, constantly changing beauty. At a point it changed to purple and orange in a combination that I’d never really considered. It made all the great art I’d seen in my life seem second rate.”
One part of Stampfel’s experience is very new; another is very, very old. Peyote and its plant relatives have been in active use in North America for millennia, most recently in northeastern Mexico and the Trans-Pecos area of Texas by groups with well-established practices. Though the westward spread of European occupiers has done much to suppress indigenous settlers, a network of Native American peyote groups thrives. Across the Rio Grande, the Mexican town of Nuevo Laredo sustains itself predominantly on its income from peyote sales, partly mail order but mostly to branches of the Native American Church. Westerners have consumed it on occasion for centuries, including Civil War prisoners who distilled it into a drink in lieu of whiskey, as well in numerous patent medicines, but none reacted the way Peter Stampfel and his friends do.
The British physiologist W. E. Dixon’s 1899 account of his own unguided mescal journey, however, meshes perfectly what happens to Peter Stampfel in his East Village apartment sixty years later: “After sitting with closed eyes subjectively examining the color visions, on suddenly opening them for a brief space one seems to be a different self, as on waking from a dream we pass into a different world from that in which we have been.”
The place Peter Stampfel has just returned from has been there forever, though it is not often that visitors stumble in without a guide. There is no one to tell him what he just saw. There is no one to tell him what to do. For Peter Stampfel and others like him, it is an empty shore in a seemingly unsettled place.
Just a few years earlier, the psychiatrist Humphry Osmond created the term “psychedelic”—“mind-manifesting”—from ancient Greek. Though it wasn’t immediately clear, the word described a concept as old as society, a continent-skipping chronological path from the kykeon-gobbling Greeks of the Eleusinian mystery cult to the ayahuasca brewers in South American jungles. In these places and elsewhere, substance-induced transcendental experiences formed the center of important societal functions for generations.
By the time Peter Stampfel eats peyote and Barron Bruchlos’s customers at the Dollar Sign are tripping their way through sleepy Greenwich Village, psychedelics are sprouting across the Cold War landscape like miniature Technicolor mushroom clouds. Experiments brew everywhere. In 1938, the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann had stumbled on his own entry into the cosmos via lysergic acid diethylamide, LSD-25, which he ingested for the first time five years later. Unclear about its correct usage from the very start, pharmaceutical company Sandoz had marketed it to psychologists in hopes they might find one. From there, it leaks into the broader world.
The British philosopher Aldous Huxley had set off an interest in mind experimentation with his 1953 book The Doors of Perception, his own first trip report with mescaline. Word of LSD, mushrooms, and other psychedelics spread through the major media over the course of the 1950s. It is entirely possible that Barron Bruchlos learned how to get peyote in the pages of the underground publication known as Life magazine, circulation 5,700,000, which had published an improbable and mostly true account of the American banker R. Gordon Wasson’s psilocybin escapades in Mexico.
In response to Wasson’s Life cover story, “The Discovery of Mushrooms That Cause Strange Visions,” a reader named Jane Ross writes in about the goods she, too, had acquired via mail order from Laredo. “Sirs: I’ve been having hallucinatory visions accompanied by space suspension and time destruction in my New York City apartment for the past three years,” she writes. Another magazine discovers that, for a time, it’s even possible to acquire mescaline as an over-the-counter patent medicine without a prescription at a chain drugstore in Manhattan, though there is little evidence anyone makes good on this.
But LSD, with its eight-to-twelve hours of tripping time and minuscule dose size, is a special object of interest to many. Since 1951, the rogue Captain Al Hubbard has repurposed supplies for his own use, seeding projects that use the drug to treat alcoholism and guiding hand-selected initiates through their first experiences. The CIA diddles with acid and mind control in its supersecret MKUltra program, with psychedelics shooting out to VA hospitals and irresponsible agents across the country. Not long before Peter Stampfel’s first peyote excursion at the Dollar Sign, heartthrob Cary Grant appeared in Look, testifying to the healing power of LSD. Mind-manifestation is afoot in these United States.
Peter Stampfel’s experience differs from all who came before in one crucial way: he’d sought no special pass to acquire his psychedelics. Before the Dollar Sign and its nameless Village brethren, one had to qualify in some way—by tribal affiliation, forward-thinking therapist, social network, the knowledge of that certain PO box in Laredo, or sheer determination. The peyote had simply manifested itself in Peter Stampfel’s path, in his neighborhood.
All he’d done was navigate Manhattan’s chilly November avenues to 306 East Sixth Street, duck into the Dollar Sign, hand a few dollars to Bruchlos, and walk out, no questions asked. He can even go back. For perhaps the first time in known human history, psychedelics are readily available to the customer who might wish to acquire them. Stampfel discovers that there’s LSD around and mescaline, too.
There is a word for people like Stampfel, something that distinguishes him from the general population. It had slipped into the language in a 1952 Time magazine story. “I’m higher than a giraffe’s toupee,” an eighteen-year old Hollywood girl told police when she was arrested for smoking pot. “Everybody’s a head now,” she clarified for a reporter the next day. “One out of every five persons you meet on the street are heads.”
“Hop heads” has been in pejorative circulation since the turn of the century. But lately the varieties multiply with a quickness. In the East Village, there are pot heads, amphetamine heads, meth heads, and relentless dabblers like Stampfel who require no prefix to describe their inclinations.
Carrying this basic initiation code, the heads connect and reconnect across a bohemian circuit of folk clubs, coffee houses, music shops, bookstores, shared apartments, and crash pads established by poets and guitar slingers before them. It sprawls from the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco’s North Beach to college scenes like Dinkytown in Minneapolis and the ivy byways of Cambridge.
Peter Stampfel ping-pongs across the continent on his way to recording songs that will carry the psychedelic word to the people. He’s in Los Angeles for a little while, San Francisco, New York, San Francisco again, playing the clubs wherever he goes. He recalls a joke going around to describe the closeness of the coasts: “Three beatniks get into a car in North Beach and one of them says, ‘Let me sit on the outside, I’m getting off at MacDougal Street.’” The United States becomes a Mad magazine fold-in.
By early 1960, the Dollar Sign is in full swing. At eight dollars for one hundred buttons COD from Laredo, turned into caps and sold for sixty to eighty cents each, proprietor Barron Bruchlos clears a fantastic profit. “Do you want coffee or peyote?” he greets his customers.
It’s not long before the Food and Drug Administration catches up with the Dollar Sign, sending in undercover agents to buy peyote and then raiding the place. Even though Bruchlos points out the Department of Agriculture seals of approval on his boxes, proving their legality, the agents haul away some 145 capsules and 311 pounds of peyote. No charges are filed, nor does the government make the legal basis of the seizure clear, but a story runs on the UPI wire, popping from papers around the country: “‘Lay Off Peyote,’ Beatniks Warned.”
Word reaches the anthropologist and peyote specialist Weston La Barre at Duke University. He soon visits Bruchlos’s newest coffee shop, the Dollar Sign having shut down, and interviews the peyote dealing Bruchlos in his nearby basement abode. If La Barre expects to observe the first stirrings of a colonial psychedelic culture in an East Village basement, he is disappointed—but also looking in the wrong apartment.
The objectivist coffee shop owner complains to La Barre of being ripped off by unscrupulous characters who buy his peyote capsules in bulk and resell them through classified ads in college newspapers. Before La Barre can communicate further, though, Bruchlos is found dead in his basement bedroom.
“Natural causes,” the police conclude, but Bruchlos is twenty-eight, and no one quite believes that, including Bruchlos’s father. Peter Stampfel hears that it was suicide and a suitably bizarre and grisly one at that, involving (ugh) pencils jammed up the nose. Like the rumors about the monkeys, Peter Stampfel could believe this, too.
But more and more catch on to the business end of psychedelics. There is obviously demand. A black market begins to thrive around college campuses. One chemical supply house in New York sells peyote-derived mescaline to students for thirty-five dollars a gram, more than four times the trade price. LSD-dosed sugar cubes turn up around Harvard Square for a dollar each. In New York, a pair of British expatriates named John Beresford and Michael Hollingshead order a supply of LSD directly from Albert Hofmann at the Sandoz laboratories where the substance was invented two decades previous, batch H-00047. Hollingshead mixes it with confectioner’s sugar in a mayonnaise jar, creating a thick paste that contains about 5,000 hits.
After fifteen hours spent tripping on a Greenwich Village roof and a subsequent correspondence with Aldous Huxley, Hollingshead makes his way to Massachusetts. There, at Huxley’s recommendation, he looks up the thirty-nine-year-old professor Timothy Leary, whose Harvard Psychedelic Project solidifies Cambridge’s spot on the coalescing map of psychedelic America.
The previous summer in Mexico, Leary had been introduced to mushrooms and, not long after his return, initiated the project. He’d had Allen Ginsberg over for a visit, who soon burst down the stairs naked, proclaiming himself God and raving of a network of interconnected minds.
The poet plots to turn on the cream of the underground, from bebop pianists to abstract expressionists. Leary and his partners will make more credible scientific progress. Hollingshead’s arrival with LSD will throw chaos into the project, but not yet.
On Good Friday 1962, the Harvard Psychedelic Project produces what becomes known as the Miracle at Marsh Chapel, a double-blind experiment to test the reliability of mushrooms as a source of spiritual ecstasy in those predisposed to religious experiences. Encouraged at first by psychedelic elder Aldous Huxley, there is a brief period of careful elitism. The well-respected, well-heeled Huxley, too, especially encourages Michael Murphy and Richard Price’s Esalen Institute on the Pacific cliffs of Big Sur.
In the wild, the heads continue their own investigations. By the turn of the decade, there is evidence of small LSD cults flowering in the Pacific Northwest, using the drug similarly to peyote. “The participants do not belong to the American Indian race, and this gives rise to understandable concern and protests,” reads one police report. Disconnected pockets of psychedelic users emerge and a terminology arises. “A ‘good head’ must always say he is ready to take the drug again, although not necessarily immediately,” concludes a chapter on black market LSD users published in 1964. Reads another chapter in the same study, “Hallucinogen users are recognized as propounding special values in their drug use—values which set them apart from the common herd and which, we infer, are hardly shared by the police.”
But the practices and beliefs of the American drug religion are still working themselves out. There are brief vogues for morning glory seeds (true, if one takes the right kind) and smoked banana peels (bogus) and the ever-witchy Atropa belladonna, better known as deadly nightshade. Recalls Peter Stampfel, “This one friend of mine took some belladonna once and he was walking down the street and he started having a conversation with a parking meter and, after a couple of sentences, the parking meter looked at him and said, ‘You know too much.’”
“The only person I ever met who enjoyed belladonna was Steve Weber,” Stampfel says of his drug-taking match the pair’s brand-new folk duo the Holy Modal Rounders, formed in 1963. When they meet, the two play music for three days straight. In Weber’s memory, they are on Benzedrex inhalers. In Stampfel’s, it’s crystal methedrine. They are the first band of a new breed, overtly inspired by both Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and drugs. Peter Stampfel becomes the first person to use the word “psychedelic” in a recorded song. Released on the Holy Modal Rounders’ self-titled debut on Folkways in early 1964, their take on “Hesitation Blues” adds the word to the new musical lexicon.
“It was important to me,” Stampfel says of getting the term onto an LP. “I believed, like a bunch of other people, that if Kennedy and Khrushchev took some LSD together, we’d have world peace forever.”
Not long after the Holy Modal Rounders’ album comes out, Stampfel and Weber are drafted into a new band that is rehearsing at the soon-to-open Peace Eye Bookstore near Tompkins Square Park. The Fugs will champion drugs and many other provocative ideas. One of the Fugs’ founders, Ed Sanders, is the editor of Fuck You / a magazine of the arts, churned out from a Speed-O-Print mimeograph at Sanders’s Secret Location on Avenue A.
“A CALL TO ACTION” reads the first page of issue #10, published in the spring of 1964, written out in Sanders’s hieroglyphic-inspired calligraphy. “STOMP OUT THE MARIJUANA LAWS FOREVER.”
“INTO THE OPEN!” part of the text reads. “ALL THOSE WHO SUCK UP THE BENEVOLENT NARCOTA MARIJUANA, TEEENSHUN! FORWARD, WITH MIND DIALS POINTED: ASSAULT! We have the facts! Cannabis is a non-addictive gentle peace drug! The Marijuana legislations were pushed through in the 1930’s by the agents and goonsquads of the jansenisto-manichaean fuckhaters’ Conspiracy. Certainly, after 30 years of the blight, it is time to rise up for a bleep blop bleep assault on the social screen.”
The Fugs sing about LSD on their first album, too, in a song called “Couldn’t Get High,” but their forte is vast palette of transcendent obscenity and radicalism rendered as slop folk and poetry. Their songs are for heads by heads.
Along with Sanders, the band’s other singer is Tuli Kupferberg, an old-school bohemian hero of Ginsberg’s Howl, who (in Ginsberg’s breathless descriptor) “jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown.”
Around the Village, the otherworldly Kupferberg is best known for his self-published book 1001 Ways to Live Without Working. Allen Ginsberg will dub him “the world’s oldest living hippie.” There have always been heads. But now, at the Peace Eye Bookstore, in communal apartments, in the pages of Paul Krassner’s zine the Realist, the newly launched East Village Other, and elsewhere, they start to shape an identity of their own, something that distinguishes them from being simply serial drug abusers. Though some of them are that, too.
NOBODY CONFESSES TO inviting Ken Kesey to speak in front of 15,000 antiwar marchers on the UC Berkeley campus in mid-October 1965. Today’s words, some of the most prescient Kesey will ever utter, are not about psychedelics, except that they are, pointing the way to a new frontier. The writer has been speaking publicly about his drug use since not long after the wild success of his 1962 debut novel, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, whose first pages were written under the influence of peyote. In 1964, while Freedom Summer voter registration drives unfolded in the South, Kesey and his Merry Pranksters had expressed their own sense of liberty, setting out cross-country in a Harvester school bus dubbed Furthur (sometimes spelled Further) and repurposed with microphones, speakers, turrets, the half-mythical amphetamine gazelle Neal Cassady (star of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road), and a good supply of LSD.
For the Berkeley march, they arm the Bus like a military convoy and show up blasting toy guns and parading with their new friends from the Hells Angels. It’s taken a few years longer for psychedelic head culture to truly take root in the American West, but—thanks to Kesey and the Pranksters—it does so deeply. They arrive at the rally tripping and one of Kesey’s old friends—the one who introduced him to psychedelics—is severely disappointed and almost never speaks to the writer again.
Dressed in a World War I military helmet and Day-Glo orange coat, Kesey gets to the podium just before the march is to set forth. In between discomfiting harmonica blasts, the writer lays out a crystalline summation of what exactly the heads have been doing by making all this bluegrass and avant-garde tape music, by smoking grass, by tripping, by searching for the cool places on all the maps.
“They’ve been having wars for ten thousand years and you’re not gonna stop it this way,” Kesey tells the assembled crowd. He winds up to it. “There’s only one thing’s gonna do any good at all,” he says. “And that’s everybody just look at it, look at the war, and turn your backs and say . . . fuck it.”
This is one of Ken Kesey’s most magical moments, revealing what’s there fleetingly when people turn around. It is a promised land of sorts, blurry, unformed, and perhaps only possible to see between strobe flashes, but it is the very same coastline that Peter Stampfel opened his eyes on, that all these uninstructed freaks are washing up on every day.
The split emerges in real time between those who might turn their backs and those (especially among the Berkeley tribe) who are ready to march. And they do, off into the Berkeley sunset while the war rages on. The Pranksters troop back to the hills outside of Palo Alto, to Kesey’s pad in La Honda.
The Pranksters and many others in California and elsewhere have already turned heel in a bigger way, are already scanning enthusiastically for new horizons, and are already finding them. The back-turning might (and will) be dismissed as libertarianism or escapism or white privilege masquerading as radical politics or justification for getting really high or even a CIA plot to depoliticize American youth through psychedelics, but it is starting to take indisputable material shape as young people of all ages begin to pool their resources and discover some of Tuli Kupferberg’s 1,001 ways to live without working. It helps that by mid-1965 a large supply of very high-quality LSD is making its way through California and around the country.
The social shapes and archetypes that emerge in California in late 1965 and early 1966 will echo and repeat around the country, often by literal name. Ken Kesey and the communally dwelling Merry Pranksters find a tangible form for their freak-outs in a weekly multimedia party called the Acid Test, counting the LSD-dosed human bloodstream and resultant gestalt as one of its media. Though it is the Pranksters who oversee the Tests, which begin in late November 1965, the boundaries are permeable, and the Tests become a platform for a freshly psychedelicized arts underground up and down the coast, uniting decades of evolving California spiritual and lifestyle experimentation into a veritable blueprint.
The well-spoken nonleader of the band at the noncenter of the Acid Tests is guitarist Jerry Garcia, an exemplar of head culture to parallel Peter Stampfel out on the East Coast. He’d spent Freedom Summer crisscrossing the country in search of bluegrass, but, throwing himself into his new band—the Grateful Dead—he puts down his banjo, picks up the electric guitar, and votes for the last time. He splits with his wife, who takes their young daughter and joins a parallel psychedelic collective, the Anonymous Artists of America. The charismatic autodidact Garcia and rest of the Dead and everyone else in sight belong to the new country. The Pranksters’ Acid Tests continue weekly through the end of 1965 with the quintet now core to the events’ existence.
In December, Ken Kesey leads a parade through North Beach with a weather balloon that reads “NOW!” decreeing a Trips Festival for the end of January, a call to the heads. It’s an open beacon for all the dancers and the poets and trapeze artists and homemade synthesizer makers and light shows and rock bands and multimedia shows projected on teepees. The event will unify everyone’s trips, not least the Merry Pranksters’, and connect them with the vast mindspace collecting in the Bay Area. People are encouraged to bring their own gadgets. Outlets and electricity of all kinds will be provided.
Charged with organizing the three-night Trips Festival at Longshoreman’s Hall on Fisherman’s Wharf is a junior Prankster named Stewart Brand, who calls on Ramon Sender, director of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, an avant-garde musician-run collective in the up-and-coming Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh had spent time hanging out there, and it was Lesh’s classmate Steve Reich—with whom Lesh shared possession of a tape recorder—who first turned Ramon Sender onto peyote. It is a small circle that will soon have influence in all kinds of unexpected ways.
Electronic composer Ramon Sender and the Merry Prankster Stewart Brand are specimens of two deeply related other types of heads, here entwined as organizers of the Trips Festival, and running in close connection for years to come. After the Trips Festival, Brand will go back to the future, operating near the center of California’s technology boom. Sender will go back to the earth, starting his own religion and becoming a pioneer in a new wave of California-style DIY spirituality. At Longshoreman’s Hall, where all burns white hot, there is no difference. Sender jams with the new band Big Brother and Holding Company on a Buchla box, a synthesizer built at the Tape Music Center. By Saturday night, the Trips hit full throb and the Grateful Dead play their first major San Francisco show.
- "Music, history, and psychopharmacology blend together in Heads.... Jarnow describes in colorful and scrupulously researched detail how psychedelic music fused with actual psychedelics to create a ceaselessly regenerating 'hip economy' that persists to this day.... It's a head trip and then some."--Rolling Stone, "10 Best Music Books of 2016"
- "A brilliant study of the transformative impact of LSD on a half-century of US art, music, movies, spirituality, and technology."--Uncut, "Book of the Year," December 2016
- "If you are a fan of books dealing with the history of salt, timber, or something more exotic like sex, you will delight in Heads, a book about psychedelics.... [A] well-documented spiraling history of how these drugs transformed our present culture."—Bookcase TV
- undefined—Addicted to Noise, "Best of 2016: Top 5 Books"
"[Jarnow] is our generation's foremost Grateful Dead chronicler, and something of a cultural ambassador to the punks and indie kids who might not otherwise pay the band any mind."--Spin
"Engaging and deeply researched... Generously illustrated with archival photos and artifacts."
- On Sale
- Sep 4, 2018
- Page Count
- 512 pages
- Da Capo Press