All In The Family: Jesse Jarnow
You may have heard us mention music scribe Jesse Jarnow's name a few times over this past year. He's contributed liner notes to the Dave's Picks series, mapped out Grateful Dead "monuments" for Chicago concert-goers, and put together an astoundingly complete list of the band's entire repertoire for our 30 Trips Around The Sun release. With a book about Dead Heads and psychedelic culture just around the corner, we figured it's high time we shed a little more light on his connection to the community. Get to know Jesse here.
You've covered music and pop culture at a variety of big name publications for quite some time now. What was your trajectory to writer... specifically to music writer?
I'm not sure there was a trajectory so much as I just kept writing and here I am. Whenever I learned to string words together on paper, probably first grade or something, I just got a notebook and started writing and always wrote. My father worked at home and got a copying machine for his art studio around the time I was in second grade and pretty quickly I started making zines and stuff, sometimes with my friends, sometimes by myself. I was a complete music head starting before all that, obsessed with Pete Seeger and the Weavers and Arlo Guthrie and, eventually, the Beatles and the Stones, with some kidsy stuff thrown in. I don't remember when music became one of the things I wrote about, definitely before high school, but when I got online, it spilled into newsgroups and mailing lists. I edited the school paper and my own zine in high school, but my first real in-print writing--while I was in college--was in one of the very last issues of the great Deadhead zine Dupree's Diamond News in 1998, which I'm really glad I was able to contribute to. And it just sort of went from there.
One book under your belt - Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock - and another one - Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America - coming down the pipeline. Can you shed a little light on not only the research process but some things that the Dead community might find interesting about this upcoming release?
Sure, though, in some ways, that's a surprisingly hard answer to round down. "Heads" (which'll be out in the spring via Da Capo) is the story of underground psychedelics in America, but it's also the first real history of the Dead community itself, I think.
There are of course a gazillion amazing books about the Dead, but there was this whole secret history that I wanted to know about that seemed to exist only in oral lore, the stories of the earliest concert tapers and traders like Marty Weinberg and Dick Latvala, and the story of how the Dead world connected to communes and the San Francisco experimental music scene and the early Stanford hackers and the Whole Earth Catalog and the counterculture in general and what it all meant, maaaaan. And I also really wanted to know about the acid!
So in that way, it's also a super easy question to answer: The book focuses a ton on the history of LSD and--among other things--how it got made and distributed, and how that all connected to the Dead world, for better or for worse. There've been histories of acid's early years, about Albert Hofmann and Aldous Huxley and Al Hubbard and Timothy Leary and some of the CIA's experiments, but nobody had ever really written about what happened after the '60s. And when I was growing up in the '80s and '90s, psychedelic culture was very in evidence, including both the Dead and the huge and horrible and still-ongoing drug war. It seemed like lots of pieces worth putting together.
I interviewed a lot of people who'd never been interviewed before, plus a bunch who had, dug around in libraries, including the Dead's business papers at the Grateful Dead Archive in Santa Cruz, and went through court documents, old online mailing lists, conferred with some serious Dead scholars and fellow countercultural researchers, and achieved pure Google-zen more than a few times. I think the story of underground psychedelic use in the United States is probably impossible to know or understand fully for reasons of scale and legality and secret-keeping, but there's still a lot that can be said. And I think it's a story that's worthwhile to start telling, especially as psychedelics start coming back into above-board therapeutic and spiritual use for the first time since the early '60s.
What was your initial attraction to and/or experience with the Grateful Dead and their community?
I'm pretty young by Deadhead standards, and though I did see the band twice in 1994--when I was a freshman and then sophomore in high school--my real entrance to the Dead was a few years before that. I don't remember how I first heard the band, probably on the radio. My parents were hippie-ish, but not really Dead fans. They had "Skull and Roses" in their record collection, which didn't grab me at first. But I read about the Dead's jams and I started listening to the Grateful Dead Hour with David Gans and the weekly Morning Dew show on WBAI, which played complete Dead sets, both of which we got loud and clear on Long Island. Between those two weekly radio shows, the music just grabbed me, especially the improvisation, and I built up a little tape collection very quickly making recordings off the radio.
I also started buying Dupree's Diamond News and Relix and trading tapes from the classified ads in the back, which was really fun, but also trying to understand what the hell I was reading about, which would often reference this huge body of lore I didn't fully get. Soon enough, I really clicked with the songs, or many of them, anyway. At some point around the time I saw those two Dead shows, I devoured and basically memorized Steve Silberman and David Shenk's Skeleton Key: A Dictionary For Deadheads, and after that I just sort of knew where I was. I was also discovering the early pre-web online world, where Deadheads made up a good proportion of the population, so when I did get to see the Dead, I'd already been trading tapes for a little, and knew what to expect somewhat.
We've certainly put you to work this year - helping out with both the Fare Thee Well festivities and the 30 Trips Around The Sun release. Tell us a little bit about your involvement with these projects.
I met David Lemieux for the first time at the really great So Many Roads conference in San Jose last year, where I presented. We'd corresponded before, but he introduced himself and we talked for a little bit. Like many Dead freaks he meets, I assume, I volunteered to help with liner notes, should he ever need that done. To my utter delight, he contacted me a few months later with an assignment to write the notes for Dave's Picks 14, which was an honor on just so many levels: an uncirculated show from my favorite Dead period recorded in my hometown, and such a great show at that. I'd already dug a bunch into New York countercultural history during research for my book, up and around that exact period, so it wasn't much of a stretch to go back to the East Village Other and Village Voice archives at the New York Public Library and hang out some more.
All the projects I've done for Dead projects have suggested different approaches and research strategies, my two contributions to 30 Trips Around the Sun being the most intense. For the big box, I made a complete list of the band's original repertoire and iconic covers in the order in which they were debuted, along with thumbnail historical descriptions of each tune's history in the band's songbook. Even with DeadBase and DeadLists and archive.org and all, it required a massive amount of forensics work, especially the early years, and felt like taking myself through a graduate course in Dead history. The notes to the four-disc version of 30 Trips felt a little bit like an outgrowth of that, connecting some the dots from the song list. Grateful Dead history is just bottomless fun because of the way every bit of it spirals out into creative and social connections and, eventually, more music. It's amazing to get to do this in every way, not only because of my deep nearly-lifelong Dead freakdom, but because Deadheads are music fans that still value liner notes! In an age where musician credits and album essays totally get the shaft from Spotify and streaming services, it makes me so giddy that it's the Dead and the heads who still represent for liners!
What's on your "must read" list for budding music fans?
Like the Grateful Dead, favorite music books and favorite music writing are something I'm excited to talk about for whatever length of time anybody is willing to listen or converse. I'd actually call Twitter a must-read for budding music fans. It's a great place to find current conversations and ideas and great writers, ranters, musicians, and more. Besides that, I'll limit myself to books here, and skip over Dead-related titles, which is a whole other conversation. Starting chronologically, sort of, Elijah Wald's How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll is a totally eye-opening and sweeping history of American popular music before the '60s and the British Invasion. Fred Goodman's The Mansion on the Hill and Frederic Dannen's Hit Men are pretty essential histories, about how the modern recording and radio industries got how they are.
Douglas Wolk's short-playing 33 1/3 book on James Brown's Live at the Apollo is a masterful and fun entrance point into James Brown and R&B. The Nearest Faraway Place: Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys, and the Southern California Experience by the late Billboard editor Timothy White is one of my all-time faves, a biography that uses the Beach Boys to explore the culture that produced them. White's book about Bob Marley is likewise a really incredible look into Jamaican history.
Will Hermes's Love Goes To Buildings On Fire is a breathtaking look at New York and New York music in the '70s and the birth of punk, hip-hop, disco, minimalism, and more, and is quite Dead-friendly, too. David Toop's Ocean of Sound is a head-spinning overview of ethereal and ambient music. In terms of criticism, I've got a huge soft spot for Paul Williams's multiple books on Bob Dylan, especially when he writes about Dylan's Christian period or the first half of the '80s, which I think raises lots of interesting interpretive questions about ways to listen to the Dead. I'm absolutely positive I'm leaving stuff out, but I'll leave it there!
Follow Jesse on Twitter or tune in to his show on WFMU.
I am being encouraged to write down everything I experienced and it would be weird as I only started seeing the band in the 80's. It would end up being more about ne than anything else, but if it wasn't as dumb as some of the books coming out about the band maybe It'd be fun to do, regardless if anyone reads it. Someone gave me a copy of "Everything i needed to know in business I learned from the Dead." I don't know if that book is good or bad, but I promptly recycled it when I was given it. Anyways I want to read "Heads." I always thought things must have been rough on tour in many ways, and that peace and love is great but survival is imperative....Running bare foot through the snow and whatever.
Nice interview of Mister Jarnow, thank you !!
So glad you are doing this. It's a project I've ruminated about over the years - the history of the psychedelic community and its development, major players, etc.
I got on the bus as a 15 year old in 1972, first show in '73, haven't missed a year since. In the 80's it became clear to me that Dead tours were one of the tactics in the battle for American culture. The Dead did great work by traveling around the country hosting temporary community conferences. They helped keep the counter-culture growing and healthy during a very critical time when the dark forces of counter-revolution were ascendant. The tours helped us all stay connected and build out our community. Eventually, we were everywhere! Despite years of being attacked and shunned and busted and vilified, much of what we know to be right and true has come to pass in the culture. We saw how much love there is for the Dead this year at Fare Thee Well.
Like Trixie said, I think we were all blown away by how much love and support there is in America, not only for the Grateful Dead, but for what we damn hippies have been saying for a long damn time!
One other comment, about the Dead and Christianity. In an interview in Rolling Stone in the early 90's, Jerry said he thought the Dead were a Christian band. Sure, he said; we try to practice those themes of love, forgiveness and salvation. Sin and redemption. Western Civilization is based on Graeco-Roman/Judeo-Christian ideas, so yeah - the framework is Christian.
I remember at the time being surprised, given how many Pagans are Dead heads, etc. Jer was right though. Those are the things good ol' JC was talkin' about. Those are the things we Deadheads try to practice. I was raised Catholic, and now I'm sort of a Druid type. All the love and forgiveness I was taught came from the good Catholics who taught me, not the hypocrites. I'm OK with it. Despite all the bad things associated with American Christianity, there are some good things in there. Jerry saw that. Jesus himself basically said, "Ain't no time to hate", didn't he?
Then there's Owsley. Very important man, that Owsley. But that's a different story.
We all know that the whole Dead thing was and is an ongoing, evolving, spiritual and good times based experiment. It's been a great ride, and I look forward to all of us going much, much Furthur.
It's always a treat to hear from/about you, Jesse. And this interview is another fine example. I've know you and talked with you for a few years, and I learn more every time we talk, or I read your work. Please keep it up!
Congrats on the interview. BT (Providence)
When Bay Area writers wrote the notes, the Giants won the World Series three times. Now we get a New York writer, and the Mets are in the World Series. Coincidence or causation?
i still remember coming across Jesse's writing back in those Usenet days of the mid-90s and feeling happy that the Dead phenomenon was in good shape and was going to continue inspiring chroniclers well into the future.
Nice to see you hereabouts!