I’m in a reflective mood lately. Looking within, through a glass darkly and all that. That’s my excuse for the fact that it’s March 2018 and this is my first post of the year.
I also have another excuse: I’ve been working on a really good Litkicks article about opera. If you follow my Instagram (and I wish you would, because I’m really into expressing myself with images lately) you know that I’ve taken up regular attendance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City for the past couple of years. This followed a couple of other developments in my life: first, I’ve managed to transform myself from someone who has to slog to work in an office every day into a work-from-home arrangement, which makes me very happy. I now spend most of my daylight hours coding in a solitary room, which means I get to play whatever music I want in the background while I work. I’ve discovered that opera is the perfect background music for coding. It’s dramatic and dynamic and continuous, which keeps me awake and engaged. But it’s also in a language I don’t speak, so the words can’t interrupt my thinking as they would if I knew what the singers were singing about.
This is why I’ve been feeding Mozart and Rossini and Bellini and Donizetti and Verdi and Wagner and Puccini and Strauss into my brain at an advanced pace lately. I also happen to be currently crashing in upper Manhattan, with the Met at Lincoln Center just a pleasant walk away. This is why opera has suddenly begun rocking my world. I’m almost ready to publish a really exciting article for this site about the literary, cultural and historical significance of opera. But that article is not ready yet. This Litkicks post is not that Litkicks post, but I have a few other things to share today …
I’m so happy to have become involved with an organization called World Beyond War, which is doing a much better job than I was able to do on my own a couple of years ago when I announced an Indiegogo drive for a new organization called Pacifism for the 21st Century. Looking back, I know my intentions were good, but I was making the mistake of trying to do everything all by myself. I became overwhelmed to the point of paralysis by the enormity of the goal of launching a new peace advocacy organization, and fell far short of my ambitions. I was able to launch a pretty good website (and I will continue to publish fresh content there as often as I can). But a website is easy to build. An enduring organization is not.
Last September I went to World Beyond War’s annual conference in Baltimore and was blown away by the intensity, knowledge, experience and commitment of the folks I met there. There have been times when I wondered: am I the only person in the world who thinks global peace is a practical cause worth fighting for? Now that I’ve become involved with World Beyond War, I know I’m not, and this means so much to me.
Among the inspiring leaders in this activist community are author David Swanson, The Nation contributor Alice Slater, and military recruiting critic Pat Elder, who just last week got a chance to expose some shocking facts about the way our public schools are used to promote a pro-gun agenda with a two-show appearance on Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now”. I’m working with this group to help improve their website and social media presence, among other things, and I also wrote my first article for their website, a review of a movie about a wonderful gadfly and peacemonger named Garry Davis, who fought a tough lifelong campaign to establish the concept of global (as opposed to national) citizenship, and who died just a few years ago. The movie is called The World Is My Country.
Like everything else in the antiwar movement, this film needs greater exposure, so please check out my movie review and, if you can, help your local film festival schedule a showing. It really is a knockout. As the good people of our sick world continue to protest, resist and fight for our freedom under the thumb of newly empowered wannabe dictators from Trump to Putin to Netanyahu to Kim, we all need to pitch in and help spread the word that activism is still alive, and that we will never give up the fight against totalitarianism, violence, corruption, racism, sexism and oppression.
Ahh, John Perry Barlow. This great American rabble-rouser died a month ago, and this is another topic worth pausing my ponderances upon opera about. John Perry Barlow is mostly known as an early pioneer of Internet culture, a founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and an outspoken advocate for advanced concepts of digital freedom. He’s also known for being Bob Weir’s songwriting partner in the Grateful Dead. I love him equally for both.
I first got in touch with John Perry Barlow in 1994, when I had just launched Literary Kicks. He had posted a touching remembrance about Neal Cassady and the song “Cassidy” to the newsgroup rec.music.gdead, and I asked him if I could run the piece on Literary Kicks. He said yes, and for the past 24 years “Cassidy’s Tale” has been one of the most popular articles on this site.
John Perry Barlow decidedly did not believe in copyright — this was one of the basic principles he was outspoken about. I don’t think much of copyright either, so of course I never felt any sense of ownership to the elegant words he wrote for this piece. But I’m was always pleased that Barlow himself would tweet or share the Litkicks link whenever he wanted to refer to “Cassidy’s Tale”, so I guess my version of this article is the canonical one (I’m also proud of the 9.4K Facebook likes on the article, not too shabby — this might be the most popular Litkicks article of all time, though I’ve never done the math).
I got a chance to meet John Perry Barlow once in the late 1990s, though ironically it was not in a setting that resonated well with either radical digital culture or the Grateful Dead. It was when I was an employee of Time Warner’s ill-fated web venture Pathfinder.com (a period of my life I’ve written a bit about). We had a weekend getaway conference for the whole New Media division at a swank country club in Westchester, up north of New York City. Somebody on our editorial team (probably Josh Quittner) had the surprisingly good idea to invite John Perry Barlow to be the keynote speaker for our big dinner.
The problem is, a Time Warner audience is about as square an audience as Barlow ever had to face, and the room was pretty unresponsive to everything he said. He spoke about futuristic open source publishing models and “information wants to be free” and all that, but when I went up to him after and introduced myself as the guy from Literary Kicks who’d published “Cassidy’s Tale” I have to admit I felt embarrassed to meet him in such a dull corporate setting, instead of backstage at a Dead show or in the midst of a fiery protest action for free speech. We spoke for a bit and began to have a good conversation, but then my Deadhead friend from Ad Sales jumped in with a different topic, and I never got the chance to have the great dialogue with John Perry Barlow about the deep meaning of digital culture that I always wanted to have.
I nearly talked to John Perry Barlow again but didn’t just a couple of years ago while we were both in the audience at a special Yoko Ono event in New York City. This turned out to be an epic concert that went on a long time and featured Cibo Matto, Sean Lennon, Patti Smith, Antony and my last glimpse ever of Lou Reed before he died. As everybody was finally shuffling out of the ballroom around 1:30 am with happy ears, I spotted John Perry Barlow in the slow-moving crowd just ahead of me. I thought of saying hello again, but he looked pretty beat and I was pretty beat too and I let the moment pass.
A lot of people only knew Barlow’s Internet pioneer side and a lot of people only knew his Grateful Dead side, but I’d like to make the case that the two sides were one. In either essay or song, Barlow was always an avuncular social critic, often a harsh and moralistic one. He began his career as Bob Weir’s lyricist with sweet, pained, expressive songs like “Mexicali Blues” and “Looks Like Rain”, but his messages soon became more pointed and sarcastic with “Estimated Prophet”, which satirized a familiar type of Deadhead who pines for the dreamy land called California where he may someday go and find his dreams come true. Not likely. Information wants to be free, and in California everything is magical, but neither fact is true unless we continually strive to keep it so, and keeping it so requires more vigilance, intellectual rigor and seriousness of purpose than most of us flawed mortals will ever have. That, it seems to me, was the John Perry Barlow message, both in his lyrics and his digital activism.
Many of the lyrics Barlow wrote for Bob Weir to sing contain “lessons” for the searching souls who listen to Grateful Dead songs, as well as portraits of fellow searchers in various states of finding themselves. The most epic Weir/Barlow collaboration is probably the second-set segue “Lost Sailor”->”Saint of Circustance”, which asks that eternal question, “Where’s the Dog Star?” — a question that always got applause because somebody in the audience thought the band was about to play “Dark Star”. This is a bit of clever meta-reference on John Perry Barlow’s part, since the band only played their mystical masterpiece “Dark Star” in concert on very rare occasions — and you better believe the plucky wordsmith John Perry Barlow wrote the line exactly for that purpose. Barlow’s lyrical vision was always a knowing one.
Where’s the Dog Star? In the second half of the segue that’s always played as a set piece, Jerry Garcia’s lead guitar builds to an epic crescendo as the hapless lost sailor finally sees the Dog Star shine. Here’s a great 1979 version of this Barlow/Weir two-song punch, 12 minutes long and worth it no doubt.
“Throwing Stones” was probably Barlow’s most openly political song, and “Hell in a Bucket” his most rambunctious expression of independence. A native of Wyoming, Barlow always maintained a sort of Sam Shepard-esque Western mystique, and another of my favorite Barlow/Weir collabs is the spooky, heavy “Black Throated Wind”.
I was a man, when all this began
Who’d never think twice about being there yet.
Here’s a pretty sharp Black-Throated Wind from 1991:
It’s not only because of the pleasure it brought me to publish “Cassidy’s Tale” way back in 1994 when Litkicks was 3 months old that “Cassidy” also remains among my very favorite Dead songs. I think the Platonic ideal of “Cassidy” was reached around 1980, when the Dead’s show included a rare acoustic set that really allowed the subtle textures of this elegant song to emerge. My favorite recording is on the live album Reckoning, and this Radio City video from the same set of shows is pretty good too:
And, you know, I’m in a reflective phase. I think this is a good thing. I probably should have spent more time reflecting throughout my life. So I’m doing more of it now. But every once in a while somebody asks me, “Hey, have you stopped doing Litkicks?”
No. Not in the cards, not as long as I’ve got air to breathe. Not till I find that Dog Star, or world peace, whichever comes first.