John Perry Barlow, who wrote lyrics for some of the Grateful Dead’s most recognizable songs and later became a visionary champion of Internet freedoms and digital rights, died on Wednesday at the age of 70. His passing was immediately met with outpourings of grief and remembrances from fans, friends, and collaborators who celebrated his contributions to the music world and his inspired activism.
“This life is fleeting, as we all know – the Muse we serve is not,” said Bob Weir, Grateful Dead guitarist who co-wrote many songs with Barlow during the band’s long run. “John had a way of taking life’s most difficult things and framing them as challenges, therefore adventures. He was to be admired for that, even emulated. He’ll live on in the songs we wrote…”
Among dozens of others—including “Black Throated Wind,” “Mexicali Blues,” “Estimated Prophet,” and “The Music Never Stopped”—Weir and Barlow also wrote the song “Cassidy” together, played here by the Dead in 1980 during an acoustic show at Radio City Music Hall:
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While his time with the Dead was forever part of Barlow’s legacy, he also attached himself firmly and profoundly to the rise of the Internet when it sprung into the culture in the 1990s. In 1996, Barlow authored what is still considered one of the breakthrough manifestos for internet freedom by penning “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”—ironically (or not) written on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
“John Perry Barlow was a good man. He was a good friend, and a visionary whose impact on technology, culture, and the world will be felt for generations. As the Grateful Dead say: fare thee well, JPB.”
—Trevor Timm & Parker Higgins, Freedom of the Press FoundationThe declaration states that the new digital space being created online would not tolerate the tyranny of governments. “We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity,” the declaration states.
“We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace,” it concluded. “May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.”
Earlier, Barlow was co-founder, along with John Gilmore and Mitch Kapor, of the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a national advocacy group that continues to defend online privacy and the primacy of democratic principles online. Later, in 2012, he co-founded the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a non-profit that supports free speech in the press. Among the board members of that group is NSA whisteblower Edward Snowden, who in a tweet on Thursday championed Barlow as one who “drew in fire visions of an Internet meant for more than brands and bullshit.”
In a message on Thursday, EFF executive director Cindy Cohn announced Barlow’s passing “with a broken heart” and said the organization and its member will miss his vision and wisdom for decades to come.
“It is no exaggeration to say that major parts of the Internet we all know and love today exist and thrive because of Barlow’s vision and leadership,” Cohn wrote. “He always saw the Internet as a fundamental place of freedom, where voices long silenced can find an audience and people can connect with others regardless of physical distance.” She continued:
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In a touchy and detailed tribute at Wired, journalist Steven Levy writes that he and Barlow became soulmates when they first met, but that it was clear there was nothing rare in his having had that experience—”it also applies to probably 10,000 other people.”
In their memoriam of Barlow, Trevor Timm and Parker Higgins at the Freedom of the Press Foundation mourned his passing while celebrating the profound imprint he left on so many.
“John Perry Barlow was a good man,” they wrote. “He was a good friend, and a visionary whose impact on technology, culture, and the world will be felt for generations. As the Grateful Dead say: fare thee well, JPB.”
Across the internet, of course, the tributes also poured: