Podcast Transcript: The Psychedelic History of America – Jesse Jarnow
Please enjoy this transcript of our interview with Jesse Jarnow.
Jesse Jarnow is the author of Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America (Da Capo, 2016) and Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock (Avery, 2012). His writing on psychedelics, music, technology, and more appear in publications including Wired.com, Pitchfork, RollingStone.com, and The Influence. He hosts The Frow Show on WFMU, the long-running non-commercial freeform New Jersey radio station. He posts on psychedelic news and history via @HeadsNews on Twitter and the Heads News email newsletter.
In this episode, we talk about:
- Jesse’s experiences growing up with drug prohibition, psychedelic literature, and the Grateful Dead.
- His favorite moments in the psychedelic history of America – and how musicians, artists, and chemists contributed to the psychedelic culture of the 1960s and 70s.
- The prospects of the growing psychedelic movement in America.
0:00:29 Paul Austin: Welcome to the first episode of The Third Wave podcast. I’m your host, Paul Austin, and we brought a very special guest for you today on this very first podcast. His name is Jesse Jarnow, and he is the author of Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America. So, Jesse, before I go any further, thanks so much for joining us.
0:00:50 Jesse Jarnow: Thank you so much for having me.
0:00:51 PA: It was great to read your book, and I’ve read a few of the other books about psychedelic history, and I felt like yours took a whole new narrative and a whole new angle, which I really enjoyed and which we’re going to dig into very soon. But before we get to that, I think a critical part of you writing this book was also your past. Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired you to write this book, and how did your experience with psychedelics play into that?
0:01:18 JJ: Well, I think what inspired me to write this book was having, I wouldn’t necessary say life-long, but certainly post-teenage life-long interest in psychedelics, and wanting to know the story. Just wanting to be able to connect these historical pieces together. I grew up in the ’80s and the ’90s, and obviously a lot of people, especially in the ’80s and the ’90s, would tag psychedelics to the ’60s, except for the fact that growing up in the ’80s and ’90s psychedelics were so prevalent in my schools, and especially in my high school.
0:01:53 JJ: And I found out much later, in the period just before I started writing this book, that that was actually the second peak of LSD use and psychedelics in the United States, was the early to mid ’90s, peaking in 1996, which was when something like 9.6% of high school seniors, or something like that, said that they had used LSD in the previous year. And I graduated from high school in 1997, so I am very much… I wasn’t actually using psychedelics yet in high school, but I’m still very much part of that wave and that statistic.
0:02:30 JJ: My personal path into all of that, a large part of that in some senses is that my parents are both counter-culture types, my dad maybe more than my mom. But my dad dropped out of college and went to California in the ’60s and had his psychedelic experiences and came back and channeled that into an art career that was and is very, very psychedelic, which I think probably has a lot to do with the way his brain worked even before that. So I grew up in a household where I definitely didn’t get the standard, “Don’t do drugs”, kind of talk. It was more like, “A lot of drugs can be really harmful but some drugs can be very helpful and beneficial, and if you don’t abuse them and don’t just run away and join the circus, it’s a perfectly safe and normal part of growing up.” And that was… I think my dad gave me some Carlos Castaneda to read, or something like that.
0:03:27 JJ: So that was the deepest background. So in high school I started discovering music and eventually found my way into psychedelic stuff from the ’60s, and through my dad’s record collection and through other methods ended up getting into The Grateful Dead, and pretty swiftly after that reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe, which was probably really my first introduction to what LSD was other than probably some passing references here or there. And like I was saying, it was prevalent in my high school but I was kind of a late bloomer on that front and didn’t really start engaging with psychedelics personally, or chemically, [chuckle] until college. So I had a couple of years of reading about them and reading about that world before I entered it fully.
0:04:25 PA: I think that’s really interesting because, that is very unique to some degree, at least from the stories that I’ve heard and that I’ve been exposed to, because it… For example, a lot of people, it seems like they’ve read like a post on Erowid, and then they go and they drop LSD or they eat a handful of mushrooms, or maybe they watch a Terence McKenna video on YouTube. Whereas with you, it’s like this… Like you said, your dad was out in California in the ’60s. In a way, you had tons of exposure leading up to that. So I’d be curious, yeah, How did that play a role in that first psychedelic experience that you had?
0:05:03 JJ: Well, I think it probably played some backwards roles. Both my parents are big readers so we definitely had other books besides the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in the house. I think we had… And I didn’t get to these until after Acid Test, but The Variety of Psychedelic Experiences or something like that by Jean Houston. And I think there were a couple of other paperbacks from the mid to late ’60s that got into that. And I think that, growing up in a book-filled household probably played a large part in both my interest in psychedelics, but also my reticence to take them. And I think that’s maybe a large part of my personality is that I don’t really just hop into things like that.
0:05:50 JJ: And there also wasn’t Erowid to look into at that point, or McKenna videos to watch. It was a matter of… I certainly went through an anti-drug class in junior high school and was very, very, very aware of the, “This is Your Brain on Drugs” kind of anti-drug propaganda that was going on. And I could tell instantly, just… Before I knew anything about drugs, I knew those ads were totally full of it. And that wasn’t even based on talking to my dad or talking to anybody who had any experience. It was just so obvious to me as a, however old I was in 1988, 10 years old, when those ads started airing.
0:06:41 PA: What was it about those ads that made you go, “Okay, this is obviously a bunch of shit”? You know what I mean?
0:06:47 JJ: It was just that institutional tone, just that, “You’re you’re lying to me.” There were teachers that I loved in school, really, teachers who had really profound effects on me. But also people that I encountered at every level of school, just square adults who I knew weren’t telling me everything. You know? And I think that’s probably pretty obvious to most kids at that age, that you can tell the difference between an adult who’s talking to you on the level and an adult who’s talking down to you. And that, like the whole… I think it was the “Any questions?”, at the end. “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” It’s so condescending and it’s like, “Yes, I have some questions. But if I’m not asking you, you’re not gonna tell me.”
0:07:37 JJ: So I think all of those things fed in. And like I said, I’m kind of a reticent person like that, and I did have a lot of questions, and it’s not even like I got to college and immediately, “I’m gonna take drugs now.” It was really a slow entry point for me. I kinda knew it was where I was going, but it was also something that I was aware of as being heavy and potentially very meaningful and potentially kinda scary. I don’t like roller coasters either, and eventually I got over that. I’m still not a crazy macro-dosing psychonaut. I definitely never ever became that as much as maybe I sometimes wish I did. I think I saw the healthy fear and respect for the power of psychedelics after 20 years of taking them on and off.
0:08:25 PA: A reverence, I would imagine.
0:08:27 JJ: Yeah, yeah.
0:08:27 PA: That you’ve cultivated and established for the power and the potential of psychedelics.
0:08:34 JJ: And I wouldn’t necessarily… “Reverence” is definitely an accurate word for it, but it’s also not sacred to me in the same way that I think it is in some belief sets and some practices. And I think that actually ties into what got me interested in writing and learning about the history of psychedelics, was becoming aware of this real multiplicity of practices, that there were people who just think nothing of taking acid, and just on a week day, just going out and hanging out, “Yeah, yeah, I’m just dosing today. It’s cool.” That’s one end of it.
0:09:12 JJ: And then there were definitely people that I encountered in live music situations who were really ritualistic about it, but also at the same time very DIY, and very, it’s not like they were following these strictures or this thousands of years-old tradition, they were going on these practices that they had derived themselves after doing psychedelics for a certain amount of years. And then of course I became aware of, simultaneous to all of this, psychedelic practices that have been used for centuries or longer, that are really, fit into the society that they came out of.
0:09:53 JJ: And that was something that was really eye-opening for me, especially like I was saying, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, at the tail end of this drug war. Or not even the tail end, but the peak of the Reagan/Bush years before things got a little slightly more liberalized. But just being aware on one hand that these drugs are criminalized and stigmatized in the United States, but yet in other cultures and other places there’s a framework for them, and an acceptance for them, and all of that.
0:10:26 JJ: And that really fascinated me, and in turn inspired me to think about how these drug traditions or practices or whatever, established themselves in the United States and became their own thing. And that’s really what my book is about in a lot of ways. There’s obviously tons of studies of Iowaska and the way that’s fit into all these religious systems in South America and beyond. And I’m interested in the way that the United States has its own post-colonial psychedelic culture that does exist among hippies basically and…
0:11:05 PA: And Deadheads, right? Which is what you wrote about extensively in the book.
0:11:09 JJ: Right. But also… And treating to me… The way I treat Deadheads in the book and the way I think about the Deadhead psychedelic practice is almost as the mainstream of American psychedelics. If you think about whatever percentage of Americans that are using psychedelics, let’s say it’s 4% or something like that, or 5%, something fairly small, at least while I was growing up, the bulk of those users, the vast percentage of those were probably connected in some way to what we think of as the counterculture or The Grateful Dead world. But were only… If you think about mainstream culture, there’s obviously so much that exists beyond the fringes of mainstream culture.
0:11:51 JJ: There’s so much psychedelic culture that exists beyond the fringe of The Grateful Dead world. They were just the thread that connects all of the things, and just something that all the different groups can reflect off of because it existed for so long, and as such, this unbroken thing. And still does to a large degree, still… The Dead world is still massive, give or take The Dead themselves.
0:12:15 PA: And I know, I’m from West Michigan so I know The Grateful Dead will still play. The closest one I think is at Soldier Field in Chicago, where they’ll play and they will sell out the entire stadium for three nights in a row. So it’s definitely well alive still today.
0:12:32 JJ: Yeah, yeah, for sure. And yeah, so wanting to be able to understand those things and how they fit together. ‘Cause I maybe growing up as a Dead fan, had a bit of an instinctual understanding of how that part of it worked. But my… I was aware of Terence McKenna and was aware of these various threads connected to magazines like Mondo 2000, which were these proto-consciousness hacking groups. And all that stuff was… And definitely, I was aware of that getting on the internet in the early ’90s pre-world wide web. The internet definitely had this really unsettled, almost countercultural feel to it, just because it was only fringe people and academics who were on the Internet at that point.
0:13:18 PA: And Timothy Leary.
0:13:19 JJ: Yeah, exactly.
0:13:21 PA: Which is hilarious, ’cause he was like… I remember reading about this, he was obsessed with the internet when it came out.
0:13:25 JJ: Yeah, totally. And for me, getting on the net in, when was it? ’92 or ’93. It was like they were all… It was just very obvious that there was such a thread between that world, between the technology world and this emerging internet, and the counterculture. I remember reading about and exploring the WELL, which was… I still have a WELL email address, which stands for Whole Earth Electronic Link, which grew out of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, and I found out later the people actually running the WELL were ex-residents of The Farm, which was the giant commune in Tennessee that grew out of the San Francisco scene that evolved out of that. That was really my introduction into the present tense of the psychedelic world, was discovering that technological crossover there.
0:14:17 PA: Interesting. And just… This first part, you’ve brought up a lot of interesting points, but I wanna go back a bit and I wanna dig into an interesting point which you brought up, which was the psychedelic cultures that existed, we could say pre-renaissance or we could even say pre-World War II or World War 1 era, basically before the United States had such an impact on the global war on drugs. There were these psychedelic cultures that existed as far back as, well, many, many thousands of years. Were there any particular ones that you thought were interesting or fascinating that you read about or that you studied, that you thought, “This is really interesting”, or, “I never knew about this before,” or anything like that?
0:15:00 JJ: I guess the one that I really connected to, or really tried to read about somewhat was Peyote. And part of that is because it is North American, it does grow in North America and Central America, and was really the first psychedelic to jump into White American culture. And to me, I guess the interest in that is because I know my… Just because I’ve read what I’ve read, I know American history better than I know history from other cultures. So it was a little bit easier for me to read about the Native American church and American Peyote traditions and be able to contextualize that myself without having to rely on other authors, and the way, however the studies were framing them. I had a little bit more of a knowledge of what else was going on in turn of the century America. So, that was really interesting to be reading about the modernization of the Native American church and reading about these age-old Peyote traditions and then how in the 19th century it seems like they fused a little bit with American Christian traditions.
0:16:13 JJ: And also seeing how they fit into the American economic system of the mid 20th century, where you see just things like the arrival of the interstate system having an impact on the way Peyote is distributed. Or the arrival of mail. The fact by the ’50s you could literally mail order Peyote from Texas, which is how Allen Ginsberg got it when he wrote, Howl, and how it arrived in New York. For me, that was the pre-World War II interest that I followed the most. Besides just the introduction of LSD, which is, I guess, contemporaneous with World War II.
0:16:51 PA: Right, and just for our listeners at home, one that came to mind as well for me was the mysteries in ancient Greece.
0:17:00 JJ: Oh yeah, that stuff is so… I wish… Yeah, that’s something that I wanna read even more about.
0:17:04 PA: Yeah. And it seems like… I think Albert Hoffmann and Gordon Wasson, they did some primary source research on that, and I feel like they have written a book on it.
0:17:13 JJ: Yeah, there’s one from the ’70s called, The Road to Eleusis, I believe.
0:17:18 PA: Yes, I believe that… Eleusinian Mysteries, I believe, is what it is?
0:17:24 JJ: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s the place… The place… My pronunciation is just generally awful. I’m a gringo, man. And yeah, but that there were these ancient Greek mystery cults using the same theory. Or what they wrote in that was these ancient Greek mystery cults using a drug derived from the same substance, the same fungus, that produces the precursor for LSD. And these were enormous, enormous, cults in that era of Greece, where you have, I think Aristotle, and possibly Socrates. It was really the elite of Greek society…
0:18:02 PA: Absolutely.
0:18:02 JJ: Were part of these. And that’s really… That’s fascinating. It’s very fascinating for obvious reasons. [chuckle]
0:18:09 PA: And they were sworn to absolute secrecy, as well. They would do, I believe… My numbers are gonna be a bit off maybe on this, but they would do smaller ones every few months. And everyone was sworn to secrecy who would drink what they called this Kykeon beverage, which was made from the precursor of LSD, the Ergot fungus. And that every five years, I believe it was, they would do this massive, massive, massive rite. And I always have been fascinated with that, as well.
0:18:36 PA: And this went well past into the time of Christianity, and past the time of Christianity pretty much until Constantine, who was the first Roman emperor who declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire, put the nix on it because basically by putting a nix on that as well as a lot of the Gnostics that were at that time, he was able to monopolize mysticism in a way. He was able to monopolize the experience of God, which led to really the first underpinnings of the patriarchy and this idea of power that’s consolidated into the hands of few.
0:19:15 JJ: Yeah, definitely plus one to all of that. And one of the things that also intrigues me about both the accounts of that and likewise with Peyote is that you get also these notes in there of occasional anecdotes of people absconding with the sacred medicine, and taking it recreationally. And you have these reports of people doing it outside the scope of the rituals and getting punished for that, or at least getting called out for that. So that’s fascinating to me as well, as kind of this anti-authoritarian bent that seems to emerge somewhat naturally with the presence of psychedelics.
0:19:53 PA: And I think that then speaks to almost the nature of humanity as well, ’cause this is not only then about the psychedelic experience, but it’s also something that Joseph Campbell has spoken extensively and written extensively about. It’s this experience of needing to experience ecstasy, basically, this experience of needing to go past duality into non-duality. The sense of oneness, what Aldous Huxley has wrote about. And I think that is also inherent to human nature, we also need that. Which I think plays in nicely to this biography of psychedelic America because I think this was in large part what the counter-culture was about, was that lash-back against a society that had turned just completely conformist and had lost any type of uniqueness to it.
0:20:47 JJ: Right. It’s probably a large scale reaction, I think maybe in the same way that I reacted to those “Just Say No” ads. Just obvious to a large amount of people that the institutions that were ostensibly serving us are probably a lot blander, [chuckle] and a lot more square, and a lot less truthful than they make themselves out to be. And psychedelics, I think, offered a pretty swift and obvious path away from those things.
0:21:14 PA: Yeah, absolutely. So let’s get into that now. What was then the beginning of psychedelic America? Where would you say it started?
0:21:24 JJ: Well, the moment that I tried to pinpoint… I was really trying to find… Well, I guess it depends what you mean by “psychedelic America”. When I write about psychedelic America, I really mean this post-colonial psychedelic America. Like I was saying, there’s traditions of Peyote use going back, mushrooms obviously exist in Central America. So for me, I was trying to pinpoint the moment when psychedelics arrived in the United States and were available freely, in the sense that you didn’t have to be part of a previously existing belief set, you didn’t have to know a therapist, you didn’t have to qualify. You could just find them and try them for yourselves. Which I think is this distinctly American thing where the context is liberated and it’s up to you to create the context which you’re using them in.
0:22:19 JJ: Which I think eventually then leads to what I was talking about before, these vast American DIY belief sets that are mix and match from different spiritual traditions. And so I was really trying to pinpoint the moment when that happened, when psychedelics hit the street. And the earliest point I could really find on that was the ’50s, was people mail ordering from Texas and packaging Peyote to resell. And then there are hints of things like that maybe a little bit before… Mescaline was… Peyote was certainly featured in patented medicines and there are examples of people drinking it during the Civil War, of drinking distilled Peyote water or something like that.
0:23:06 JJ: But to me the moment it really connected and began to create this network that wasn’t just isolated pockets of people trying it and messing around, was that mid to late 50s. That’s where Heads begins, is this shop in the East Village that I heard about called the Dollar Sign Cafe, which was run by this early Libertarian named [0:23:32] ____, and he mail ordered Peyote and sold it over the counter in capsule form. And it became this little countercultural hangout for musicians, and writers, and whatnot, in the East Village. And that’s the beginning of this chain where these people are… You read the early trip reports, or I talk to some of these people, and they don’t… They knew that Peyote was this ancient tradition, but it’s not like they have access to the road man or whoever was running the Peyote ceremonies, they were just trying it for themselves.
0:24:08 JJ: And because of that it was like this blank slate. And that, I think, is where all this stuff began. People triangulating between the substances that they were able to get, but also the material that they were able to read about. Gordon Wasson wrote… Another starting point maybe for psychedelic America was this big Life Magazine cover story from 1957 about Gordon Wasson and his wife, Valentina, traveling to Mexico and experiencing mushrooms in a traditional context. And then that really I think probably had a very big impact. A lot of people read that story. But then the psychedelics themselves weren’t really available to people until a few years after that. So there’s this period of five or six years, I think, where psychedelics were very prevalent in the popular press.
0:25:02 JJ: You would read about people like Cary Grant taking them and having amazing therapeutic experiences with psychedelics. There’s actually a book called, Acid Hype, which is by Stephen Siff, S-I-F-F, which is a really great academic look at the way psychedelics were covered in the media between the invention… I think these are the dates he says. Basically between the invention of LSD by Albert Hofmann in 1938/1943. And then up to the point when they become illegal, and tracing the way that that balance shifts between positive coverage initially, and then later, enough negative coverage that they become illegal.
0:25:45 JJ: So there’s that period where psychedelic America is forming, I’d say between say, 1957 and 1967, I think is when these belief sets started to emerge. And when the legal status was really defined and these beliefs were then forced into secret societies or something like that, is part of it as well.
0:26:09 PA: And I think that’s interesting that you brought up the Peyote story, of it being shipped to New York, as the beginning of it. Because normally when I speak to people, I mention the Gordon Wasson story. I mention how he went to Maria Sabina in Oaxaca, and he found these magic mushrooms and he took them. He was a famous mycologist, and he was, I think, a vice president at JP Morgan or something. And then of course came back and wrote this Life magazine. So I think that angle on it, the Peyote angle, is very interesting. And it also helps to explain why then you had specifically Aldous Huxley, who was one of the best writers of the 20th century.
0:26:48 JJ: Right, right.
0:26:49 PA: And why he did Mescaline before he touched LSD, for example. And I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that it was being shipped all over from Texas or Mexico, until I read your book, which I thought was fascinating and which I’m glad you…
0:27:05 JJ: Psychedelic literature being more available than the psychedelics themselves, and the ability to read about it before actually experiencing it… That was another book that was on my dad’s bookshelf, for sure, was The Doors of Perception. And I think he played a huge role in that as well. The word psychedelic itself didn’t even exist until 1957, I think. So that would be as good a place to begin psychedelic America as any.
0:27:31 PA: And absolutely, and the story behind that is really interesting, right? Basically, Aldous Huxley and Humphrey Osman were exchanging letters. And to discuss Humphrey Osman would take a little bit more time. And Huxley actually proposed a word, and I don’t remember it off-hand, and it was kind of clunky. And Osman wrote back and said, “Hey, what about psychedelic? Why not that, mind manifesting?”
0:27:55 JJ: Yeah. Phenethylamine. I think that was his…
0:28:00 PA: Yeah, I think that was it. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And psychedelic stuck, and then we had it. And I think, that other point, that Aldous Huxley did play and still plays such a tremendous role in what’s going on today because he really… Towards the end of his life when he was really pushing hard for these, he even had conversations with Timothy Leary where they spoke about the necessity of not trying to spread this far and wide, which of course, Timothy Leary did not listen to. [chuckle]
0:28:27 JJ: Yeah, ignored pretty swiftly.
0:28:29 PA: And basically, this led then to the next stage, which I wanna get into next. The 60s, right? The peak, which was really Timothy Leary and the projects at Harvard, and then Ken Kesey and the acid tests, which led to the Warlocks. Let’s talk a little bit about that.
0:28:47 JJ: Yeah, sure.
0:28:47 PA: Where did it lead after that?
0:28:49 JJ: Yeah. Well, so Leary is this transition moment between the early phase of psychedelic research and there being these “legitimate examinations” of its potential. You read about the Miracle at Marsh Chapel and these early breakthroughs at Harvard, but psychedelics make people make pronouncements. They’re a pretty inspiring thing. And Leary brought it pretty quickly into the main stream. But I think the thing that really made stuff explode was the arrival of LSD, which was really produced by a guy named Owsley Stanley III, who went on to become the Grateful Dead’s first patron with his LSD money. But he produced in 1965, the first really massive batches of LSD that were meant for basically public distribution and consumption, LSD still being legal at that point.
0:29:47 JJ: And I think that probably did as much to turn the tide for LSD as Leary did, just the fact that it was available. And Owsley connected with The Dead who were known briefly as The Warlocks through Ken Kesey’s acid tests. And Ken Kesey was the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, also connected to this early phase of psychedelic research where he was a test subject, basically in Silicon Valley, where he was given a variety of substances to see how he reacted. And then he took it upon himself to track those things down. He got a job. I can’t remember if he had the job before or after that at the hospital where the tests were, but he had a job as a night watchman, and I think maybe procured some from the supply closet for himself.
0:30:40 JJ: And from there, it really just, it blew up, ’cause psychedelic scene fused in 1965 and 1966 with this really vibrant art scene, that we think of now as Psychedelia, and got all this national coverage where, again, the news of psychedelics traveled more swiftly than the psychedelics themselves did, and blossomed into this network where all these different groups were linked together under this umbrella of psychedelics where you have the music and the culture on one hand, but you also have these emerging spiritual ideas, you also… You have these back-to-the-land notions of utopianism, and all kind of swirling around in this apolitical mush, where The Grateful Dead were ending up as the house band for it, in a way.
0:31:40 JJ: And that’s the popular phrase to describe them, as the house band of the acid tests and the acid era. Something going back to that period and reading about, which is fascinating, is that a lot of times people who are writing about that psychedelic explosion in the 60s treat the music as almost this secondary part of it, as this auxiliary product or something of psychedelics. But The Grateful Dead remained this constant thread to the point where, because of their strong early connection with acid through Owsley who remained connected to them, their performances and just their scene in general became this magnet for people into psychedelics at all levels, and people taking it but also people making it and distributing it.
0:32:29 JJ: And by the early ’70s, The Grateful Dead were starting to function as this ad hoc national distribution network for LSD, not because they the musicians were doing it consciously, but because they were the chosen flag-bearers for this broader thing. And by the mid ’70s and later ’70s, they were literally the wholesale network, where they would pass through town and then there would be acid available in that town, and people would go to Dead shows and buy psychedelics wholesale, and then sell them basically at retail, and filter out into the local schools and the local arts communities in different places.
0:33:14 JJ: Because of that, The Grateful Dead world itself became this crossroads, became this umbrella, or a big tent, or whatever metaphor you wanna use, where all these different interests and… “Factions” is maybe not totally the right word, but these different affinity groups, could all come together in the world of The Grateful Dead, at their shows, in the parking lot and on their concert tours. And it would be this connection point where everybody would be getting their acid. That’s where the frat boys got their acid, that’s where the scientists got their acid. One of the guys that I talked to from the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, was like, “Yeah, if we needed acid, I knew that we can go to a Grateful Dead show, and at every single Grateful Dead show I went to between 1973 and the ’80s or ’90s, there’s this one guy that you would always see at every single show in a big giant top hat. And he had acid.”
0:34:14 JJ: It was just this known thing, that was where you went. It had all kinds of effects, and it nurtured the bizarro Grateful Dead culture that connected all these things. And that’s the bond that continues into the 21st century. That was still going on last summer at the 50th anniversary quasi-reunion shows. One thing that I heard that I wouldn’t say is entirely confirmed, but that with the arrival of these Grateful Dead reunion shows last summer there really was this new arrival of LSD on the underground market, and prices at wholesale levels have apparently fallen as low as they’ve been since the late 90s and the early 21st century. And it’s now a buyer’s market again, for the first time in 15 years.
0:35:11 JJ: So, the Dead are still really connected to that thread as well, but since Jerry Garcia died in 1995, the culture has definitely gotten a lot wider and a lot broader. It’s all been positive and all fantastic. The psychedelic culture certainly needed more than just The Grateful Dead to sustain it. But I think one of the points that I wanted to get across in my book is that The Grateful Dead really were that nurturing through line in these so-called dark years where before the so-called psychedelic renaissance there was all of this stuff still happening, and that should be acknowledged and perhaps even celebrated.
0:35:50 PA: And I think it should because I think that’s a huge part of the psychedelic experience, is community. And I think without community the psychedelic experience loses almost all of its value, if not a significant amount of its value. Because I feel like even when people are now getting into… There’s been a lot of research done into psychedelic therapy, and obviously in the ’50s and ’60s there was a lot of research done into psychedelic therapy. The crux of the healing power of psychedelics, or the reason that people come to psychedelics, is to feel connected to other people.
0:36:25 PA: I think it’s to feel like you’re accepted, it’s to feel like you are loved, it’s to feel like you’re bigger, and part of something greater than yourself without the dogma attached to it that we know in most modern religions. And so, I think like you’re saying, Grateful Dead and the community that they basically created and cultivated and maintained throughout these dark ages in the ’70s and the ’80s was critical to what is now going on today.
0:36:56 JJ: Yeah. And I think even just the acknowledgement that that community created, that psychedelics are a path to a larger truth throughout the universe, to the truth of the… The fact that we are all minds in the universe together. And there is that community aspect of people who’ve taken these things, and it generates community in addition to being a magnet for community, I think. I’m not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg in terms of LSD and community. You know what I mean?
0:37:33 PA: Absolutely. And you’re absolutely right. It’s, do people go searching for community first or do they first find the LSD and then go find it? And I think it’s both. We’re drawn to it because we wanna feel as part of the community. This is part of drug sub-culture. This is why I smoked marijuana for the first time when I was 16. This is largely why I dropped LSD when I was 19. It’s because you do it with close friends of yours, and there is… Especially at a younger age there’s a certain aspect of you wanna feel included, which sometimes can come from a point of insecurity. But at the same time it’s still a human urge where we need this feeling of connection.
0:38:19 JJ: And part of that feeling of connection, I think, connects again back to that scene, the condescending world, the anti-drug ads, the “Just say no” stuff, where a huge part of psychedelics is bypassing… Or at least a huge part of American psychedelics, I would say, is bypassing institutional authority, both in terms of the law, but being able to have these spiritual experiences without the mediation of a church or a formalized spiritual group. And the fact that there is a common bond in bypassing these things together and discovering all of that together, that maybe we’re not being told the “truth” about things.
0:39:00 JJ: And I think that, really just even the legality or the non-legality of it, I think, creates that bond. And that’s true among all classes of of illegal substance users, for sure, that there’s that outlaw bond that happens. But I think with psychedelics especially that that bond extends to bypassing traditional religions and stuff. And I think just that bypass is so important and powerful.
0:39:30 PA: And I think it also bypasses a sense of external validation, which I think is, for example why teenagers smoke pot or why they drink alcohol. Right? It’s like you’re validated by your peer group and your social group because you’re doing something that’s bad, something that’s wrong. Whereas I think with psychedelics, it’s coming from a point of wanting to discover who you are or who we are, and it’s coming from a point of health, a desire to feel connected rather than a point of, “Oh, I feel like I’m just being a rebel.” There’s obviously an aspect of that. And the reason, of course, there’s an aspect of it is because we do still have draconian drug laws. I do see there being definitely a difference between the approach to psychedelics compared to maybe other substances, for example, like underage drinking or whatever it might be, at least in the United States.
0:40:23 PA: Obviously in Europe that’s not an issue ’cause everyone starts drinking when they’re 14 ’cause it’s legal anyway. Thankfully, they have public transportation so they don’t have any of the issues that we have to deal with, but that’s a little off track. My next question for you is, from your book, if you had to think of three stories that really tie this biography of psychedelic America together, would you have three stories that would come to mind, or two? Just specific little tidbits that you thought were interesting to research or that you thought were interesting to write about.
0:40:57 JJ: Yeah, one… I guess I’ll tell you about some of the ones that were most exciting to me, ’cause they were ones that I didn’t really know getting into this. There’s a big chapter in the first part of the book that threads, some of the characters thread through it elsewhere as well, about the scene in Central Park in New York. The kid that… It was basically a group of teenage graffiti writers that started in the late ’60s and became really one of the main East Coast/West Coast connections for Orange Sunshine.
0:41:30 JJ: And eventually became the East Coast/West Coast connection for LSD crystal, where there were these guys who were out and taking acid and really being pioneers of what’s now this global art of graffiti, but were also building this black market network of run away teens that were dealing LSD. And to me that’s fascinating and illustrates the story in a bunch of ways. One, that there is this ongoing youth culture that drives psychedelics, that I think has a lot to do with the fact that when you’re a teenager and when you’re in your 20s, those are generally pretty prime years for exploring your liminal zones, for pushing at your boundaries. So it kinda firmed that in some sense to me, that there would be basically teenagers in charge of this part of the network.
0:42:25 JJ: And the thing also that that story illustrated for me was the continuity of the culture, which was something that I was looking to establish and was poking around for, but had no idea that I was gonna find when I approached the graffiti guys, was that they were a link in the psychedelic distribution chain that existed from the ’60s straight through to the ’90s without interruption. And that’s, I think, this important historical point as well, is that you read a lot of these books about psychedelic history and they detail the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, which was this… They created Orange Sunshine LSD, and they were this enormous global drug smuggling network that brought the hash into the United States and were responsible for all kinds of stuff.
0:43:13 PA: Like breaking Timothy Leary out of jail as well. I think that should be worth mentioning.
0:43:16 JJ: Yeah. Perfect example. Yeah, using their money to pay the Black Panthers to break Leary out of jail. But the official story of them is that they were busted in ’72 and a bunch of them went on the run, some of them went to jail. But the story that I discovered when I was talking to these dudes from Central Park, is that while that was the official story, that’s not really what happened. There was maybe a little bit of a burp in the service, in that it was maybe a little bit harder to get for a month or two, but there was really… It never stopped. The people that they were getting their stuff from on the West Coast just passed it on to the next person, to the next person, to the next person.
0:44:00 JJ: And actually since the book came out, I had a conversation with the earliest graffiti artist/dealer in that chain, who wrote graffiti under the name, “LSD-OM”. His name is Chad. And he was like, “Yeah man, I read that… ” And I interviewed him for the book, and he was super great. And then he read the book and more memories started coming back from that period. Like, “Oh yeah, I kind of remember when there was that bust, and we had… I remember there was like… I wasn’t dealing anymore, but there was a meeting of the minds in Central Park, where it was explained that things were gonna be a little bit different now, but basically the procedures were the same.”
0:44:35 JJ: So that’s one story. That’s a really, decade-spanning story that I was not totally prepared to get when I started researching this, and was so happy to be able to put on paper. And I picked and chose the character… The book is narrative non-fiction, where I would take these different characters and use them to illustrate different parts of the bigger story, and those guys tell a big chunk of that story. And then one that came into my research later that I was very excited to find and to meet, was this woman, Sarah Matzar, who was, I guess what you would call an acid cook.
0:45:16 JJ: She wasn’t a proper chemist, where she was getting the precursor and converting it into LSD crystals. She was somebody who was picking up the LSD crystal and then converting it into consumable form, into blotter or into gel tabs, or into tablets or whatever. And she was the first person I was able to find who was really able to illustrate that part of the story. I’d found people at almost every other link of the distribution chain, down on street level, or whatever. And I’d talked a little bit to Rhoney Stanley, who worked in Owsley’s labs, but I hadn’t quite found anybody who really occupied the place that Sarah did.
0:46:00 JJ: And she was a perfect illustrated example of somebody who worked within the Grateful Dead world and was on Grateful Dead tour. But she wasn’t dealing on Grateful Dead tour, she was just part of that universe. But also connected to all kinds of other psychedelic worlds where she spent some time in New York where she was connected to the art punk world around CBGB, which is not often acknowledged as a psychedelic scene, but certainly had psychedelic proponents and stuff in there. So she was just an incredible narrative to connect to those points and get a picture of the way the Grateful Dead world, like I was saying, was really the mainstream of the psychedelic world but was by no means the entirety of it.
0:46:46 JJ: And you know, she told me a lot of on the record and off the record stories about how this stuff worked. Like one about how people would get LSD crystal and it was mostly made in Europe and then there was this little group of people who would then act to basically bring it over from that deeper level of chemists and the people who were actually doing it, and then get it to people like Sarah. And then she was telling me about the network of people like her and the range of people who were doing that. And some people were like her in that she was doing a pretty thorough job. She invented a method of making gel tabs, which I detail in the book. But there were also this level of people who were just getting the LSD crystal. And she was telling me about this one guy who used to do conversions in gas station bathrooms. He would get a portable humidifier and just lock himself in and do the whole thing in two or three hours, or something like that.
0:47:43 JJ: So it’s sort of colorful detail at a level that I was hoping to find but didn’t until I found her. And so, she’s also, on top of that, while she was making LSD, was also getting her masters in Anthropology, and is this incredible quilter. She studies Mayan textile making, and she’s Guatemalan. At the same time that she was doing all of this, selling acid was also paying for her education and helping provide for her art. And she would say that she believed in acid, she didn’t believe it was for everybody. But the reason she was doing this was for the money, in the sense that she did think she was doing a good thing in terms of spreading LSD, as most people involved in LSD tend to believe. But she was doing it also to fund this art that she was doing, but also have it be a creative resource for her art. And I have a quilt by Sarah on my bed, it’s beautiful, and you really see this psychedelic quilting aesthetic that’s part traditional and part new.
0:48:54 PA: And for me, that’s always a fascinating aspect of psychedelic history, and more psychedelic culture, because I think… I wage this battle every day, so to say, in terms of in the English language, we have a word, and it’s drug. And the word drug explains a lot of things. And especially when people use the word to label or just to talk about drugs, the connotation is often one that is negative. And so, obviously this is when LSD gets looped in with heroin, which gets looped in with crack cocaine, which gets looped in with crystal meth, kinda how the federal government has scheduled it, unfortunately.
0:49:34 JJ: Right. How all drugs are bad. That’s like the “Just say no”, that was one of the questions that obviously pops to mind when you see those ads. I don’t know. But, I don’t know. Yeah, exactly.
0:49:47 PA: But my point is, it’s interesting to look at the people who were involved in psychedelic culture, specifically, because I find a lot of those people to have been, and this isn’t an overarching rule, but a lot of these people are people who, they have a lot going for them. They’re really intelligent, they’re well-educated, they’re doing really creative art projects, they play really great music. They have a lot going for them, so to say.
0:50:11 PA: Whereas, from an outsider’s perspective, and this is my point, that the traditional perspective of a drug user or drug dealer is… This evil persona, kinda like a crack cocaine dealer or a heroin dealer, or like Frank Lucas in American Gangster, how he’s shooting and killing people. So it’s interesting to see these personalities that come out of psychedelic culture because oftentimes, who they are, are really interesting, creative, peaceful, loving, people.
0:50:46 JJ: Yeah, they’re Heads, man.
0:50:48 PA: Exactly.
0:50:49 JJ: But yeah, I think that’s the difference between drug abuse and drug use. They’re two… Drug abuse is something that’s probably not great. There are drugs of abuse, but there are also drugs that are useful and extremely valuable. And I think that’s where psychedelics fall. Which isn’t to say they can’t be dangerous for some people and don’t serve everybody in the best way, but I think in the long run the majority of people using psychedelics, I would say, are probably using them in the correct way for the right reasons or something like that.
0:51:23 PA: On an overall basis, I think that’s the case and I think… And this is…
0:51:27 JJ: Not that there could be correct or right, but I think you know what I mean. [chuckle]
0:51:31 PA: But there’s context, right?
0:51:33 JJ: Right.
0:51:34 PA: It is important to pay attention to set and setting on psychedelics. It is pretty important to watch your dose level, especially if it’s your first time, it is. Because things can go wrong, and I think that’s part of accepting the psychedelic experience.
0:51:45 JJ: And I think that’s actually one of the great lessons of these last 50 years of psychedelics, even though they’ve been illegal, is that there is this incredible body of what’s basically folk knowledge that has emerged around it. Sometimes there are scientific studies to back them up, but there is just that basic information like set and setting, are so valuable and so basically universal for these experiences. And the psychedelic world has done a really good job of spreading information. The knowledge of this stuff is pretty well… Is part of it as well. Like you look at sites like Erowid, and you look at the books that the Shulgins put out. And education is clearly an important part of psychedelic use, whether or not they’re legal or not.
0:52:36 PA: Absolutely, and this is, I think, the power of the age that we’re in now. What I have termed the “third wave of psychedelics”, what other people are calling the “psychedelic renaissance”, is we’re at an age now where, with the internet, information is freely available at our fingertips, and instead of relying… In the past, really pre-internet or really even pre-2000, information dissemination has largely been through the government, and that’s often because they have consolidation of power and money and resources. And now with the internet, that is changing.
0:53:11 PA: And I think people are… And this has happened with marijuana right now, for example, which is a point that you talked about in your book as well, this relationship between cannabis and psychedelics. And I think people are waking up to the fact that something seriously fucked up [chuckle] right now. Do you know what I mean?
0:53:29 JJ: Right, yeah.
0:53:30 PA: And psychedelics are just one tool in this catalyst of change where more and more people are being drawn towards self-healing. More and more people are realizing well like, “Okay, maybe this whole corporation, working for a corporation 60 hours a week, hating my life during the week, working for the weekends, eating McDonald’s, watching television, maybe there’s something not so healthy about that.” And we see now psychedelics as a tool to help mend these issues. And there are other ones as well. I think the movement towards… There are more and more people who are doing yoga, there are more and more people who are, I think, spending time outside and going hiking. I think there are more and more people who are paying attention to where their food comes from, factory farming, and trying to minimize that. So I think it’s a whole move towards this catalyst towards higher consciousness, so to say.
0:54:21 JJ: Yeah, mindfulness, I think.
0:54:22 PA: Mindfulness, that’s a great way… Meditation is another one, right?
0:54:25 JJ: Yeah. And I think that there’s absolutely no coincidence that that’s the Greek prefix for psychedelic, is mind, and that psychedelic literally means “mind manifesting”. One of the things that I came across for an article I was reading recently was this little bit of text deep in… What do you call it? In TIHKAL, in the second Sasha and Ann Shulgin book, where they’re talking about the… Or Sasha is writing about the etymology of the word “psychedelic”, and the… Which we talked about a little bit before with Humphry Osmond. But talking about a bunch of different variations that had been proposed for it, which, none of which I had really knew before, which were like psychophoric, which means “mind moving”, psychohormic, I’m looking at this right now, is “mind rousing”, psychozymic, which means “mind fermenting”, psycherhexic, which means “mind bursting forth”, psycholetic, which means “mind releasing”.
0:55:23 JJ: And I think that there’s a meta lesson to be taken here that connects to this third wave thing, where I think one of the defining characteristics of the third wave, or the renaissance, or the psychedelic spring, is another expression I’ve heard for it, is now this ability to draw on this body of knowledge from the previous generations of psychedelic users, in a way that those previous generations weren’t able to draw on the people who came before them.
0:55:51 JJ: Because there’s now this democratized internet of information that’s just accessible to people. And you can look, you can search through Erowid experience reports to learn about poly-drug safety, what combinations of drugs are safe to put with other drugs, or whatever. Or learn about the safety of things in general. Or even get down into the granular study of things like the mushroom voice, which is this large phenomenon in the psychedelic world, that now having access to all these tools makes it so much easier to study and understand. That all of those things and more differentiate this present moment from everything that’s happened.
0:56:36 PA: Yeah, and you’re absolutely correct. And this is a good segue into the last question that I wanna ask you, which is basically, How will the internet, and what’s going to happen, what do you think is going to happen… And this is obviously pure speculation. But in the next five to 10 years in terms of the changing cultural tide around psychedelic?
0:56:55 JJ: It’s so hard to say. The crypto market is such a fascinating change in the way that the wholesale of drugs has evolved. And it happened really so quickly that it’s hard for me to even get my head around what might possibly happen to it next. But certainly that seems like one ongoing development, is the change to the wholesale drug distribution model, at least for psychedelics. I think a huge thing that has an impact on psychedelics, but really only as like a smaller side effect, is this real explosion of micro-cultural, or what used to be thought of as micro-cultural information, through social media.
0:57:41 JJ: And I think it’s leading to this really amazing and incredible and inspiring large-scale liberation, that ties together Black Lives Matter and this contemporary Civil Rights Movement, and it ties together this new understanding and new acceptance of gay marriage and transgender issues, where you have all these voices that were previously really marginalized and looked down upon in these awful ways, where there are now these platforms for people to say things loud and proud.
0:58:16 JJ: And to me, that’s just so amazing and so powerful, and psychedelics fits into that in such a big way, that it’s hard not to see all of those things as one giant cultural wave that I don’t think we’ll really be able to understand for another couple of decades, this wave of people coming forth and declaring non-violent freedoms for themselves that they deserve. And the internet is such a powerful amplifier for that, and especially in the last 10 years has been, that I think the openness around psychedelics is just broadening. There are so many psychedelic podcasts now. I went to this event the other night in New York run by the group, Psymposia, which is sort of the psychedelic storytelling night, where a lot of it is this coming out of the psychedelic closet belief set. And I think just the changing public perception is just so cool to watch. And I think that’s what I’m keeping my eye on the most.
0:59:17 PA: And I like the way you put that. And I think one thing that I’ve read about this change in consciousness is, like you’re saying, the democratization of the internet is enabling people’s true self to really come out and be accepted, in their identity, to be…
0:59:31 JJ: Right, or their true selves to be revealed in all its naked awfulness, as you sometimes see in Twitter-land or wherever. [chuckle] It swings both ways. But obviously for the psychedelic world, I see that as a hugely positive thing.
0:59:48 PA: Thanks so much for coming and talking to us today about the history of psychedelic America. We’ve covered a lot about, everything from your story growing up with a dad that was out in California in the ’60s, tying into why that inspired you to really dig deep into the history of psychedelic America, with the stories that we talked about, with Mescaline being shipped, and Gordon Wasson, and obviously then with the Grateful Dead and the Dead Heads, and the culture and community that they created around psychedelics was a really powerful play, and a really powerful part of where we are today. So, Jesse, I just wanna thank you for coming on. It was a pleasure to have you, and it was a pleasure to talk to you.
1:00:29 JJ: Cool. I really appreciate it. That was a really fun conversation. [chuckle]
1:00:32 PA: Great. Well, we’ll talk soon.
1:00:34 JJ: Yeah, absolutely, man. Talk to you soon.
1:00:36 S1: Thanks for listening to the Psychedelia Podcast with Paul Austin. Want more psychedelic information? Go to our website at TheThirdWave.co and register for our email list and newsletter. Also, please consider donating to The Third Wave via our Patreon page. Donations make this podcast possible. Psychedelics have the potential to transform lives. By donating, you enable us to continue to inform people about the benefits of these powerful substances.