From his days growing up on, and then later running, his family’s cattle ranch in Wyoming, to his time spent co-writing legendary songs with Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, John Perry Barlow has covered a lot of ground. He is widely recognized as one of the pioneers of the internet and has been dubbed “the Thomas Jefferson of Cyberspace.” Among other things, he co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting freedom of expression online, and was one of the early members of the groundbreaking community website, The WELL. His notable designations include being a Fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and appearing on the masthead of Wired magazine for many years. He graduated from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, in 1969 with an honors degree in comparative religion and has since traveled the globe as a writer, lecturer, philosopher and generally fascinating human being.
Good to see you John Perry. So I guess you’ve been living in San Francisco for a while now?
Yes, I moved here probably a little over a year ago. I’ve been living here since my health issues started. Prior to this I was staying in a one-bedroom cabin down in Palo Alto that was part of an intentional community that used to be all Deadheads who went to Stanford. Now it’s composed of stellar graduate students in the sciences. I was semi moved in here up until [the point of my illness] and I’ve been here since.
Many people in the Grateful Dead scene have been concerned about your health, yet I saw you had posted on social media that reports of your demise were greatly exaggerated. How are you feeling these days?
Well, someone had written an obit for me on a card [for the game Cards Against Humanity] that included the information: John Perry Barlow – Born 1947, Died 2015 (laughs). Clearly they had overstated my demise, but the fact is that due to a sequence of iatrogenic failures I was cruising up and down death’s driveway most of 2015. It was kind of an amazing trip. I was in peril for quite a while and gradually it got even more exotic. At one point I had a massive myocardial infarction. They’d been fooling around inside my veins and in the process knocked loose a clot the size of Rhode Island that ended up in my coronary artery. I was as good as gone and didn’t have any heartbeat for eight minutes. I was at UCSF Long Hospital when it happened. In any case they put the paddles on me and that didn’t work, so they put ’em on again and turned ’em up and it didn’t work, then they put ’em on again and turned ’em way up and it burned my skin, and then this amazing intern grabbed my arms and pulled me off the gurney and leaped on my chest with both knees and my heart was kind of like well if you’re gonna be like that then I guess I’ll beat (laughs). But I was dead for eight minutes, and much to my dismay there were no ascending rivers of light or descending angelic hosts including everybody I’d ever loved or any of those things. That wasn’t happening. In fact all that was happening was just stone black darkness. I told Weir about it and he said, “well you just weren’t dead enough.” Always this criticism (laughter).
Well, as long as we’re on the subject of “The Other One,” Bob Weir, can you tell me about your history and collaboration with him? You guys have known each other since high school right?
Yeah Bobby has been my official best friend for 53 years. And I have been his. Before we met, we had both established a fairly consistent record of being intelligent but intractable individuals. I actually had a straight-F average from Pinedale High School in Pinedale, Wyoming, where I used to ride my motorcycle to school. And I mean you could be a root vegetable and do better than that (laughter). That actually took some doing. But my parents took that as a vote, which it was was, to get me the hell out of there. And also my father was running for office and my behavior at the time was a political liability to him.
So you went down south to boarding school in Colorado?
Yes, to a school that specialized in people just like Bobby and me. It still does. It’s called Fountain Valley School. It’s a great place.
When you say people “like you and Bobby” can you elaborate?
Well, yes, people who are intelligent and intractable. I was intractable because I wanted trouble. Bobby was intractable because he couldn’t understand the rules. And he couldn’t quite be made to bother with why they were important to other people.
Sounds a bit like his guitar style . . .
(Big laugh) Yeah there are a number of things like that with him.
What was it like collaborating with him?
Oh it was quite painful a lot of the time. I always had a melody line that summoned forth the song and also a notion of phrasing that was really beat on the number, and Bobby’s phrasing is kind of like a guy would walk if he had two pairs of knees (chuckles) . . . it’s different. So that was frustrating. But at first I was working with him because he was my friend and he needed me to help out. And then I think I started to get satisfaction from the Deadheads and I felt like we were creating and serving a community that I really appreciated.
Was this in the early ’70s when you first started collaborating, or the late ’60s? You were in college back east at Wesleyan?
Yeah, but I had gotten out of college and had gone to India and spent nine months there.
Were you on a spiritual quest a la Ram Dass?
No not at all. I got out of the draft and I was admitted to Harvard Law School and got my novel bought by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. It never got published for reasons I’ll explain, but they bought the first half of the novel with a significant advance and I was supposed to finish it. I eventually did finish it but I finished it as another person basically after I got back from India.
Did you live in an ashram?
No, I was all over the place there. The thing that kicked me to go to India was truly whimsical. I had a friend that had been an outside agitator at the London School of Economics when I met him. He was the son of a major maharajah who was way down on his luck because he was Muslim and the government wouldn’t let him move or sell or take care of anything and he was having a very hard time and his son wanted to go back and visit the maharajanate and for some reason thought I would be good company since I came from a failing ranch (laughter). There was some overlap. The first place I went was to Bombay, which completely fried all my circuits. I was not prepared for it. On the ride in from the airport there was a little commotion in the back of the bus and the bus driver goes back to investigate and then he came forward with a spindly little man, like a stick figure almost, who was dead, and he opened the side door and took the little man very gently and reverently and put him down on the sidewalk and drove away. No muss no fuss. I was like what?! And it was also the monsoon time and I had never seen rain like that. It was raining pigs. Just incredible. So I checked into what had been a fine hotel during the raj (British sovereignty in India), but it was clearly down on its luck. I just holed up in there for three days reading F. Scott Fitzgerald. On the third day there was a frantic rapping on my door and there’s this 11-year-old bell hop in what looks like a generalissimo’s uniform, it’s all ratty but you get the idea. And he’s got the front page of The Times of India that says Americans Land on Moon and he says “you on moon!” — which is about exactly how I felt. But anyway I went to Mahmudabad and found myself on top of a mountain with a holy man, though it was completely by accident
Was it the way it’s pictured? With a man sitting on a cliffside meditating up in the mountains?
Yeah kind of. That’s pretty much what he was doing. he was alone and meditating. He was a Tibetan Lama who spoke some English as he had taught for a year at Bryn Mawr. It turned out that he had more questions for me than answers. He wanted to know all about automobile mechanics, which I was willing to tell him.
You knew about that from your time on the ranch?
Yeah, It’s a subject I know a lot about. What he was trying to do was to understand causal time the way westerners do. Because in Tibet everything just happens kind of synchronously. They have a different sense of time than we do. I never did quite figure it out but it’s different. And the other reason he was doing this was because the Dalai Lama at one point his great miracle was that he found a couple crated cars in the bottom of the Potala Palace — a Chrysler and a DeSoto. And at that time he was 11 years old and he put these cars together and drove them around Lhasa without ever having seen a car before. Which I regard as something of a miracle.
When you and Weir got together to create, how did that process go?
It went lots of different ways. Sometimes we would start out with just a grain of something and spin it up from there; and sometimes I’d have some guitar chords that gave me a sense of the tonality of the song but no sense of where the melody fit or where the words would fit. That was how it was with “Cassidy.” And in that case I made up the melody and that was one that stuck.
That’s one of my favorites.
I’m pretty fond of it too.
Did “Cassidy” have a particular inspiration?
It had a couple of inspirations. One was Neil Cassady and the other was a child named Cassidy, who was born very close to the time that Neil died.
Neil the Beat?
Yeah he was one of the most interesting guys I ever met, without any contest.
His life was art?
HE was art, and he was magic. He could casually do stuff that would get other people killed, but not him (laughter). And he also had the ability to carry on multiple conversations at once. I remember one time we were driving through San Francisco in a Cadillac. And like most Cadillacs he had, it had iffy steering. Old Cadillacs would develop this power steering drift that would require something that was more like car herding, it wasn’t steering. I was in the backseat with two girls next to me, which was a little unusual, because generally the girls wanted to be as close to Neil as possible, but we were bombing down Divisadero and he was missing the cars on his right side by mere millimeters. With his one hand, he had two fingers on the wheel that he was noodling about and with his other hand he had two fingers on his cigarette and was completely turned around to the backseat talking to us about three separate topics. He was talking to me about Buddhist non- attachment and talking to one of the girls about something else I can’t remember. But he had three separate conversations going simultaneously and no trouble keeping them apart and no trouble driving despite the fact that he wasn’t. I can’t account for that.
So he was on the scene and Bobby was on the scene at the same time? Is this is the late ’60s?
Yeah this was during the Haight era, when Neil was living at 710 Ashbury, where I also stayed for a spell. A bunch of us were living there. Bobby’s world there consisted of a couch in the conservatory, I guess you might say, with all of his worldly goods in a paper bag at the foot of the couch.
So Bobby was quite a gypsy . . . was he in his late teens at that point?
Well, he was running lean in those days. It was 1967 I think. He was maybe 20 years old. And he had not passed the acid test.
Where were the tests happing?
The acid tests were happening all up and down the coast for a period of several months. Many cities were getting hit twice or three times. But it was something. And I was in the Eastern orthodox church of LSD, where we thought that giving people a bathtub of acid was just drug abuse.
So you were more in Timothy Leary’s camp in that respect? I understand that there was some discord. Kesey thought Leary was a little heavy and overly academic. Leary considered acid a sacrament?
Yes, and I was directly in Leary’s camp. But it turns out Kesey was right. We had significantly more freak outs than they did as a percentage, but in spite of that I still recommend a controlled environment with someone that you trust.
Did Leary always adhere to that kind of psychedelic handbook approach, with a guided trip modality?
Yeah that was kind of what it was like at Millbrook.
Was he dealing with any upset after what happened at Harvard?
Well he was upset about that and he was also upset about losing his bride. He had gotten married to an incredibly beautiful woman, who was the actress Uma Thurman’s mother. He had gotten married to Uma’s mother. But they’d gone off to India on a honeymoon and their marriage had not outlasted the honeymoon, so I think he was a little stunned by that.
He and Richard Alpert were creating a movement around the psychedelic experience and how to properly administer voyages or sessions with the appropriate seriousness, even reverence, for the process. Set and setting. Did you visit while they were in Millbrook?
I stayed there overnight several times. I was very familiar with the people. Anyway I heard about the acid tests and I was just shocked. Shocked I tell you.
So Kesey is having wild parties on the coast with hippies, the Hells Angels and everyone showing up?
Yeah, you’ve got a bathtub of LSD. So yeah I mean I had a very low opinion of what they were doing. And then I come to find out that my official best friend [Bob Weir] is part of it.
Was Robert Hunter involved? He had acted as a test subject with the US Army right?
Yeah, Hunter was around. He had been part of drug experiments that were carried out by the United States Army and the CIA was also interested in the results. But anyway, around that time I arranged to have a meeting with Weir when they came to play New York for the first time.
At the Fillmore East?
No it didn’t exist and even if it had existed at that point I don’t think they could have drawn a big enough crowd. Their first gig was at a place called the Cafe Au Go Go in the Village. You could maybe fit 150 people in there, tightly crowded. I went and saw them when they played and I noticed that Weir’s eyes were fully dilated all the time, regardless of the lighting. And where he had been formerly verbose it was hard to get a word out of him, so that’s what I mean when I say I wasn’t sure he had passed the acid test.
Wow! Those were amazing times. Amazing freedom and experimentation . . .
Yeah but it was ugly too.
I think Jerry Garcia had a quote about there being a window in consciousness that opened up briefly in the ’60s and that later that window closed . . .
There was a shift in consciousness underway, but by the end of ’67 I felt like we’d gone too far. I actually considered doing something spectacularly terrible to get America’s attention on what was going on with us, because we were sort of driving society over a cliff.
Well, just society . . . you know in 1963 even Neil Cassady believed in god-given authority. Everybody did. Your dad’s authority came from a white column of authority with god on top and you on the bottom and you didn’t ask questions about who appeared to have god-given authority. By ’67 that was no longer the case. And suddenly there was basically no authority. Or at least nobody was prepared to declare any.
Might you say that that created fertile ground for a band like the Dead to blossom?
Oh yeah. Yeah I mean if it hadn’t been for that. Plus the authorities kept doing these colossally stupid things like engaging in the war in Vietnam. They set off this war between the ’50s and the ’60s that’s been going on ever since, and which is represented by the invasion of Iraq and many of the things that we do. I think that just about all of it is about the straight world trying to deal with people who had been altered.
So consciousness was beginning to shift in the ‘60s but then that door closed and marijuana and psychedelic drugs were outlawed and a struggle between the straight and hip world ensued. Yet now marijuana is being legalized in some places and psychedelic drugs are being researched as possibly beneficial. Are we on the verge of a consciousness shift again?
I think there’s one taking place. It’s gradual which is the only way to do it. I mean the way we were doing it was precipitous and dangerous. Now it’s being done in a way that is appropriate. I mean there are still fairly intractable bastions of monotheism, but I think that the internet is going to do to monotheism what meat tenderizer does to meat. I think it’s going to turn into a pantheistic understanding of the word. Instead of a vertical tower of authority you have a horizontal web of consensus. It’s much more feminine than those religions that are based on a single book.
What artists or books did you like. What were your influences? Did you borrow a lot from the Old Testament?
Yeah the bible was there, and I was a devout Mormon, so I knew a lot about the bible. It wasn’t comparative religion that taught me about that. I learned about it previously than at college. But it’s full of great phraseology and wonderful ideas and metaphors. The thing was that Hunter and I realized at a certain point that the [Grateful Dead phenomenon] was becoming a religion. It had all the characteristics. And we thought religions are fine until they develop a dogma by which they condemn other people. So we thought that if there were to be a dogma produced, it might be through the lyrics of our songs. So from that point forward we were very careful not to do or say anything that could be construed as ideaology.
I love nothing better than a “Feel Like a Stranger” opener, and of course the old chestnut “Estimated Prophet” into “Eyes of the World” . . .
Ha, the funny thing is I don’t have the slightest idea about these song transitions that have you guys so captured. And I’m certainly unaware of particular songs that were played on any given night. Dead fans are like baseball statisticians. Anyway, yeah I think it’s very interesting and I decided at a certain point that the reason you did that was because since Hunter and I wouldn’t give you a dogma you decided to get into the only part of it that you could control. You collectively realized that you controlled what they were going to play next because it was a manifestation of the collective will, it was spiritual projection. So that song order became holy to you. Because there was no setlist, the audience would manifest a song and that would be what got played and they collectively knew that and looked at the song order as their spiritual production.
Can you comment on the different eras of the Grateful Dead? With PigPen through the early ’70s, then the Keith and Donna era, then Brent and beyond? I have heard that cocaine really messed things up?
Yeah but by the ’80s the blow had mostly blown. There was some, but largely it was gone. During the ’70s it was present for sure. The ’70s was just an ugly decade any way you slice it.
But how about 1977? Many Deadheads consider that to be the apotheosis of the band?
True, they were hittin’ a pretty good lick at that point, though I think actually the apotheosis of the band was in the late ’80s before Brent died. Brent had become the backbone of that band. He really was. And he was the one that they all listened to towards the end, they didn’t necessarily listen to one another, but they listened to him.
You don’t hear much about him. But you wrote a lot with Brent. Was he a sad or lonely guy?
He was a crazy guy, and he had a thing down inside himself that was trying to kill him and eventually it did. I thought that writing a bunch of life-affirming songs with Brent would fix that thing because he had always been the new guy the whole time he’d been there and I mean he was the new guy after 10 years, which was silly. I thought that if I could make him a big star or help him become much more popular that he would be happier and he would shine; but I didn’t know then about the human capacity, or incapacity, that has to do with being easily damaged by the variability between the acclaim that you’re receiving and the self-contempt that you feel. Everyone is born with a little pustule of self-contempt, everyone. It’s as close to original sin as anything else I can think of. His amount was fairly large.
Did he have a traumatic childhood?
I have doubts of that. I met his parents and I can’t imagine them being traumatic.
So I guess the question then is why the pain and addiction? How about Garcia? Did he have a tough childhood?
You know people fail to recognize the role of the soul. There are people that have souls that are doing advanced work and are ready to do that kind of work here.
Why do you think people took to the Grateful Dead scene so much? For me it was a great feeling of coming of age. I felt great about being American, young and being able to cut loose a bit and forget about convention. It was a place to live out some dreams, a place to experience freedom and adventure.
Yeah, that’s a big part of it. People need experiences. They need to go on quests. They need to feel like they’re outside their areas of understanding and they need to learn about magic. That’s one of the things the Deadheads were terrific about. They’d head off on tour with four Deadheads and a dog and a microbus with three working cylinders and two dollars and 68 cents in change and somehow they knew they wold get through the thing and do rather well just by depending on synchronicity and believing in it.
You’ve written about changes that the Internet has wrought, What about the way we live vicariously through social media now as opposed to actually living?
What comes at you out of that screen is not experience. It is information. Information is alienated experience. It’s got as much relationship to experience as beef jerky does to cows. I got enthusiastic about computers in the ’80 because I thought there was a chance that they could become the substrate of a new community based on the way the the Deadheads were using them. These GD news groups on Usenet. I was really interested in those. That was what got me on the internet to begin with. I was trying to figure out the Deadheads.
Did the GD pioneer the freemium business model?
We did. It worked well for us. We made a lot of money that way. Not so much perhaps in record sales, but then again our records weren’t all that good. We invented viral marketing. We offered viral sharing of songs through the live concerts [which were shared] and that created obsessive new Deadheads.
Bobby is like the energizer bunny these days right?
Yeah, he’s in great shape. I haven’t enjoyed his company as much since we first met.
Do you like this Dead & Company collaboration with Mayer?
Yes. It’s good. I agree with Annabelle Garcia who said that it was the first post-Dead manifestation of the undead that she’s heard that didn’t make her feel homesick.
Mayer really brings it on his own different level.
He really does and there’s also a completely unanticipated person inside of him that has emerged with this opportunity. He’s like a black guy from the south side of Chicago. Who knew that was in there?! It’s fantastic.
The GD sound book is foundational for musicians these days. It’s extraordinary.
Well, Hunter has more to be proud of than I do, but it was very good for my humility to be working in his shadow all those years. On the other hand I was running a large cattle ranch in Wyoming and he was exclusively writing.
I’m a firm believer that Bobby was as important an ingredient in the band as any of them and there were times when he would drive the band when Garcia wasn’t all there . . .
Yeah because Garcia liked to play quite simple melodic songs, which is what mine started out to be (laughs). I’ve been thinking about making a record of my songs as I meant them, though I’m not sure there’s a way to do that that Weir wouldn’t find insulting.
Your song “Finance Blues” (aka “Money, Money”) is a great tune.
I think it’s funny as hell, but it was not a big hit generally speaking, and I felt like it was set wrong. I wanted it to be more like a Mose Allison song, more swingy.
Was there a particular side of Neil Cassady that you wanted to capture in the song “Cassidy?”
I just wanted to bear witness.
Wasn’t “Bird Song” written as a eulogy to Janice Joplin?
I don’t know. It’s possible but I never heard that. She and Pigpen spent a lot of time together. They shared a taste for terrible Southern Comfort whiskey. What a wretched thing to do to oneself.
Pigpen wasn’t so much into psychedelics right? He more enjoyed the drink.
Is there anything you want to say before I shut off?
You forgot to ask me what everyone ought to do with their lives. And my answer is that you should all go out and do two things. Learn how to accept love and make yourself a better ancestor.
I wanted to ask you about your 25 principles for living. What was the seed of that inspiration?
On the night before my 30th birthday, and I was from the generation that believed that you shouldn’t trust anyone over 30, I sat down and wrote what I called my Principles of Adult Behavior. I had led a life that wasn’t particularly inclined to last as long as it did. I had no particular attachment to life. I sat down on the night before my birthday and thought well alright I’m gonna turn 30 which is an age beyond which I can no longer excuse my peccadilloes on the basis of youth. I have to be accountable, but I really didn’t want to be a grown up. So I wrote these principles for adult behavior to hold myself accountable. I post them everywhere I live so that people can read them and hold me to them. I remember showing them to Garcia right after I’d written them and he said you’re going to be so embarrassed by these in time. He was wrong. A lot of them concern opening your heart and Garcia’s heart was very guarded. Anyhow, they’ve served me pretty well.
Adult Principle #1: Be patient. No matter what.
Adult Principle #2: Don’t badmouth: Assign responsibility, not blame. Say nothing of another you wouldn’t say to him.
Adult Principle #3: Never assume the motives of others are, to them, less noble than yours are to you.
Adult Principle #4: Expand your sense of the possible.
Adult Principle #5: Don’t trouble yourself with matters you truly cannot change.
Adult Principle #6: Don’t ask more of others than you can deliver yourself.
Adult Principle #7: Tolerate ambiguity.
Adult Principle #8: Laugh at yourself frequently.
Adult Principle #9: Concern yourself with what is right rather than who is right.
Adult Principle #10: Try not to forget that, no matter how certain, you might be wrong.
Adult principle #11: Give up blood sports.
Adult principle #12: Remember that your life belongs to others as well. Do not endanger it frivolously. And never endanger the life of another.
Adult principle #13: Never lie to anyone for any reason.
Adult principle #14: Learn the needs of those around you and respect them.
Adult principle #15: Avoid the pursuit of happiness. Seek to define your mission and pursue that.
Adult principle #16: Reduce your use of the first personal pronoun.
Adult principle #17: Praise at least as often as you disparage.
Adult principle #18: Never let your errors pass without admission.
Adult principle #19: Become less suspicious of joy.
Adult principle #20: Understand humility.
Adult principle #21: Forgive.
Adult principle #22: Foster dignity.
Adult principle #23: Live memorably.
Adult principle #24: Love yourself.
Adult principle #25: Endure.
I appreciate your time. It may be the greatest story ever told in rock and roll.
It’s a good one and a long one. It’s possible that Weir has played on stage more than any other American. I think there’s a good chance of that. He’s pretty swell. So irritating but so wonderful.
Thank you for your contribution to it.
It was kind of involuntary. The bus came up and opened the door and I got on.
— Interviewed by James Young of Mill Valley, CA
Songs featuring the lyrics of John Barlow include: A Little Light, Blow Away, We Can Run But We Can’t Hide, Picasso Moon, I Will Take You Home, Gentlemen Start Your Engines, Hell in A Bucket, Throwing Stones, My Brother Esau, Feel Like a Stranger, Lost Sailor, Saint of Circumstance, Easy to Love You, I Need a Miracle, Heaven Help the Fool, Estimated Prophet, Lazy Lightning, The Music Never Stopped, Finance Blues/Money Money, Let it Grow, Black Throated Wind, Walk in the Sunshine, Looks Like Rain, Cassidy, Mexicali Blues, Falling, Gloria Monday, Salt Lake City, Shade of Gray, Fly Away, Me Without You, This Time Forever, Wrong Way Feelin’