Out Of Our Heads: Rock ‘n’ Roll Before the Drugs Wore Off

Out of Our Heads

Riding on the relative success of 2007’s Jimmy Page:  Magus, Musician, Man, I was offered further writing contracts by the publisher Hal Leonard / Backbeat, and the editors and I settled on my idea of chronicling the Beatles’ smoke-filled first meeting with Bob Dylan but expanding it to cover the broader topic of rock ‘n’ roll and drugs during the 1960s and 70s generally.  My original title was Everybody Must Get Stoned, which turned out to have been used by another author on a similar theme, and the release of the final book was pushed back by the economic crash of 2008 and its aftereffects.  Out Of Our Heads is not my most popular work, but it extends my meditations on the enduring social legacies of ephemeral commercial entertainment.

Admittedly, analyzing rock music’s association with chemical indulgence is not exactly a critical breakthrough, and it was a challenge to find fresh information about people whose personal excesses have become part of their legends:  if you weren’t aware that Black Sabbath, the Grateful Dead, and Bob Marley were prodigious consumers of illicit substances, then Out Of Our Heads may come as a shock.  So I tried to construct a rough chronology of the psychedelic era and its epilogue, beginning with the Fab Four being introduced to cannabis by the former Robert Zimmerman in 1964, then tracing the infusion of soft, hard, and lethal drugs throughout the pop industry during its peak economic decades.  A discography of influential drug-related artists and records, “Blown Speakers, Blown Minds,” closes the book, citing albums like Are You Experienced?, Revolver, Blonde on BlondeHotel California, Sticky Fingers, Dark Side of the Moon, and of course Cheech & Chong’s Greatest Hit; the final product also features some cool photos of Steve Tyler with a joint, Ozzy Osbourne with a coke spoon, Alice Cooper (a drug abstainer) and band watching a sex show, Keith Richards at a court date, and – most disgraceful of all – Nancy Reagan at a “Just Say No” event.

I managed to bring into Out Of Our Heads not just accounts of rock musicians and their fans doing drugs but a big-picture consideration of classic rock’s overall place in global history, a subject I’d been exploring for several years before contracting with Backbeat.  Some passages from earlier unpublished texts of mine were included in the eventual manuscript, where I described the rock ‘n’ roll heyday as a reminder of “the widening chasm between folk art and pop culture…[C]lassic rock spoke of the intersection of individualism and Information in a Dionysian revel heard around the world for some sixteen years, and closed with the displacement of the imaginative, inspired, and more or less independent creator by a technological and mercantile colossus.”  At the core of that long-term importance is the music’s role in expanding the pharmaceutical repertoire of modern civilization, an expansion we see today in the momentum toward enlightened (and long overdue) policies around marijuana in numerous jurisdictions.

Out Of Our Heads, then, is not just a book about the vices of celebrated rock ‘n’ rollers but at its most ambitious a study of culture, technology, and politics, recognizably by the same writer of both Silence Descends and the Jimmy Page biography.  It’s won some favorable reviews from critics and ordinary readers, and in delusions of grandeur I like to think it has contributed to ongoing conversations over drugs, public health, the media, and personal freedom.  If you can find a copy today, I recommend Out Of Our Heads.  Very highly, so to speak.

Next week:  Dumbing Down Dissent:  Fads and Fallacies in Political Discourse

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