Magazine article Reason

The Insanely Eventful Life of Grateful Dead Lyricist John Perry Barlow: A Posthumous Memoir from a Mutant Genius

Magazine article Reason

The Insanely Eventful Life of Grateful Dead Lyricist John Perry Barlow: A Posthumous Memoir from a Mutant Genius

Article excerpt

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. …

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