"Fare thee well now
Let your life proceed by its own designs
Nothing to tell now
Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine"
-- "Cassidy" lyrics by John Perry Barlow
Pictured above is a special moment with a hero of mine, poet and activist John Perry Barlow, who left his body in his sleep last night. Here, I was blessed to have a precious embrace with Mr. Barlow in the wee, wee morning hours of January 1, 2005, at Radio City Music Hall where we were attending The String Cheese Incident New Year's show. I was actually writing and doing photography for JamBase at the time and also doing freelance work for SCI. Barlow had stepped into the magical SCI arena offering lyrics for songs like Mike Kang's "These Waves" and "It Is What It Is" in addition to a few others. This was a magical time for SCI where the link with the Dead seemed palpable from the intimate magic created, the joyful movement of love and psychedelic exploration, community and celebration, which was solidified in whatever way by Barlow's presence and words in and on the scene.
Barlow is truly a great American poet, perhaps my favorite, in fact. It may well be true that many people only know the genius of Barlow through the vocals of Grateful Dead's Bob Weir, whose golden voice made the former's words leap magically to life like intimate living novels. Yet to not cherish the poetic grandeur and author himself who is the source of so much American culture, nostalgia, consciousness expansion and down right good times would be a incredible disservice, not only to the Grateful Dead, but to wordsmiths everywhere.
"Black Throated Wind" is brilliant, quintessential Americana from a pivotal moment when the Beat era had morphed into the hippie/psychedelic period, and yet somehow transcends a fixed moment in time. As a weary wanderer, hitchhiking across the states, with striking beauty in masterful vision, the protagonist, through Barlow, laments the road life, love lost and the American dream:
Bringing me down,
I'm running aground
Blind in the light of the interstate cars.
Passing me by,
The busses and semis,
Plunging like stones from a slingshot on Mars.
But I'm here by the road,
Bound to the load
That I picked up in ten thousand cafes and bars.
Alone with the rush of the drivers who won't pick me up,
The highway, the moon, the clouds, and the stars.
The black-throated wind keeps on pouring in
With its words of a life where nothing is new.
Ah, Mother American Night, I'm lost from the light.
Ohhh, I'm drowning in you.
"Cassidy" would capture this era and its iconic counter-culture characters even more with prophetic and anthemic lyrics that would iconize a magical period of time, consciousness exploration and expression. "Fare thee well now / Let your life proceed by its own designs / Nothing to tell now / Let the words be yours I'm done with mine." Timelessness is a true hallmark of creative artistry and mastery and Barlow's poetry most certainly a way to speak perpetual relevance and has withstood the test of time. It is this very quality that launches through song, surviving his passing, into a new era of receptive, eager ears and hearts. Also, his ability to make a deeply personal lyric or story not only accessible to the collective consciousness, but to magically allow each recipient of the words feel it and experience it in a deeply unique and personal way, speaks volumes of what Barlow was able to do with poetry.
"Estimated Prophet" forever holds a mystical place in Dead lore and sonically speaks of strange, psychedelic days of promise and glory and weirdness in and around the scene. Barlow could also spin a cowboy song with the best of ie. "Mexicali Blues," which reads and feels like an epic movie complete in a 3 minute song. "Music Never Stopped" and "Let It Grow," are poetic masterpieces, splashing technicolor life and light onto the canvas of seasons passing and the movement of consciousness and party and dance that was the Dead. Only a sweeping, epic, stirring chorus of the later could do justice to the song's beauty of the imagery of the Earth and the people who work her precious lands, punctuating with verbal exclamation points to Mother Nature:
What shall we say, shall we call it by a name
As well to count the angels dancing on a pin
Water bright as the sky from which it came
And the name is on the earth that takes it in
We will not speak but stand inside the rain
And listen to the thunder shout I am, I am, I am, I AM.
To take every day life and shake the cobwebs of mundanity into mystical perception by seeing the essence of it (call it spiritual or not) and conveying in word is a rare gift. Part of the magic of what Barlow's poetry did through the musical mastery of the Grateful Dead was to indeed allow people from all backgrounds to have a spiritual experience of collective energy, intent and consciousness expansion that could not be found by most if at all, in the predominant global and cultural story of politics, religion and 'how it is."
I can't really even convey what Barlow's words, through the Grateful Dead experience in my life, have provided for me. The inner fulfillment of poetry and song as divine expression and celebration is one of the intimate joys of my life and Barlow may just be the poet and song writer that has touched my life and heart the most. Actually, the Dead, Barlow and The Sting Cheese Incident, moved me to find poetry and expression that was lying dormant within and that experience and inner communion birthed outward is taking on a greater role and even more significance in my life, with each passing day. Barlow's presence, through his word genius, saw me through the strangest, the hardest, the most joyful times, and continue to be a most dazzling soundtrack to my life. Barlow's words were highways, paving what only in retrospect was path, when it appeared I had no idea where I was going. Through the lonely curves of rolling hills of middle-America and the lonely curves of rolling hills of my mind, from pine covered Northwest mountains to coffee filled, hung-over drives home from Adirondack lakes, to train stations on the Eurorail paths, to harsh morning commutes, and days of escapism, fear, heartbreak and even triumph, John Perry Barlow's words were nearby. Most recently, from the exogenous psychedelic circus of these earlier years of my life, to the endogenous experience of re-membering of the last few years, "Feel Like a Stranger" brings a knowing smile that spreads across decades, where only in hindsight, does nonsense begin to make perfect sense, and the true psychedelic path of mystical revelation and verse becomes unveiled. Driving down the highway in this miraculous time of planetary ascenion and re-membering, as "I" begins to fade to the soul's immutable thunder-like cry of "I AM", the merging of timelines and dimensions and liquid plasma, crsytalline skies, as the Dead station on Sirius XM radio blares through my cars speakers:
Now there ain't no point in looking behind us, no!
Still I feel like a stranger (feel like a stranger)
You know it's gonna get stranger
let's get on with the show.
All I can do is blink a few times, look out at the surreal terrain of a psychedelic dreamscape manifesting into collective reality, flash a knowing smile, and continue driving on down that winding road.
Some words that spontaneously arose this morning, an offering, as I searched for this picture, and tears filled my eyes as Barlow's words flooded my awareness. With all my heart, thank you Mr. Barlow. Your contribution of consciousness to this Earth in your poetry and activism, your presence, is a precious, rare and timeless gift:
Ode to the poets and music makers
Who transform the mundane magical
And the muddied, mystical
That bring words to the unspeakable
And silver linings to the unthinkable
A playlist for pain
Pleasure in the darkest hours
From a hyper-focused point of view
To elevated, omniscient towers
Make the dramas of life
The most magnificent stories
A cast of characters unknown
And yet so familiar
A common song
On cosmic loan
A moment’s reprieve from bewilder
A soundtrack, word rap
For stages and phases
For that second, free from all cages
Or maybe it’s all just so absurd
The dance, and capturing in word
And so set it all free
And enter the space
Beyond the you and me
No dress rehearse
What to do
But express consciousness in verse
From the cradle to the hearse
An ecstatic orgasm of celestial light
Vibrating through the skull
Dispel the myth of day and night
A moment of time
Maybe its all nonsense
Or the heights of intimacy sublime
In that moment, the only thing true
published in Barlow Extra Light font ;-)