Throughout the course of any one person’s life there are sure to be a few key people that show up as agents of transformation. People who help to define the myriad of essential moments that shape your journey into one that has direction, purpose and meaning. I have my parents Timothy and Barbara, a couple of romantic relationships, many close friends and my teachers that I’ve known personally as well as in the astral. Within that mix, nestled deep in the roots of my formative years, resides John Perry Barlow. I say this with the utmost conviction and gratitude. I’d be a different person than I am today had I never crossed paths with Barlow.
Barlow entered my life 30 years ago when I was 14 years old. I was just a gangly confused teenager trying to find my way in the world. During the span of these 30 years there were phases in my relationship with Barlow where we’d be in each other’s orbit frequently and fondly, possibly sharing a laugh at a trademark “Barlow Frenzy.” Alternatively, many years could also pass, sometimes awkwardly, that would eventually come to an end in the form of a loving reunion. It must be said that certain elements of my time with Barlow could contain their fair share of complex tensions having to do with the very strong personalities of both my family and his being. That’s not to say any of it had a lasting effect. They were gracefully balanced out with countless intimate moments of dancing in each other’s consciousness that could only be achieved by Barlow’s brilliance at understanding complex eco-systems and then knowing how to rebuild them.
Nostalgically, I recall many moments where my Deadhead-ness would take over and I’d barrage him with my curiosity about the inner workings of the Grateful Dead. That was hard to shake with me. Remember, I met Barlow when I was a 14-year-old fan and a kid, so the context of our friendship evolved over time. For the first 10 years he was more of a “god-uncle”, as he put it, intent on exposing me to the wonders of the world through his unique lens. He knew that my household was kind of “different” and that I could use an extra set of adult eyes helping me out to make sure I didn’t go further astray. Growing up, I was so blessed to have some of the greatest guest stars one could ever imagine, but it wasn’t always easy for me to connect with them. The stage was so large, and I tried so hard to be smart and liked, that I often fumbled because I was also in the midst of screeching through the baffling process of growing up. Barlow made it easy, he made any bullshit go away. He was always so comforting, funny and gracious with the way he could make me feel safe and included. He’d come into my room and crouch down next to me as we geeked out on Mac IIci games or to dial up to The Well to unearth the possibilities of what was to come. Cowboy boots always on of course.
I didn’t spend as much time with Barlow over the years as many did nor did I spend the least. I’m no authority on his life and legacy, however, due to the memorable intensity of the time I did spend with him things tended to morph from mundane moments to thrilling events that left stamps on my consciousness for life. Everything he did was full on.
Perhaps, the most special quality of his was the way he could set the stage for glorious potential. When you were with Barlow you got the feeling that THIS night could be the greatest night of your life. Anything could happen. His thirst for stirring the pot with forward thinking ideas, for bringing people together, for seducing women and all while weaving the mischief of the Grateful Dead ethos into the mixture made for the perfect conditions for an atmosphere of magic. Only someone with his brand of unmistakable ego and intellect could be a ring leader of this magnitude.
At first, and this is true, my folks and I used to laugh uncontrollably at Barlow’s relentless ego and need to speak in the third person. Before email was a regular thing, we’d get “BarlowGrams” in the mail. My dad would be like “who does this guy think he is? Who the fuck cares what he’s doing?” The thing is, our acerbic tongues and judgement eventually went out the window because his sincerity and authenticity could not be denied. We’d came around. Even grouchy ol’ Timmy saw Barlow was doing amazing stuff, gathered fantastic people for parties and was actually worth following in his branded email updates. His finger was many levels above being “on the pulse”, he was creating a new pulse. Barlow was a social media brand 15 years before any of us were trying to do the same thing. Fact.
Also, like my dad, Barlow’s ability to reinvent himself was the stuff of legends. If you plot the logic of a Wyoming cattle rancher Dead lyricist changing professions mid-stream to that of an Internet freedom fighter philosopher, you’ll get lost and confused. It was a brilliant transformation that defied convention.
For me though, I was a Deadhead first and foremost, that was my main lifeline to him. In my eyes his place in the world was part of that formula. When the Mondo 2000 era was booming and the EFF was forming, Barlow’s voice as a freedom fighter on the plains of cybernetic consciousness was visionary and a sight to behold. But it never moved me in the same way because I was much more interested in learning about how “Throwing Stones” came to life. That’s just who I am I guess. I am thrilled that his desire to be remembered as an Information Age visionary is what’s leading the headlines in public obits. Look Barlow, you did it! I think the NY Times didn’t even mention the Dead in depth for 3 paragraphs.
He was a maverick until the end.
Death has no mercy. That much is true. Barlow’s slow burn into formlessness was rough. In the last couple of years, it pained me to see him to be honest. Still, it was reflective of way he lived – full on, hard, gritty, vulnerable and always up for adventure. For a cowboy from Wyoming, Barlow was one of the most sensitive guys I’d ever come across. From an early age he was an example to me of how a man could show emotion with pride. His death encapsulated those notes as well. He lived and died on the edge with a hunger to seize every moment and to make them into epic tales of ragged glory. Many of his greatest songs he wrote with Weir illustrate that part of him.
The Weir/Barlow cannon makes up many of the most cherished Dead songs in my opinion. At any given show I was just as happy to hear “Let it Grow” as I was “Scarlet Begonias” – I was full on with Bobby and not solely a Jerry freak. Barlow’s contribution to the Dead zeitgeist, while not as prolific as Hunter’s, was an essential part of the fabric. He helped to paint the tapestry of one of Rock n Roll’s most important legacies.
All this aside, this post isn’t about praising his accomplishments. Many will do that better than I will. Not to mention the fact that his accomplishments are obvious and speak for themselves.
This is about family. Barlow was a core part of the Leary family and many of its dimensions. His presence during the last 9 years of Timothy’s life was not subtle. He formed a friendship with Timothy the best anyone really could. Anyone who saw the two of them together remembers fondly their battles of oratory and quiet battle to see who could own the room. That being true, I have to say now that he made a mistake by getting in too deep when Timothy and my mother Barbara were headed for splitsville. His penchant for the spotlight and unquenchable attraction to powerful women helped create a set of circumstances that I wish didn’t happen. They come complete with gossip and intrigue that in the end left some scars. All the details aren’t important but it’s a tough sting when someone crosses the line with your own mother and claims to have had a relationship with her that simply was not true. That was always looming in the back of my head even decades after, it was hard to shake. The crowning bit of poetic irony is that Barlow being the way he is, made it so that I somehow could look passed it and just keep on dancing. Hard to explain I guess. As times goes on, I find many of the great long-term friendships in one’s life can also get complex and that’s just fine. It makes them rich and special.
My intention of bringing this up is not to add scars to his legacy, the point is that he was family and things got that intimate. With family comes many nuances, ins and outs and various sets of baggage. It’s how any family operates. He played hard and wasn’t afraid to go all in. That I admire. And for that I love him.
He also gave me what I felt was too harsh a dose of tough love during a time when I was in my addiction and faulted by making some poor choices (to say the least.) I felt that doing it publicly wasn’t the right move considering his way of life and penchant for hard living wasn’t always the best example to follow. Still, he meant well and always wanted me to shine. Additionally, I have to admit that his knack for not being subtle may have actually benefited me in this case. Essentially, his contradictions were part of his charm. I mean, how could you love a sometimes Mormon Republican Bohemian Grove member Grateful Dead lyric writing acid head? You just could. Because he was the only one of that kind.
He had so much to offer the world and many people as well, I’m lucky that I got even a shred of it. I can’t think of a smarter, more generous and more worldlier profound person that I’ve ever known. The world is a sadder place without him.
Like I said earlier, magic with him was always possible and even frequent. My top 3 memories of Barlow infused magic are as follows:
1.) Pink Floyd 1994 – this story could be an entire book. The last night he spent with his beloved Cynthia Horner happened to be at our house in 1994 the same weekend that Pink Floyd was playing at the Rose Bowl. Gilmour was a friend, so that weekend of shows saw our house turned into a launchpad for the shows, dozens of people gathered up there before the trek to Pasadena. Barlow and Cynthia too – they exchanged beams of love, possibly took something and then transported with all of us at the Floyd show. From what we all understood they had an amazing night and sealed their bond. Tragically, the very next day Cynthia passed away on an airplane in her sleep only hours after Barlow took her to LAX. It goes without saying that he was never the same and the un-calculable grief that came as a result was his work for the remainder of his life. While sad, the profound connection with his loss fused with magic of Pink Floyd all while using our house as the playing ground is something I’ll never forget. For years after that, every time I saw him I could not escape the image of that weekend.
2.) Brent Mydlands death – I was only 16 but Barlow called our house the day Brent died of an overdose in 1990. Or maybe Timmy called him after I explained why Barlow’s relationship with Brent was special. I’m not sure. After talking to my dad for a while I was handed the phone to give my condolences. I wasn’t sure why, what could I possibly say? I had gone to over 40-50 shows in the previous two years and because of that and my age it was very hard to put it all into context and to come from my heart. I did my best and we stayed on the phone for probably 15 minutes, which I thought was a lot back then. With effortless grace the lessons, wisdom and perspective that I got from talking to Barlow that day left a deep canyon of love in my soul. It was one of the earliest confrontations with death that I experienced. There I was talking to a guy about his friend and song writing partner who just died. He blew my mind and also set the stage for many more encounters with death that I’d walk through over the years. This was new territory for me not to mention a deeply sad and surreal example. Footnote – The Grateful Dead were essentially never the same after that. They rebounded a little with Hornsby but that 87-90 peak was the last of its magnitude.
3.) ACLU Benefit – I believe the year was 1997. It wasn’t long after Timmy had checked out and I use that as context because many of the Leary.com team was still hanging out together and we were Barlow’s guests that evening. In addition, Bob Weir and Rob Wasserman were the musical guests to compliment the honoring of Barlow by the ACLU. The event was at the Century Plaza Hotel in LA and Barlow thought it would be a grand idea to make the entire evening into a post Leary-drome memorial gathering fused with a classic BarlowFrenzy that was to take place in his hotel room. It wasn’t quite the case in terms of size but after the event and a classic mini-set by Bob and Rob, Weir joined myself and some of the other Leary-folk in a psychedelic dance around the cosmos. It was so special for me personally because Jerry hadn’t been gone long and Bobby was still marinating in the haze and was quite candid in talking about it. The combination of that and the psychedelic exploration was a night to remember. Classic Barlow magic.
There are so so many more. But that feels about right.
Shine on John. I’ll miss you. Thank you for everything. Thank you for being a pain in the ass. For challenging me. For teaching me. For making me laugh. For countless Dead tickets. And for not being successful at hooking up with my mother. Having you as a step dad would have been too much. See you on the other side.