When I first met John Perry Barlow, we became instant soulmates. While that sentence is true for me, it also applies to probably 10,000 other people. That was Barlow—whether you were a world-famous avatar of LSD, a stuffy CEO, or the Vice President of the United States, he would win you over with his affable demeanor, arresting observations, and a mordant take on the human condition.
He had a unique and compelling credential—“junior lyricist of the Grateful Dead” was the way he put it—and he wielded it like an all-access laminate to the concert hall of life. His rock and roll bona fides was only one strand of a web of myths he pulled out of his suede jacket like a well-rolled joint: cowboy, poet, romantic, family man, philosopher, and ultimately, the bard of the digital revolution. He was an influential voice and an intimate participant in the early days of Wired, a co-founder and spiritual inspiration for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and the guy who promoted cyberspace as deftly as Steve Jobs hyped Apple. By the time he was done, he was more famous for proselytizing the internet than he was for co-writing “Cassidy” and other Dead classics.
Done he is—Barlow died in his sleep last night in San Francisco. He was 70 years old.
Barlow’s impact is such that even those who aren’t familiar with his name have long been grappling with his vision of the networked world, one where speech and creativity flow unfettered, and truth targets power with the speed of a bullet. But Barlow won’t be remembered only for the way he rustled prose, ideas or lyrics. IRL, he was bigger than life.
Barlow was never shy about sharing his biography. He hailed from Pinedale, Wyoming, where his family had lived for generations. He fatefully went off to a Colorado boarding school, where his roommate (and, naturally, soulmate) was future Dead guitarist Bob Weir. Barlow went to college in the liberal arts enclave of Wesleyan, where by his own description he cut a troubadour-ish figure with his motorcycle and ten-gallon Stetson. Back in Wyoming, he helped with the ranch, which seemed to have a function beyond raising cattle—a place where rich kids would go to get straightened out. One of those kids was John F. Kennedy Jr., who became a close Barlow friend. Meanwhile, as his former roommate Bob Weir found himself in a celebrated rock and roll band, Barlow began helping him put words to music, at first for a Weir solo album and then for the Dead in general.
I’m not sure how Barlow became interested in technology—maybe it was just his highly tuned zeitgeist antenna. Somehow he wound up at a Hackers Conference in 1989, where I met him. As a sometimes Deadhead, I had a fan-boy attraction to someone who was part of the family. But he was keenly interested in the world of hackers and we spoke endlessly about that. A few weeks later, when I scored a couple of tickets to the Bay Bridge World Series, I offered one to him. Twenty minutes before the starting time, the Earth shook—the Loma Prieta earthquake. It wasn’t until well after midnight that we found a working telephone to report ourselves alive to our respective wives.
Over the next few years, I watched with fascination as Barlow became a leading voice in technology. With no engineering experience whatsoever, he became a great explainer, turning his gift for bullshit into a force for comprehension. He could hang around a bunch of cryptographers for a while and two weeks later explain public key crypto (pretty much) to a room of bankers, diplomats, and corporate managers. Even more important, he grasped the soul of the technology, whether the transporting aspects of virtual reality or the glorious disruptiveness of friction-free distribution. In this current era of digital remorse, his Panglossian take on the net is sometimes mocked. But as he explained to Andy Greenberg a couple of years ago, he was all too aware that the possibilities he celebrated would be the artifacts of an ideal outcome, a scenario worth working for. One still worth dreaming about.
During the 1990s, Barlow worked his way into the center of big tech discussions, both through his writing and his activism. He convinced software entrepreneur Mitch Kapor to fund the EFF—a foundation devoted to preserving digital human rights that forged an admirable legacy over the next few decades. He became pals with Tim Leary. Barlow also found soulmates in the Clinton White House and the NSA. When one friend accused him of liking Air Force Two a little too much (yes, Al Gore was a Deadhead) Barlow professed to be hurt, and then admitted there was more than a little truth to that. Naturally, his epic manifesto of the digital age, “A Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace” was banged out on a keyboard during a World Economic Forum.
His big ideas and big personality often overshadowed what I thought was Barlow’s underrated power as a writer. Between 1989 and the early 2000s he created a series of operatic non-fiction pieces—on virtual reality, on the prosecution of hackers, and of course on the meaning of cyberspace—that matched the best in the business. I would often goad him to get into that business. Indeed he was forever planning to write a magnum opus on his technology views, to be entitled “Everything You Know Is Wrong.” But he never seemed to have the time or discipline to craft that legacy-making big book.
Barlow was always on the move, and in email dispatches he sent to a voluminous mailing list of friends–“by that I mean those who would bail me out of jail,” he’d explain to the hundreds who fit that category–he’d share a complicated itinerary, along with his current location in “meatspace.” Despite his self-styled rambling man persona, he adored his three daughters, whom he dubbed the Barlowettes. But in 1993, Barlow met and fell hard for a young woman who was attending a conference at a hotel where Barlow also happened to be staying. She was a brilliant psychiatrist just short of thirty. The two of them moved into my Greenwich Village apartment while my family was spending a year in Western Massachusetts. When we moved back, we kicked him out—he never did manage to fulfill his vague promise to pay us some rent—and they moved to a ground floor apartment on 23rd St.
All was cool, and in early 1994, I accompanied the couple, along with a Barlowette or two, to a Grateful Dead concert at Nassau Coliseum, on New York’s Long Island. Going to a Dead concert with Barlow was something special. Even as a non-performing member of the Illuminati, he was regarded with awe. The sea of Deadheads would magically part as he made his way through them, Gandhi-style, and you could follow him into increasingly fortified sanctums until you made it to Bobby Weir’s dressing room. He later wrote that, with his love beside him, he understood the words to his own songs for the first time.
A few weeks later Dr. Horner, as he called her, fell asleep on a plane to JFK and did not wake up. When I heard she was dead, I rushed over to 23rd Street, where John Kennedy and I did our best to console Barlow. That night there was no laughter.
Over the past decade or so I saw Barlow only sporadically. Naturally, Barlow managed to remain in the center of the zeitgeist, becoming tight with Ed Snowden and Julian Assange, and getting plenty of facetime in the recent 900-hour (it seemed) documentary of the Dead. Every time I ran into him was a pleasure. In April 2015, I was interviewing a scientist at Stanford Medical Center when I got a Facebook alert that Barlow was nearby. When I pinged him, he told me he was in the emergency room, and I went down to see him. We had our usual conversation—plenty of laughs—as doctors came in and out, taking samples and hooking up IVs. “I suspect this will pass as mysteriously as [it] came,” he messaged me the next day.
No such luck—he remained hospitalized for months on and off for the next few years, moving into cyber-rights activist John Gilmore’s San Francisco Victorian, dubbed Toad Hall. He almost died a couple of times, but then rallied. You could see that after each of those episodes a little more was gone from him, like a thrice Xeroxed document. But when I visited him last year, we spent the whole time laughing again. And even last week on his Facebook feed, there were two pictures of a wisp-like Barlow with a smile on his face: one shot with his new grandchild and the other of him scarfing down a cheeseburger while his old friend Bobby looked on. Say what you will about the toxic internet, it was good to see those photos.
Better yet is the news he posted just about a week ago that he had finished an autobiographical novel that Penguin will publish. “You may be in it,” he told the thousands of soulmates, and we probably will.
Talking about his famous band in 2005, Barlow wrote, “Many of us are actually dead now… many more of us would be had we not developed such an astonishing facility for spitting in the Devil’s eye and laughing.”
Now Barlow can expectorate directly into the Satan’s outraged punim while Jerry Garcia, Tim Leary, and Doctor Horner cheer him on. For those of us left behind, the world is dumber and less fun.
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- The digital rights pioneer landed on a proto-prototype cover of the first issue of WIRED.