John Perry Barlow

The Insanely Eventful Life of Grateful Dead Lyricist John Perry Barlow

A posthumous memoir from a mutant genius


Mother American Night: My Life in Crazy Times, by John Perry Barlow with Robert Greenfield, Crown Archetype, 288 pages, $27

Crown Archetype

John Perry Barlow, who died this year at age 70, was a Grateful Dead lyricist, a pioneer in the fight for online civil liberties, and possibly a mutant. As Barlow recounts in his posthumously published memoir, Mother American Night, his mother as a girl was treated for tuberculosis by a quack who administered a prolonged beam of X-rays right into her hip. Forty-five minutes of this treatment gave her radiation sickness. Her hair fell out, she suffered severe burns, and she was informed that, oops, she'd been sterilized.

The sterilization didn't take. Two decades later, in 1947, she gave birth to John Perry Barlow. One of his X-Men superpowers seems to have been to unerringly locate centers of the American zeitgeist and discover some pivotal role he could play in them.

If you'd encountered Barlow as a child—by his account, he was raised primarily "by drunken cowboys and farm animals" on his parents' ranch in Wyoming—you wouldn't have guessed there were any awesome mutant genes at work. Young Barlow finished his freshman year of public high school with a straight-F average. "A root vegetable could have done better," he writes. "But I didn't give a fuck." As he explains it, "I was in such a spiteful little mood back then that I was intentionally giving the wrong answers to questions both in the classroom and on tests." Barlow joined other disaffected teens to form a laughably minor-league motorcycle gang. (They had met in the Boy Scouts, they rode tiny Hondas, and their idea of terrorizing the straights was blowing up Coca-Cola vending machines.)

Barlow's father, state Sen. Norman Barlow, eventually decided it would be politically expedient to send his wayward son away to boarding school. Barlow finished his secondary education at the Fountain Valley School in Colorado Springs, which he says "specialized in admitting bright miscreants."

It was at Fountain Valley that Barlow's uncanny gravitation toward cultural singularities began to manifest itself. He quickly befriended the musically inclined dyslexic kid who roomed across the hall—Bob Weir, who would become a founding member of the Grateful Dead.

Barlow did well enough in his classes to earn admission to all six of the colleges he applied to, including Yale and Columbia. He opted for Wesleyan, which at the time was an all-male college. For Barlow, this meant frequent motorcycle trips to New England's all-female colleges. "I always tended to keep some kind of relationship going with a student at Sarah Lawrence," he writes, "so I could attend Joseph Campbell's lecture every Monday morning." A lapsed Mormon, Barlow missed religious faith; Campbell's studies of comparative religion and mythology attracted him.

So did LSD. At a Vassar mixer, Barlow learned about a communal group in Millbrook, New York, headed by the psychedelic guru Timothy Leary and funded by Leary disciples who happened to be heirs to the Mellon fortune. Barlow visited Millbrook and thought it interesting, though he was put off by Leary himself. After some fast and furious research, he decided to take his first LSD dose back at Wesleyan. "From then on," he writes, "I was permanently rewired."

At this point, Barlow's mutant propensity to live a mythological life really kicked in. He soon discovered that Weir was a member of a band. Aspiring to somehow get involved, he asked himself, What can I do for these guys to demonstrate my own mojo so I can be part of their thing?

During the intermission at the first Grateful Dead show he attended, Barlow heard Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band for the first time. The next morning he bought the album and took Weir, bandmate Phil Lesh, and their respective girlfriends to Millbrook to meet Leary. Jerry Garcia, Mountain Girl (later Carolyn Garcia), and the rest of the band came separately.

The Dead and their entourage quizzed Leary, whose high-church view of LSD was decidedly different from their hands-on, Merry Pranksterish approach, and they all listened to the epochal Beatles album together. "After the record was over," Barlow writes, "Tim Leary stood up and in this incredibly pretentious, sententious mystical voice, said, 'My work is finished. Now it's out.'" Barlow was finished with Leary. Or so he thought.

At this point you may think I've summarized at least half the book. In fact, we haven't even captured the first 50 pages. Beat legend Neal Cassady shows up in the next chapter, as does Augustus Owsley Stanley, the first major LSD entrepreneur. In the chapter after that, Barlow sets out to blow up the statue of John Harvard in Harvard Yard but gets intercepted by concerned Wesleyan friends and faculty, who pump him full of Thorazine until he calms down and finishes out his term as "de facto student body president." (No, really, that's what he was.) Then there's the period when he talks his way out of the draft, gets accepted to Harvard Law School, sells his first novel (based on a half-finished draft!), and avoids either completing the novel or beginning law school by spending his advance on a trip to India, where he dates the Dalai Lama's sister. Andy Warhol makes an appearance. So does Dick Cheney. In 1990, Barlow co-founds the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), to this day one of the leading groups fighting for digital liberties.

I was EFF's first employee as a newly minted lawyer, but what I knew of Barlow in those early days couldn't have filled a thimble. I remembered his name because he'd been a participant in an early online colloquy about the ethics of computer hacking, later edited and published in Harper's. That Barlow was moderately famous as a writer for the Grateful Dead was lost on me. His broader backstory—the tale of a guy who at various times had been a professional rancher, a committed consumer of recreational drugs, and a friend to celebs from John F. Kennedy Jr. to Edward Snowden—is something I only pieced together over the course of many years. And even then it didn't exactly fit into a coherent narrative.

With the publication of Mother American Night (co-authored with Robert Greenfield, a veteran journalist and biographer), we now have that narrative. If it sometimes seemed to those of us who knew Barlow that he had a tendency to exaggerate, this book pulls together all the threads of his life in a way that suggests, maybe, he'd been understating things.

Few people knew what to make of Barlow, a long-haired hippie who was Republican by region and family, liberal in his insistence on questioning authority and tradition, and libertarian in his reflexive (but not insuperable) doubts about government. Each of America's mainstream political factions can claim to have shaped him, but none could contain him or own him—like Walt Whitman, he could contradict himself. (He loved the new medium called the internet but never got over his presumption that TV was bad for people, even though his arguments against television were often the same as other people's arguments against the web.)

Timothy Leary, with whom Barlow finally became friendly later in life, would introduce him this way: "Here's Barlow. He's an American." Barlow writes that this was likely intended as a compliment and an insult, which is no doubt correct. But readers of his biography may find that the compliment outweighs any insult.

Barlow's mutant superpower had been his ability to find the heart of a particular historical or social moment and experience it in full, but that also included the ability to endure and (mostly) recover from a great deal of unexpected pain. One example, which Barlow relates in the book with quiet emotional force, resulted from the abrupt, seemingly random death of the woman who had perhaps the strongest claim to be the love of his life. (She died as a freak consequence of having the flu—the virus damaged her heart, which quietly stopped on a transcontinental flight.) Another is the equally random sequence of events that led to Barlow's final two years of disability and death: a cascade of diseases and unforeseen side effects of treatments that began with a staph infection in his toe, worn raw by an ill-fitting boot. He recovered from the loss of his girlfriend to continue doing great work on internet and civil liberties issues. But he never did recover from the damned boot, although he hung on long enough to finish Mother American Night.

Barlow had won book contracts before, but as far I know, none of the other volumes ever made it to print. This one crossed the finish line at pretty much the same time Barlow himself did. His life was the book he'd been writing all along.