Summary: The San Francisco Chronicle reviews Jesse Jarnow’s new book, Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America, highlighting MAPS as one of the top organizations aiding in the revival of scientific research into the therapeutic applications of psychedelics. "Now that society seems to be on the verge of another psychedelic revival — with legal research getting under way again because of the tireless efforts of professional groups such as the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies…it’s time to reconsider the draconian legal sanctions against these undeniably powerful substances with so much still-unexplored potential," states Steve Silberman of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Originally appearing here.
In the late 1950s, a coffeehouse on the Lower East Side of New York City added an unusual item to its menu. As the neighborhood’s old tenements filled up with painters, dancers, folk musicians and other bohemian types drawn by the cheap rents, the cafe’s eccentric owner — a barefoot libertarian named Barron Bruchlos — tapped into burgeoning local demand for a curiosity that could still be legally mail-ordered from a company in Texas: peyote, the powerful hallucinogen described by Aldous Huxley in “The Doors of Perception.” By grinding up the dried cactus buttons and packing the bitter dust into convenient capsules, Bruchlos enabled the local beatniks to down a couple en route to the Five Spot club to hear Thelonious Monk in full synesthetic splendor.
Hallucinogens were nothing new in America. The indigenous tribes of the Southwest had employed peyote and psilocybin mushrooms as medicine for various ills of body and spirit for thousands of years. In 1953, the CIA launched a series of top-secret experiments called Project MKULTRA to determine whether LSD could be used to compel Russian agents to defect. Hollywood A-lister Cary Grant even credited dropping acid (legally, under the guidance of a therapist) with saving his marriage. But in an ambitious and engaging new book called “Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America,” young historian Jesse Jarnow points out that Bruchlos’ humble storefront operation marked one of the first moments when the Technicolor genie escaped the government labs and therapists’ offices to become a retail commodity for the masses, instead of an arcane experience for the initiated few. Within a few years, a Harvard professor named Timothy Leary would be telling the world to “turn on, tune in, and drop out,” and all heaven and hell broke loose.
“Heads” traces the long arc of America’s conflicted love affair with chemically engineered epiphanies long past the point where most hip historians throw in the tie-dyed towel: the collapse of the Haight-Ashbury into the post-Altamont swamp of helter skelter paranoia and demonic white powder drugs. In Jarnow’s infectiously enthusiastic account, the hippies’ failed attempt to build a New Jerusalem around cheap and plentiful supplies of Orange Sunshine was just the first naive efflorescence of a decades-long movement that would eventually prevail, rebooting global culture in the process.
Other books, such as Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain’s “Acid Dreams,” have probed the history of the CIA’s involvement in introducing psychedelics to the hip intelligentsia, but rather than giving more screen time to overhyped blowhards such as Leary, Jarnow refreshingly focuses on the overlooked foot-soldiers of the lysergic revolution, such as Sarah Matzar, a Guatemalan quilter and meticulous chemist who furnished thousands of Deadheads on tour with cheap and reliably pure supplies of blotter acid through the 1980s. By the time a snitch betrayed her to the feds, landing Matzar in prison, she had already been retired for years, teaching the women of her village to make luminously beautiful textiles.
By mapping the social networks created to disseminate these potentially life-changing substances while keeping potency up and prices down, Jarnow makes clear how many innovations that we now take for granted — including high-quality concert amplification systems (pioneered by Owsley Stanley, the Grateful Dead’s acid chemist, patron and sound designer), long-form sketch comedy shows like “Saturday Night Live” (inspired by improv guru Del Close, an early acid dealer who mentored a generation of humorists from Stephen Colbert to Amy Sedaris), the icon-driven visual language of contemporary art (Keith Haring got his start designing Dead T-shirts), personal computing (Steve Jobs called taking LSD “one of the two or three most important experiences” in his life), and the sharing economies of the World Wide Web.
Clearly a head himself, Jarnow is at his lyrical best when unpacking the layers of subcultural significance embedded in seemingly mundane objects such as collections of bootleg cassettes. “Grateful Dead tapes are talismans with their own mystic power, physical sound objects that are part map and part territory,” he writes. “A psychedelic time line that connects the musicians out on the road in the bleak early ’70s with the musicians playing at the moment of pure unknown promise of the Acid Tests. … The medium is the amassment.”
“Heads”’ most regrettable oversight is Jarnow’s failure to explore the Afrofuturist movement and other aspects of non-white psychedelia. Jimi Hendrix, Sun Ra, Sly Stone and Parliament/Funkadelic founder George Clinton were as influenced by acid as jam bands such as Phish and the Disco Biscuits, but blues-based bands of acid heads such as the Rotary Connection have been forgotten altogether, while more recent efforts to create fertile fusions of psychedelia and soul by visionaries-of-color such as Meshell Ndegeocello are not noted here.
In his compassionate portraits of people such as Matzar, however, Jarnow makes clear how much sheer expertise was squandered as a generation of chemists rotted in jail serving mandatory minimum sentences. Now that society seems to be on the verge of another psychedelic revival — with legal research getting under way again because of the tireless efforts of professional groups such as the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, and even mainstream media outlets such as Time touting the virtues of “microdosing” — it’s time to reconsider the draconian legal sanctions against these undeniably powerful substances with so much still-unexplored potential.