John Perry Barlow 1947-2018 – The Lyricist’s Top Ten Grateful Dead Contributions

John Perry Barlow, (who passed away 2/6/18) was many things besides Bob Weir’s lyricist for the Grateful Dead – a free speech champion and the builder of the influential Electronic Frontier Foundation. Making a top ten list of his greatest lyrical compositions seems almost unfair, but while fellow Dead lyricist Robert Hunter typically took a more poetic and storybook perspective, Barlow immediately faced the ill’s of today’s society and along with it a turn of his own poetic flavor that helped give Weir his own set of Dead classics and a voice of his own.

“Cassidy”

In The Grateful Dead Movie, Barlow’s only appearance was marked by his admission that Bob Weir wrote best for him when “he had a gun pointed at his head.”  This song was part of the initial batch the two wrote together and contains some of Barlow’s most timeless lyrics.  “Let your life proceed by its own design” and “let the words be yours I am done with mine” are already in countless high school seniors’ yearbook blurbs. Weir recently said this was the song he’d like played at his funeral.  You can’t get much higher praise than that.

“Looks Like Rain”

This was also part of the songs that appeared on Weir’s “Ace” album and was performed for all intents and purposes by the Grateful Dead.  This could be the prettiest of all Dead tunes.  The initial versions had Jerry on pedal steel, while the late 70s renditions featured harmonies with Donna Jean Godchaux.  After that, Jerry’s fiery leads sounded like an actual thunderstorm.  “I only want to hold you, I don’t want to tie you down/Or fence you in the lines I might’ve drawn.”  This stands as a great song by any band, especially the Dead.  

“Black Throated Wind”

This one stayed out of the repertoire from 1974-1990.  I was fortunate to be there the night they revived it.  Weir had discussed reworking the lyrics during its hiatus and the Cap Centre version from 3/16/90 contains those changes.  They tried it with a few other wrinkles ten days later in Albany before returning to essentially the original version at MSG that fall.  That was a smart move.  This is one of the all-time great breakup songs and the words are the reason why.  “What’s to be found racing around/You carry your pain wherever you go.  Full of the blues and trying to lose/You ain’t gonna learn what you don’t want to know.” Truer words have never been written.

“The Music Never Stopped”

We’ll never know if Barlow was writing about the Dead when he described “a band beyond description,” but it always felt like it when they played it. “Lord the band kept us so busy/We forgot about the time.”  That serves as a fitting epitaph for many Deadhead’s touring careers.

“Estimated Prophet”

Bob Weir always described a strange character preaching his gospel backstage when discussing the genesis of this song.  The lyrics are as strange as the guy who apparently inspired it.  From the moment this song appeared onstage in 1977, it never left the repertoire.  The enigmatic lyrics were part of its appeal.  This tune always felt like a celebration live.

“Lost Sailor/Saint Of Circumstance”

“Sailor” only lasted onstage for seven years.  The band played it constantly in ’79-’80, but it was sorely missed by those that got on the bus later on.  “There’s a price for being free” were words I know personally spoke to me on tour at times.  “Saint’s” classic quote “Sure don’t know what I’m going for/But I’m gonna go for it for sure” is almost the flipside of the former song’s warning.

“Lazy Lightning/Supplication”

This was another duo the band stopped performing after the mid-1980s.  As is the case with so many legendary Dead songs, its words sounded like they could be written about the Deadhead experience itself.  “So exciting/The way you’re messing with my reason.  It’s an obsession but it’s pleasing.”  “Supplication” also seems like it’s addressing a girl but echoed much of the audience’s sentiments.  “Dizzy ain’t the word for the way you’re making me feel now.  I need an indication if all of this is real now.”

“Weather Report Suite”

The “Prelude” and “Part I” parts of the suite didn’t come back with the band when they returned to regular touring in 1976.  However, “Let It Grow” stayed in the repertoire until the end.  My last show of 138, the disastrous affair at Deer Creek in 1995, contained one of the finest versions I’d ever heard.  Even with all its agricultural imagery, the song always connected.  “Seasons round/Creatures great and small, up and down as we rise and fall.”  That’s some real cycle of life shit right there.

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“Throwing Stones”

This was as political a tune as the band ever sang.  However, environmental concerns were one of the few issues they didn’t mind aligning themselves with.  Barlow’s reference to our planet as a “bright blue ball just spinning, spinning free” is as good as I’ve ever heard the world described.  But the song also describes the light and dark of those that inhabit our world.  “Commissars and pinstriped bosses roll the dice/Anyway it falls guess who gets to pay the price” could be an indictment of any age.  “And the current fashions set the pace/Lose your step fall out of grace” always seemed like words that didn’t apply to “the kids that dance and shake their bones.”  We were all having too good a time for that.

“Hell In A Bucket”

It was down to this or “Feel Like A Stranger,” but “Bucket” was chosen for the pure insanity of its lyrics.  The satirical video the Dead released, with Weir in full Miami Vice mode, worked perfectly for the song.  “You analyze me, attempt to despise and you laugh when I stumble and fall.  There may come a day I will dance on your grave/If unable to dance I will crawl across it.”  It almost sounds like late 60s Dylan, but it was pure Barlow.  Jerry’s raunchy solo always made this one a great opener.  Like Jerry, Barlow will sorely be missed.  But in his own words, at least he enjoyed the ride.

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