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Longtime Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow dead at 70

Patrick Varine
| Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018, 10:42 p.m.
John Perry Barlow, founder of the Electronic Freedom Foundation and longtime lyricist for the Grateful Dead, died Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018, at the age of 70.
Electronic Frontier Foundation
John Perry Barlow, founder of the Electronic Freedom Foundation and longtime lyricist for the Grateful Dead, died Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018, at the age of 70.

"Nothing to tell now/Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."

Those are lyrics from the Grateful Dead's "Cassidy," written by guitarist Bob Weir and longtime Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, who died Wednesday at the age of 70.

Barlow was born in Wyoming in 1947, and met Weir at Fountain Valley School in Colorado Springs, Colo.

After Weir joined the Grateful Dead, he recruited Barlow as a songwriting partner, in much the same that lead guitarist Jerry Garcia worked with lyricist Robert Hunter.

In 1990, Barlow founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation , with the goal of preserving civil liberties on the internet.

He also helped form the Freedom of the Press Foundation in 2012, a group dedicated to "promoting and funding aggressive, public-interest journalism focused on exposing mismanagement, corruption, and law-breaking in government," according to the group's mission statement.

"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," wrote Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Freedom Foundation earlier this week. "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."

But Barlow's most recognized impact is with the millions of Dead fans who enjoyed his lyrics, set to the band's music over the years. Here are just a few of his best contributions to the Dead's musical canon:

'Estimated Prophet'

Introduced during the Dead's 1977 tour, "Estimated Prophet" is a first-person rant from a crazy, near-messianic zealot claiming "My time comin' any day, don't worry about me, no." Set to a 7/4 time signature, the song was the perfect vehicle for Jerry Garcia's exploratory guitar soloing, which in this case is augmented by a warbling Mu-Tron envelope pedal.

'Black-Throated Wind'

Introduced in 1972 and rarely played thereafter until the 1990s, "Black-Throated Wind" begins with a spacey guitar riff before dropping bits of Americana into a story about a drifting hitchhiker who is "blinded by the light of the interstate cars" as buses and semis pass him "plunging like stones from a slingshot on Mars."

'Looks Like Rain'

Maybe one of the most romantic songs in the Dead's canon, "Looks Like Rain" tells the story of lovers who have parted ways, and a man who still wants his woman back, telling her that he'll "still sing you love songs written in the letters of your name/I'll brave the stormy clouds, for it surely looks like rain."

'Mexicali Blues'

Both Barlow and Robert Hunter wove their own version of the Wild West into many of the Dead's songs, which frequently reference whiskey and rye, backroom card games and cowboys wandering from town to town in the desert. "Mexicali Blues" is a cautionary tale about the sway a woman can hold over her beau: "Is there anything a man don't stand to lose/When he lets a woman hold him in her hand?"

'Throwing Stones'

A timeless politically-charged tune, "Throwing Stones" takes bad bosses, crooked politicians and evildoers in general to task, not to mention that toward the end, it contains one of the funkier breakdowns in the Dead's catalog: "So the kids they dance and shake their bones/And the politicans are throwing stones/Singing ashes to ashes all fall down/Ashes to ashes all fall down."

Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2862, pvarine@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MurrysvilleStar.

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