Mother American Night

Mother American Night: My Life in Crazy Times
By John Perry Barlow, with Robert Greenfield
[Crown Archetype]

“All of a sudden, Hunter whirled on me and said, ‘Why don’t you write with him? At least you like him.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know that I know how to write songs.’ He said, ‘I’ve read your poetry. That’s pretty good. I think you’ll be able to do this. In any case, I’m not writing with him anymore.’” And it was with this exchange that John Barlow became a lyricist for The Grateful Dead.

While lead guitarist Jerry Garcia had lyricist Robert Hunter, rhythm guitarist Bob Weir had no one…other than an annoyed Hunter. So Barlow became, how he calls it in his posthumous autobiography Mother American Night: My Life in Crazy Times, “the Dead’s JV lyricist.” His partnership with Weir lasted over 30 years and produced many of the Dead’s most cherished songs. His entry was abrupt but his admiration for Hunter and his understanding of the task was clear. “I had already been rendered speechless by Hunter’s incredible songwriting ability,” writes Barlow, “as well as his special relationship with Garcia. The song that Hunter and Bobby were working was ‘Sugar Magnolia.’ Weir kept changing the words because he thought he had better ones, and Hunter did not believe in making deals on shit like that.”

Born and raised in rural Wyoming, Barlow was the scion of Wyoming politicians and grew up on a cattle ranch. In an effort to save his father’s seat in the state senate, it was decided for teenaged Barlow to get out of sight. So for high school he was sent to Colorado where he met Weir. For college he went to Wesleyan where he gravitated toward neighbor Timothy Leary and other forward-thinking individuals. Of Leary he writes, “He probably introduced more people to the spiritual dimension than anyone since Jesus Christ.”

He reconnected with Weir when The Grateful Dead played NYC in 1967 and remained friends with him and the Dead, eventually becoming a member of their family. Barlow was always clever and his brilliance and insight led him to live a most interesting life where he inserted himself in politics, popular culture and helped create the Electronic Freedom Foundation, “an organization that would [help] in areas relating to digital speech as well as the extension of the protections guaranteed by the Constitution into cyberspace.”

As a member of the Grateful Dead family, his insights are unparalleled. His take on guitarist Jerry Garcia is quite candid and revealing. Their relationship was a special one, as they never really worked together – they were just really friends. “On a good night, what Jerry was trying to do onstage was become utterly invisible and one with the music and the song and the rest of the universe as well,” Barlow writes. “When Jerry had first started using a synthesizer attachment, he did this guitar solo that sounded just like Miles Davis, as Miles himself had always wanted to play. It was unbelievable, and I came up to Jerry afterward and said, ‘Man, you could have been a fucking great trumpet player.’ And he said, ‘I am a fucking great trumpet player.’” Of course, he had an intimate perspective on Garcia’s decline but knew it was a possible price such a strong character would have to pay. He writes, “If you’re going to manifest a lot of light, you also have to pay the bill.”

Barlow’s lyrical input paid off after their success. In 1987 Barlow felt the four winds blowing. “At the time, I had no idea what I was going to do to earn a living,” he recalls. “Fortunately, The Grateful Dead finally produced a studio album, In the Dark, for which they actually knew the songs. Previously, Grateful Dead songs had been like infant marsupials that had to be protected in the pouch that formed between the band and the Deadheads during the three or four years it took for them to become real songs.” As closely associated as Barlow is with Weir, Mother American Night sheds equal light on Garcia. He writes, “Playing conversational basketball with Jerry Garcia was one of the most entertaining sports I had ever engaged in.”

Through his strong friendship with John F. Kennedy Jr., he was involved in some President Kennedy functions for which he had to re-watch the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon debate. “From that point on, the president of the United States became more a movie star than a leader,” Barlow writes, “more a myth than a manager, more affect than intellect. After those debates, it was far more important that a presidential candidate not have a five o’clock shadow than that he offered ideas that could suffer real scrutiny.”

In later years and after his fiancé died, Barlow entered rehab to kick a drinking problem. Also “I was smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. I was 20 pounds overweight and sleeping three hours a night and pretty much succeeded in creating jet lag as a poetic art form.” Others in the program were talking about how their kitten, dog and a pet duck had died and how these losses had had gotten them unhinged and they had gone on benders. “I was sitting there thinking, This guy is crying about a duck? What about me, guys? I’ve had a little bit of a loss here myself. I started to say something about it, then I suddenly realized that what they were all mourning was the only form of unconditional love they had ever been willing to accept. The closest they had ever gotten to it was from a pet, because they could not accept it from a human being, which is something most people cannot do. And so I had to count myself as having been incredibly lucky to have experienced it with another human being.”

Barlow led an incredible life, mixing music, politics, cyberspace and more. His life telling is a compelling read. Upon the birth of his first grandchild, he reflected, “I have now been given yet another opportunity to become a great ancestor.” In the end, he sums it all up by writing, “I always like to have a mission in life and feel like I am doing something that will allow some significant percentage of my descendants to feel they are leading better lives because of the life I led.”