Jesse Jarnow is the co-host/co-producer of the Good Ol’ Grateful Deadcast. Before that, he was a prolific freelance journalist and writer of books such as Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America, Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock, and Wasn’t That A Time: The Weavers, the Blacklist, and the Battle for the Soul of America. He’s also a DJ on the venerated freeform radio station WFMU.
How did you get to where you are today, professionally?
I’ve basically always been writing, since I learned how to do it. Both of my parents worked at home in various capacities and actually bought a copying machine when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade, and I started making little zines pretty soon thereafter, often with friends, sometimes just by myself, and pretty much never stopped. I got into listservs in high school in the mid-‘90s, which led to some digital and print zine writing for other people, which developed into a few regular paid gigs by my senior year of college. My first few years out of college, alongside music writing, I did a ton of very random-feeling freelance copywriting, often (but not exclusively) under the vague heading of “educational.” I wrote study guides, sample test questions, news summations for a digital newspaper geared to kids, even some short books. For most of that, I had to write to specific grade levels, as judged by Microsoft (I think?), which I mention because it all felt really valuable as a writer in a very mechanical way. It was also equally good training for blurb-writing and social media.
But specifically, as a young head, I wrote for the website jambands.com, which got bought in the late ‘90s dot-com boom while I was still in college and joined operations with the still-quite-active print magazine Relix, yielding both regular work for me and accidentally giving me a speciality/beat that ended up opening doors at bigger publications. A turning point was a half-goofed late-night pitch to interview Hunter S. Thompson about his new book in 2003, really not expecting anything to come of it but which turned into a Relix cover story, which in turn led to Rolling Stone contacting me that summer to cover a Phish festival.