THIS was a life.
John Perry Barlow was born on a Wyoming cattle ranch, the son of a state senator. He attended a one-room school and was raised a devout Mormon whose only electronic entertainment was televangelism programs. He went to prep school at the highly progressive Fountain Valley School in Colorado Springs and became friends with a troubled, dyslexic kid named Bob Weir. He then attended Wesleyan, where he was student body president and graduated with high honors, even though he served some time in a sanitarium. He was accepted into Harvard Law School but instead travelled the world for two years, writing a novel in India and some screenplays in Los Angeles.
In 1971, Barlow reconnected with his friend Weir, who had become the rhythm guitar player and secondary songwriter for the Grateful Dead (Barlow had previously introduced the band to his friend Timothy Leary, which began the band’s long strange trip into LSD experimentation). Weir was working on his first solo album, and asked Barlow for help with some of the words. Which led to an on-and-off partnership which created several of the band’s most defining songs, with some of the most poetic and offbeat lyrics in rock history.
“Quick beats in an icy heart, catch-colt draws a coffin cart, there he goes and now hear she starts, hear her cry.”
“So it goes, we make what we make since the world began. Nothing more, the love of the women, the work of men. Seasons round, creatures great and small. Up and down as we rise and fall.”
“Is there anything a man don’t stand to lose, when the devil wants to take it all away? Cherish well your thoughts, and keep a tight grip on your booze ’cause thinkin’ and drinkin’ are all I have today.”
But rock music was only Barlow’s hobby. Most of the time he ran his Wyoming ranch, employing various friends as hands (including JFK Jr. when Jackie O sent him there to get his head screwed on). Barlow served as President of the Wyoming Outdoor Council. He was chairman of his county’s Republican Party, and supported Dick Cheney’s 1978 run for Congress, but later renounced the Party to become an ardent libertarian, even describing himself as an anarchist. In 1986, he joined the Whole Earth ‘Lectric Link (WELL), one of the earliest online communities, which proved to be the beginning of a 30-year adventure pioneering and defending Internet freedoms. He established the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF); he was friends with Sean Parker, the founder of file-sharing service Napster; he successfully helped publicize and defend Steven Games in an early Internet-freedom case against the Secret Service; he was friends with Steve Jobs; he established the Freedom of the Press Foundation with fellow member Eric Snowden; he was a Fellow Emeritus at Harvard Law School, a member of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, and a Professor of Cyberspace at the European Graduate School of Saas-Fee, Switzerland; he served on a dozen advisory boards and as an officer of numerous start-ups; and he hung out with General Wesley Clark at Burning Man.
In 2016, after several heart attacks limited his travelling and advocating, he republished a final manifesto. On January 20 – Inauguration Day – Barlow reposted A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, which he had written way back in 1996. You can read the whole thing at https://www.eff.org/cyberspace-independence. Barlow’s final song, his lasting lyric, begins and ends with these words:
“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”
“We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.”
This past Wednesday his adventure came to an end. On February 7, 2018, John Perry Barlow – the everyman who seemingly went everywhere, knew everyone and was involved in everything – died in his sleep at age 70.
He leaves behind his lyrics and his writings for us to enjoy and to ponder. But he always knew where he was headed:
“My time coming, any day, don’t worry about me, no. Been so long I felt this way, I’m in no hurry, no. Rainbows end down that highway where ocean breezes blow. My time coming, voices saying they tell me where to go…a prophet on a burning shore…knocking on the golden door…like an angel, standing in a shaft of light, rising up to paradise, I know I’m gonna shine.”