Friday, July 29, 2005

John Barlow Interview


From Planet Jackson Hole:

John Perry Barlow: Wyoming's Estimated Prophet
By Aaron Davis
7.28.05


Listen to the audio interview: Part 1 (10.4 MB) Part 2 (7.4 MB)

Uncharted waters must be discovered before they can exist. John Perry Barlow – 57-yearold computer guru, journalist, lyricist, consultant, economist, speaker, father, former rancher, environmentalist and nomad – is a Cora, Wyo., native that has always forged ahead with the creative perseverance to make waves. Known by Grateful Dead fans as the colyricist, with Bob Weir, of some the Grateful Dead’s most recognized anthems, he penned “Cassidy,” “Mexicali Blues,” “Looks Like Rain” and “Estimated Prophet.”

But Barlow has lived a multi-dimensional life since the old days of growing up as a rowdy young hippie in cowboy country, son of Norman Barlow, president of the Wyoming Senate in 1960-61.

Barlow took off to the East and graduated from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., in 1969 with high honors in comparative religion before operating the Bar Cross Land and Livestock Company, a large cow-calf operation in Cora that he sold in 1988. He then dove into the computer world, right as the Internet was but a sprout, and has been credited with coining the term “cyberspace” to describe it.

Around the same time, in 1990, he and Mitchell Kapor founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that promotes freedom of expression in digital media, which he continues to serve as vice chairman.

Barlow has written for a diversity of publications, including Communications of the ACM, Mondo 2000, The New York Times, and Time. He has been on the masthead of Wired Magazine since it was founded. His piece on the future of copyright, “The Economy of Ideas,” is taught in many law schools, and his “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” is posted on thousands of Web sites.

In 1997, he was a Fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, and since 1998, he has been a Berkman Fellow at the Harvard Law School. In June 1999, FutureBanker Magazine named him one of the 25 Most Influential People in Financial Services, even though he’s not in financial services.

Jackson’s Leslie Peterson, who has known Barlow since he was a kid, called him “one character of a guy.” She continued, “He taught himself everything about the computer in what seemed like overnight. He has always been brilliant, a good horse hand, skier, extremely sophisticated and definitely irreverent.”

Jackson architect John Carney said, “You could always count on the most interesting people at Barlow’s ranch ... a Buddhist monk, a rock ’n’ roll musician, a president’s son, people are attracted to him. John has always been frighteningly smart in my opinion ... a smart ass too, so he got knocked around a bit as a kid.”

With this summer being the 40th anniversary of the birth of the Grateful Dead and the 10th anniversary of the death of Jerry Garcia, fans around the country are reflecting upon what made the band legendary. Here’s Barlow, in true form, talking about songwriting, his relationship with Bob Weir, politics, his pending 4th Amendment case, and Wyoming in the ’60s.

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”
— Excerpt from “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.”

JPB: (laughs) A little more than I can handle. I’ve spent a lot of time lately working as a consultant and software designer for a British company that is designing a secure personal communicator that works peer to peer, makes it possible to do voice and large file transfer, just about anything you can think of between two digital devices.
AD: Wow. That’s cool. How do you make something like that secure?
JPB: You set up a highly encrypted channel that goes directly to the UDP layer in the network stack of each machine and there’s no way to decrypt the stream and there’s no packet headers to fall through the network because it’s a UDP stream that’s completely peer to peer. So I’m helping design it and helping to find large institutional customers for it. I really believe that much of liberty depends on the ability to say what they need to say without the fear of being overheard, but also to transfer what they seek to transfer digitally without being intercepted.
AD: Is this in the spirit of the Electronic Frontier Foundation?
JPB: Yeah, exactly. And I’m also working on a lot of EFF issues.
AD: What are they dealing with these days?
JPB: We’ve been doing this for fifteen years which makes us like the old guard, making certain that the Internet remains free and open. We have a vision that someday that anybody anywhere would be able to say anything they wanted to, and anybody anywhere else would be able to hear it if it were at all relevant to them. And nobody would be in a position to stop them.
AD: How does the Patriot Act tie into all of this?
JPB: Well, obviously that’s a big part of it because the Patriot Act makes it possible to intercept all matter of communication and databases, session logs, various artifacts of communication.
AD: Is this something that EFF has tried to tackle? It seems like a huge undertaking…
JPB: Well, we’re one of many organizations chipping away at the Patriot Act in various ways. I personally am involved in a case which I believe is the first case where the administrative search of checked baggage has ever been taken to court and that’s proceeding to the appeals stage. It would be a trivial matter. I could have just plead out and got a $500 fine, but I decided it was wrong…a violation of the 4th Amendment and I wasn’t going to stand for it. That’s what I’m up to…and I’m trying to raise my three daughters as well as I can…from a distance.
AD: I’d like to ask you some question about your experience with the Grateful Dead and songwriting. First off, how does a guy from Cora, Wyoming meet up with the Dead?
JPB: Well, ya know, I was a rebellious kid and my father was a politician. Over the course of my fourteenth year my Mormon Boy Scout troop turned into a motorcycle gang. We all bought little Honda motorcycles. We thought we were a lot worse than we probably were, but the locals thought we were bad enough. My father was told that if he ever wanted to get re-elected anything, he was going to have to get me the hell out of sight. So he sent me off to prep school and there I met the guy [Bob Weir] who was going to become the rhythm guitar player for the Grateful Dead and he and I have been one another’s official best friend ever since.
AD: Was that in California?
JPB: No it was in Colorado actually. A place called Fountain Valley School in Colorado Springs.
AD: So did you guys end up in the Bay area scene together?
JPB: No, at a certain point he got kicked out of Fountain Valley and I stayed. Actually I was going to leave when they kicked him out as an act of protest and go out to this hippy high school…well, there weren’t hippies yet, but he went to this alternative high school on the peninsula and I almost went with him. Then I went back east to college.
I didn’t actually re-connect with him until shortly after the acid tests. I had heard about them and was deeply offended along with everybody else in my sort of Eastern Orthodox Church of LSD and we thought it was a very serious sacrament and should not be handed out in bathtubs for people to drink as much as they want.
AD: What did Bob get kicked out of school for?
JPB: Having no capacity to understand the rules. He couldn’t understand why they applied to him or anybody.
AD: So you first met the Grateful Dead after the acid tests?
JPB: Yeah, I first saw the Dead the first of June 1967 at a place called Champagne A Go Go which was a little club in New York which had about 160 seats. Then I took them up to Timothy Leary’s estate a couple of days later in Millbrook, New York and got to know them all a lot better…and reconnected with my friend, Bobby Weir. Though not before we got the shit kicked out of ourselves sitting underneath the Washington Bridge by some toughs from Long Island who thought our hair was too long. He tried to get them to stop by getting them to sing “Hare Krishna” which almost worked.
AD: (laughs) What was your initial impression of the Dead?
JPB: Well, I liked them all and thought the stuff they were doing was all really interesting – musically and spiritually and psychologically. I fell in thick with them right away and then I just bummed around with them for several years…kind of a hanger-on, on and off. I had my own life but spent a lot of time with them. At one point, around 1971, Weir started trying to right songs with Robert Hunter, who was the real deal, and they couldn’t get along. I happened to be the room and they got in a fight over a song and Hunter turned to me and said, “Why don’t you take him, he’s your friend!” I said, “Well I’m not sure I know how to write songs” He said, “Well you know how to write poetry,” which was more-or-less true because I had been a poet in college, mostly because I felt like I could ride around on a motorcycle to the women’s colleges in New England and recite poetry of my own composition and do o.k.
I told him [Robert Hunter] that I would give it a shot, went out and tried to write a song, and it was “Mexicali Blues.”
AD: Nice. And that was the first?
JPB: Yeah. And we continued from there. It was just serendipity.
AD: It sounds like such an exciting time and so progressive...
JPB: Well, you know some of it was and some of it wasn’t. People, especially if they didn’t live through that period, get awfully nostalgic for it. This was at a time when I had my head shaved by my people I had grown up with in my own hometown. It was time when…at one point I was riding my motorcycle across the United States and stopped at a restaurant in Rawlins, Wyoming and was served a skinned out, raw lamb scull with the eyes still in it. So, it was a funny time.
AD: As you started out writing, like Mexicali Blues, what was your goal as a songwriter?
JPB: I wanted to write a good cowboy song. And the Grateful Dead as it was presently configured musically was going through a cowboy period in fact and so it seemed like an appropriate thing to do. I never thought about what a Grateful Dead song was supposed to be, I just wrote whatever happened. Despite the fact that [Robert] Hunter and I had different styles, that’s pretty much how we approached it.
AD: Early on, how did LSD play a part in the music?
JPB: It played a huge part. We all had this experience that made us feel like the world that we perceived with our conventional awareness was actually kind of a dream that overlay another reality that was not being taken into account by any of the beliefs or institutions that we knew. In those heady days, I think we all thought that once this insight was generally shared, everything would change. And gradually it is and has. If we had any sense we would have realized that you weren’t going to make a change that fundamental overnight. And, in fact, I think you could make the argument that everything that is going on politically in America is a continuation of that war that was established at that point between the 50s and 60s. Right now it’s still the 50s versus the 60s.
AD: How do you think the music would have been different without LSD?
JPB: I can’t imagine the Grateful Dead as a social institution without that. Musically, they were all…they started out as a jug band. They might have gone on and been a jug band…I don’t think they would’ve ever become the Grateful Dead at all.
AD: Do you have any favorite memories or songwriting memories?
JPB: To do something with really interesting people for over forty years, you have an embarrassment of riches in that department. And everyone one of them is large enough to take up the whole interview talking about one song.
AD: What about one that was written in Wyoming?
JPB: There was one written in Wyoming, well in large part, which was a song called Cassidy. The chords to that song were written in Marin County in this funny little ranch that we had up in West Marin. There was a girl living on the ranch that had a child the night that Weir was coming up with the chords, and the child was named Cassidy. And subsequently Bobby came out to Wyoming where we were trying to write songs for his solo album called “Ace.” We were in an isolated homestead house on another part of the ranch from the main operation…my ranch…and snowed in and kind of crazy, trying to write songs together really for the first time. We fooled around with some words for Cassidy and nothing much came. Then he had to leave and start recording some of this stuff because he had a tight studio schedule, and we didn’t have that one done.
I found out that my father was dying…took him down to the hospital in Salt Lake. I had to go out with the Caterpillar and plow out a bunch of stack yards so that they’d be able to get the hay sleds in and out while I was gone if I had to be down there with him for a while. While I was out plowing, I kept running those chords around in my head thinking about the girl Cassidy that had been born and also about Neal Cassidy who had died not long before, who had been a great hero of ours. He’s one of most remarkable human beings I have ever met. And thinking about how we come in to the world and go out of the world and how there’s a kind of continuity. While I was out there plowing snow the words just formed themselves into a melody that went with the chords and there it was. It just appeared. Then I headed out to watch my father die.
AD: That’s an awesome story. That’s one of my favorite Dead songs. I actually play it myself.
JPB: It’s a funny thing. It just showed up. I didn’t have to do anything, except I didn’t have any paper to write it down on, so I had to sing it to myself over and over until I got back to the house.
AD: Did you find as you were writing more songs that it came more naturally, that you were in a groove?
JPB: Sometimes it did and sometimes it didn’t. It’s always been an uneven mixture of perseverance and inspiration. And sometimes you don’t have to lift a finger except to record the thing, and sometimes you sweat bullets over it for months. Weir and I actually got into a fist fight over one song.
AD: What tune?
JPB: Feel Like a Stranger. I was really against that song. (laughs)
AD: For what reason?
JPB: Oh, I don’t know it just seemed like (laughs)…like nothing I wanted to write a song about when it started to come, but he was encouraged by the beginnings of it and wanted to make it kind of…Well, he actually turned out to be right, as he was just enough of the time so I should have known to oppose him as strenuous as I did when I thought he was absolutely dead wrong.
AD: Well, I guess you win some and you lose some in that respect…
JPB: Well, but you don’t know. In our case, it took years to find out. Eventually the song would develop into something and I’d be like, “Oh, that’s what you had in mind.” And Bobby has a very interesting mind. It’s irregular. Sometimes it can seem like he’s just being perverse, and sometimes he is just being perverse. But sometimes he really is on to something and will take quite a long time for it to be visible.
AD: I read that maybe you guys are going to get together again to write some tunes?
JPB: Well, we’ve been talking about it. The last time we tried, neither of us were happy with the results and it jeopardized our relationship. At a certain point you decide whether it’s more important to preserve and old friendship that to write a song. Given the various kinds of trouble we’ve had with one another over the years I don’t know if there’s much we could do to destroy that friendship. But nevertheless, it’s a lot like being married. It’s actually a lot like being married.
AD: Other bands that picked up where the Dead left off, like Phish and Widespread Panic and String Cheese, what do you think about the culture…?
JPB: It’s become a little culture and its very diverse and it’s exactly what we would want it to be, but for a while it was just Phish…and I never did get Phish I gotta be honest with you, except that it seemed like a good place for Deadheads that wouldn’t say die to go, and they wanted to go on getting stoned at a concert.
AD: What do you think is the psychology of people that like to travel around with bands?
JPB: In America, you don’t have a quest. Everybody needs a quest. Going off on the road with no more responsible purpose than a desire to dance a lot and have a good time with your friends and have no resources outside of a micro bus, its turns into a vision quest. It fills a very important role for a lot of people I think.
AD: I agree.
JPB: It can also be a sinkhole of social pathology. It certainly has that side, but any powerful experience can lead several ways.
AD: With this summer being the 40th Anniversary of the Grateful Dead and the 10th Anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s death, is there going to be any special get together with the Grateful Dead family?
JPB: I’m sure these people will do various things. I’m pretty sure that there will be no official Grateful Dead show anywhere. I really, at the present time, cannot imagine Phil Lesh and Bobby Weir on the same stage.
AD: Why is that?
JPB: Well, last summer’s tour was tough for everybody. As long as Garcia was alive, they could keep some things that had been eating on both of them for a long time under wraps, but without him as a moderating force…but I’m sure that the Grateful Dead family on a larger sense will be doing stuff, I just don’t know anything about it myself.
AD: What do your daughters think about your history with the Dead? Do they think it’s cool?
JPB: Oh, they got a lot of different reactions. There are certain things that happens when your dad is famous, not that I’m some huge celebrity, but certainly within the circles where they operate there are an awful lot of people who know damn well who I am and for whom their primary relevance at first is that they’re my daughters. And they want to be judged on their own merits. They don’t want any second-hand glory. It’s somewhat convenient in some cases, but most of the time it scures something that it far more substantial and real which is their glory.
I can’t say that rock n’ roll is a great place to grow up. Fortunately, they had the alternative. I wasn’t really squarely in the middle of it in the way that Jerry’s kids were. I had a more suitable distance. It’s just tough. You want your parents to be adults and there’s nothing about rock n’ roll that induces anti-adulthood. There’s this biological term ‘neoteny.’ Neoteny is quite a lot of organisms where the organism will remain adolescent until it has an opportunity in which to be mature and free. There’s lot of neoteny in rock n’ roll, except for the fact that breeding is possible. (laughs) You know? So you have to put up with fact that your father is a seventeen year-old, which gets really hard when you’re like seventeen. But on the positive side, they all knew how to dance within a couple of weeks when they could walk. And I think knowing how to dance is a good thing.
AD: Why did you end up retiring from cattle ranching?
JPB: Because it’s just an impossible business to stay in unless you happen to have money from somewhere else. Just look around Jackson and Sublette County…large ranches like the Bar Cross, are almost exclusive owned by guys who don’t have to earn a living…not from the cattle business anyway.
AD: Lawyers and…
JPB: Yeah, lawyers and CEO’s and actors and you name it. They’re there because it’s a lifestyle choice…which means their willing to absorb the losses more-or-less indefinitely which means that you’re completing against people who don’t care if they’re making a profit. That’s impossible, right? You can’t do that indefinitely because…there were many years, especially during the 80s, that even without interest payments, what I could get from producing a calf was exactly half of what it cost me to produce it. Unless you’ve got some other significant flow coming in, you’re just not going to be able to do that indefinitely. It took me a while to understand why the cattle market wasn’t making sense and then I realized that there were all these fat cats that were subsidizing the market. They were willing to spend quite a bit of money to go fishing. So I figured I had better get out of it and do something else.
AD: I was checking out some of your “Economy of Ideas,” would you consider yourself an economist and free-marketeer?
JPB: Yeah, I’m a free-marketeer. I believe in free markets, but like the discussion we just had gives evidence, sometimes you have things that look like free markets but aren’t because of artificial reasons. I’m not very happy with the current state of what calls itself free market economy in the world because you’ve got all these grotesque monopolies that are able to gain the system in a way that’s to their advantage by virtue of their power, and that’s not a free market. A real free market has some kind of counter-veiling influence from the government to keep a monopoly in check, but this government…it’s not about free marketing principles, it’s about greed pure and simple. And this government wants to assure that the other people that they went to college with get just as rich as they do. This country is going to make Mexico look like Sweden inside of ten years in terms of wealth distribution, because there are no counter-veiling forces. They’ve eliminated tax basically for the ultra-rich, they’ve eliminated any control over monopolies, the greedy have free reign and its just going to be the super rich and the peasants.
AD: Do you come back to Wyoming very often?
JPB: Fairly. Not as much as I’d like to or have in the past.
AD: You still have a home here?
JPB: I still have enough land in Cora…if I didn’t know what a ranch really was, I could pretend that it’s a ranch. And that’s where I vote and don’t pay taxes. Wyoming doesn’t have an income tax.
AD: I know all about that. Hey, I emailed your photographer from your website. Bart, is that his name?
JPB: Bart Nagle
AD: Yeah. He sent me an email back and said ‘did you know that Barlow is into 'polyamory’, what’s that all about?
JPB: (laughs) Polyamory, that’s where you’re freely confessed that you have more than one lover at a time. And actually I’m less that way than I used to be, but I was trying to make people understand, that at least for some folks, this was a fairly natural state. And instead of skulking around about it that we’d all do better to avoid the deceit and be honest.
AD: What is the story behind “Throwing Stones”? You wrote that in Cora as well, right?
JPB: Yeah. That’s the only explicitly political song we ever wrote. And the story behind that was that I was having a serious argument with Dick Cheney at that point, who I’d help get elected and been a pretty good congressman for the stuff that I was interested in, which was environmental stuff. We’d helped stop acid rain in the Wind River Mountains and passed the Wyoming Wilderness Act together and worked out a lot of the necessary compromises. He fished on my ranch and…we were co-conspirators.
But then he got into this obsession with the Russians and this conviction that we had a clash of cultures that had to be resolved by whatever means, and so he helped base the MX Missile in Wyoming. The original idea of the MX Missile was that it was a second-strike, retaliatory weapon that could not be taken out by a first strike because it would be running around on a vast railroad system kind of like a gigantic shell game, so the Russians wouldn’t know where the MX’s were. And the MX itself is an extremely destructive instrument. It has ten warheads, each one of which delivers 550 kilotons of explosive energy. And just for purposes of comparison, the bomb that completely leveled Hiroshima and took out half a million people in a second had only seventeen kilotons to give you some idea. So you can to the math. That’s just one missile. And the plan was to base 100 of them. And Dick was instrumental in seeing to it that they were not based in the original basing formula, which made them explicitly second strike, but that they were basically first strike weapons. They were completely naked and stationary and they were all put on launch on warning. And had all of those missiles gone, because some cloud of geese flew over a radar in Greenland, that would’ve been the end of all like on the planet. And I got so freaked out that somebody was so determined to win a political battle that he was literally willing to endanger all the life on planet Earth, that I felt like I had to say something…so I wrote that song. And like I say, I owe Dick a lot for that song.
AD: Would you consider yourself Republican?
JPB: At this stage? Yeah, I probably would except that I don’t consider him one. I mean, I was raised to think that Republicans were about limited government, individual liberty, fiscal responsibility, balanced budgets, weariness of military adventures abroad, about responsible encouragement to business. There’s a whole list of things I thought the Republican Party was all about, and these guys that presently occupy the White House, are categorically against every single one of those things. So if they’re Republicans, I’m not. But I’m really not a very comfortable Democrat. The Democrats in the last elections proved themselves to dithering pus%@#& and it was pathetic. So I’m just waiting until one party or the other actually gets a moral compass and a backbone.
AD: I hear ya.
JPB: I wasn’t tempted to vote for Bush, but I understand why people did…because he obviously had integrity. A terrible kind of integrity, but he does what he says and he means what he says. And what he says is terrible and what he does is terrible, but he’s consistent. So I think a lot of people in Wyoming who care so much about integrity that there willing to choose somebody that has a monstrous willingness to do any damn thing as long as he’s up front about it, but that’s really not quite enough for me. I look forward to the day when I can be republican again. I’m an Allen Simpson republican.
AD: I like Al.
JPB: How could you not? He’s another guy you could call. Al and I are very close friends. He’d be happy to talk to you about me.
AD: He has some of the greatest one-liners of all time.
JPB: He’s got a bumper sticker for every occasion…and the main thing is that he’s a really good guy. We didn’t always agree on stuff, but it was easy enough to understand his thought process. And we knew a lot about how to disagree without becoming really disagreeable. We’ve idlely speculated on publishing our letters because we have some letters that we’ve written to one another over the years that kind of like nuclear warfare. We’d beat the living sh** out of one another and then get over it and come back together and be friends like we’ve always been. He’s known me since I was born. My father [Norman Barlow] and his father at one point flipped a coin to see who was going to be the governor of Wyoming.
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davis@planetjh.com

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