Heads: A Psychedelic History and How it Relates to My Feelings About Burning Man
I started reading Jesse Jarnow’s book Heads early in July last summer, finishing it with remarkably appropriate timing while on the plane home from Burning Man. So obviously now, while on a plane home from California again six months later, seems like the perfect time to finally post what it meant to me.
Jarnow is a guy I’ve vaguely been aware of for a long time via mutual friends, and professional connections. The first time we met he was a passenger in my van when I drove some friends of friends out to the Fire Island Bridge after a Phish show at Jones Beach, which he reminded me of when we started chatting last fall on Twitter. For years we have frequented many of the same circles including Phish shows, Bonnaroo, Relix parties and once upon a time The Wetlands, so it makes sense that so much of his book felt familiar to me.
It turns out, Heads tells a story I’ve wanted to see written for a long time, and I’d even go so far as to say this is a book I needed written. Not only does it tie together so many of my interests, but it also provides context for why I chose a profession in this subculture, a decision that was as much sometimes go with the flow as it was at other times deliberate.
Tracing the origin of modern psychedelia from the discovery of LSD to present day, Jarnow does a phenomenal job of interweaving the parallel trajectories of the culture created in the wake of the Grateful Dead, the development of the internet, and the underground “hip economy.” As the owner and creator of Little Hippie, a longtime Grateful Dead licensee, my life exists at the intersection of these three social trends. It’s a life that’s required a fair amount of swimming upstream, the destination not always clear, but my motivations well rooted in a love for subculture and emerging technologies.
Heads is not a beginner book. Jarnow doesn’t have time to give you backstory on well known personas like Jerry Garcia or to go in to great detail about some of his terminology, and that makes this story all that more interesting.
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Jarnow does however, as one would expect, explain the etymology of the word Head quite well. Deadheads weren’t the first Heads, they were never the only Heads, and they certainly won’t be the last Heads. The first Heads were Hopheads, used pejoratively, and then there were Heads of all sorts related to substances until there were Deadheads, and eventually the term separated a bit from it’s pharmacological roots and came to mean someone who is really in to something, but not just anything. Rather, something that means everything to a group at large, and that everything can’t always be defined. It’s that certain feeling you get when you realize someone else understands something you’ve seen, and often, but not always, it’s because you both know the other person has at some point in their life taken psychedelics, and that’s all you both need to know.
Writing in the present tense, Jarnow gives you the impression of being there as it’s all happening – along for the ride on the most epic trip of all, the evolution of psychedelic culture. His story reads very much like a psychedelic experience feels – fast paced and full of fascination at first, confusing and dark at the peak, relaxing eventually in to a deeper understanding of the world we live in. It’s clear Jarnow has done his research, and his narrative serves as a trusted guide through massive amounts of information he presents.
I should interject here to say that I have never been much of a psychonaut. One doesn’t necessarily have to do psychedelics to be a head, although it’s hard to imagine getting there without having at least done them once. It is more a state of understanding a certain psychedelic commonality.
The last time I did any psychedelics was four years ago, during my first trip to Burning Man. Unlike seasoned psychedelic users, I can probably remember every single time I’ve done them, simply because there aren’t that many times to remember. I have often been envious of those with more psychedelic courage than I have, and as an artist, I yearn to see the things they have seen, but I’ve always been conscious of the brain chemistry I was born with, and I’ve never felt like psychedelics were something I could casually play with. Nonetheless, psychedelics have dramatically shaped my world view as much as my life philosophy, and I’m sure they will remain an intermittent part of the rest of my life, appearing here and there when I need them and when the time and place are right.
I went to Burning Man a few days late this year, because I was working at Lockn Festival the week before, and I had to drive 500 miles home to CT from Southern Virginia on Monday while most Burners were setting up their camps in the desert. I flew out of Hartford Tuesday morning, and a friend met me in Reno late Tuesday night. After a day of errands stocking up supplies we arrived at the Burning Man gate Wednesday evening at sunset. There was a relatively small amount of cars in front of us, but the gates had been closed due to a white out and we were stuck there for a few hours. My travel companion was unbearably antsy, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to maintain conversation for long, so I pulled Heads out of my bag and I read it aloud while we sat there, knocking out another 75 pages or so.
One of the chapters I read while waiting to be granted entrance to Black Rock City was the one where Jarnow describes the first time this pilgrimage to the Black Rock Desert was made by a group of 90 or so people in 1990. Reading that chapter while sitting there in line gave me chills - the good kind.
Finishing this book on the plane ride back to NYC a week later was deeply emotional. I had a row of seats to myself at the back of the plane, where I was free to fully immerse in the conclusion of this exceptional psychedelic journey. I cried every time someone died, as Jarnow acknowledged each key character’s passing with a pithy and personalized send off message. And I cried as he wrapped up his history of psychedelic America with Eric Snowden and John Perry Barlow’s conversation reminding us the value of freedom.
Freedom was the word of the day at Burning Man this year for me and a new friend I met Saturday afternoon on top of a dome on the Esplanade. We struck up a conversation hanging in a net tied 20 feet above the ground. He told me that he had come to Burning Man motivated by that word, and I followed by telling him about how in my early 20’s a friend gave me a tiny round dream box and told me to write one word on a piece of paper and put it in there. I chose the word freedom. And I still have that box. Anytime I clean out clutter, I always keep that box. We kept talking while swinging in that net for a couple hours, spending the next 24 hours together as well.
At Lockn the week before, I learned that I need to draw more animals. It was easy information to pick up on, based logically on direct feedback and the fact that we sold out of my giraffe and narwhal designs as well as my Grateful Owl. And it makes sense too. Children love animals because it’s the first thing they dream about. That’s why they find stuffed animals so comforting.
No surprise then that my favorite thing at Burning Man this year was a giant pit of oversized teddy bears that happened to be located near my camp. As soon as I saw them I was obsessed, and on Friday night when I gave up trying to pretend I wasn’t tired I biked back out to the perimeter where I was camped and I climbed in to the pit o' bears and fell in to a dreamy sleep. People were buried everywhere in those bears. It was the best.
The next day, while up on the dome, early in the conversation before the freedom word came up, I asked my new friend if he knew about the bears, and he replied that he knew about the Grateful Dead bears. I thought, well, those aren’t the bears I was talking about (this time), but at least I know now that we can have a conversation.
My experience with Burners has led me largely to believe that the majority of them have little concept of how their culture came to be. They don’t seem to know what came before, nor any of the Grateful Dead laden heritage their use of psychedelics is owed to. Heads explains all of that, and if I had my way, it would be required reading for anyone crossing over in to the Temporary Autonomous Zone known as Black Rock City.
I have spent much of my life in Temporary Autonomous Zones, and I fully believe in their magic and the potential for transformative and deeply personal experiences found therein. In Heads, Jarnow does a great job of explaining the development of TAZ’s, with their roots in the Acid Trips and Grateful Dead concerts and how they grew eventually in to full fledged festivals, aka “Tent Cities.” Burning Man, however, as he wisely points out was never a Tent City. It was always a social experiment unto itself, seeking new territory while defying definition by existing terms.
As a result, Burning Man has it’s own set of guidelines which according to the BM website “co-founder Larry Harvey wrote in 2004 as guidelines for the newly-formed Regional Network. They were crafted not as a dictate of how people should be and act, but as a reflection of the community’s ethos and culture as it had organically developed since the event’s inception.” Burning Man’s 10 Principles are wonderful guidelines to live by, both on and off the playa, but their implementation requires a certain amount of education. Unfortunately, I’ve met many people either at Burning Man itself or at Burner parties back home in New York who don’t know they exist, let alone the counter-cultural tides out of which they emerged. And without context comes a new kind of opportunity within these TAZ’s, wherever they may be found: the opportunity for bad behavior.
Working Lockn and attending Burning Man back to back made me feel a lot of things. First the basic: hot, dirty, tired, cold, dusty, windblown. Then the deeper: happy, excited, a little bit lost, a little bit in love, a little bit heartbroken. Nothing turned out to be as it seemed, and I left Black Rock City this year wondering what it was I had actually just experienced. I knew this though – I had found myself on the wrong end of someone’s radical self-indulgence, and I was hurt by it. That someone, it is worth pointing out, knew nothing of the Ten Principles nor any counter cultural history, even if he had heard of "the bears." More importantly though, I went home knowing one thing more than ever about myself – before I was anything else, I was and always would be a head.
Please, for the love of all things psychedelic, buy this book. Read it and pass it on. Just like psychedelics, this story is meant to be shared. And if there's one thing I want most for Burning Man culture, it is that the participants stop seeing themselves as a preciously unique subculture and begin to grasp the many levels on which their existence is rooted in that which came before them.
To stay in the loop on all things Heads, follow @headsnews on Twitter.
Note: This post first appeared on LittleHippie.com.