Mother American Night by John Perry Barlow with Robert Greenfield

Mother American Night

John Perry Barlow with Robert Greenfield

Mother American Night traces the generational passage by which the counterculture became the culture in this wild, funny and heartbreaking story of John Perry Barlow.

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John Perry Barlow’s wild ride with the Grateful Dead was just part of a Zelig-like life that took him from a childhood as ranching royalty in Wyoming to membership in the Internet Hall of Fame as a digital free speech advocate.

Mother American Night is the wild, funny, heartbreaking, and often unbelievable (yet completely true) story of an American icon. Born into a powerful Wyoming political family, John Perry Barlow wrote the lyrics for thirty Grateful Dead songs while also running his family’s cattle ranch. He hung out in Andy Warhol’s Factory, went on a date with the Dalai Lama’s sister, and accidentally shot Bob Weir in the face on the eve of his own wedding. As a favor to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Barlow mentored a young JFK Jr. and the two then became lifelong friends. Despite being a freely self-confessed acidhead, he served as Dick Cheney’s campaign manager during Cheney’s first run for Congress. And after befriending a legendary early group of computer hackers known as the Legion of Doom, Barlow became a renowned internet guru who then cofounded the groundbreaking Electronic Frontier Foundation.

His résumé only hints of the richness of a life lived on the edge. Blessed with an incredible sense of humor and a unique voice, Barlow was a born storyteller in the tradition of Mark Twain and Will Rogers. Through intimate portraits of friends and acquaintances from Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia to Timothy Leary and Steve Jobs, Mother American Night traces the generational passage by which the counterculture became the culture, and it shows why learning to accept love may be the hardest thing we ever ask of ourselves.


Advance Galley Reviews

This memoir provided a behind the scenes look at people and places of the past decades, as the author became involved with, bumped up against, and careened off of them through some of the most newsworthy events and movements of the times. His life was one of several reinventions and purposes. That his trajectory took him in disparate directions, while in the intersections he was able to socialize and co-work with people of such different backgrounds leads me to believe he must have been a genius. Yet, resting back into his storytelling is like soaking up stories from a grandparent -- some tales have an element of self-aggrandizement, others feel brutally honest in their telling. In the end, I feel honored to have taken a peek into a life lived so full to the brim. This book is already on my Christmas list as a present for my attorney-Deadhead nephew. Thank you, First to Read.

Before reading this book, I knew nothing about John Perry Barlow. As I read this book, I feel like I traveled on a whirlwind path following the highlights of his very full life. I found the book to be well-written and fast-paced; it was not bogged down with details. As a result, I was left wanting a little more. I think this person led a fascinating life, and was involved in so many important and major things. The book was inspiring and a fun, quick read.

I knew nothing about John Perry Barlow before reading this book. For a songwriter for the Grateful Dead, he sure wasn’t very good at writing a book. Disjointed, a ton of name dropping, and an ego that won’t quit. I’m sorry he was so sick at the end of his life. I’m also sorry I didn’t enjoy the part of his life he left in his book. Thank you to First To Read and Penguin Random House for trying to enlighten me with this ARC.

Like others, I am mixed about this book. That maybe because of the circumstances under which the book was written and produced. It maybe because the book is uneven, largely descriptive, fascinating (if a bit short on) analysis. A quick look at Wikipedia will give you the outlines of a life fully lived. This is a book which offers so much, delivers much of its promise, but somehow doesn’t quite work. Read it for this polymaths life and times. John Perry Barlow was at the start and the centre of some of the most fundamental transformations of his lifetime. It’s worth the read for that alone. I just wish someone had taken this book as research material, and written a biography which located what John Perry Barlow was involved with, his roles and contributions, and done so within a broader analysis of the profound transformations of the last 70 years.

This is an amazing, Forrest Gump-esque romp through the 60's to the present, with John Perry Barlow a key figure in movements from hippies to cybersecurity. I'm not sure if it's because Wyoming is a small place or he just had a knack, aptitude, and connections. It's amazing to see one person in so many situations, and his amazing perspective on love and opportunities is very interesting. I wonder if we see so little of his daughters because of the great man/good man issues mentioned in one of the JFK anecdotes. A very interesting thread woven through some key events that are making the world what it is, for better or worse.

Mother American Night, with a Kurt Vonnegut-like title, is the autobiographical stories of a Small-town Wyoming rancher who lived a fascinating life that included most everything except running with the bulls in Pamplona. Probably best known for writing or cowriting thirty Grateful Dead songs and becoming part of the counterculture movement of the late Sixties, he also had a long friendship with JFK, Jr. and Senator Alan Simpson, and was at the forefront of the Internet revolution including his involvement with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Julian Assuage. The first two-thirds of the book were a fascinating read, filled with great storytelling and really great writing. The last third didn't flow quite as well. While interesting, it lacked the punch and verve of the rest of the book. It's funny when you open up an autobiography of someone you never heard of before and find it a worthwhile read. Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy for review.

So, I'm torn about this one. On one hand, JPB was an interesting character and lived a fascinating life, constantly trying out one thing or another, going wherever the wind blew him, and this made for some pretty good stories. On the other hand, some of these tales were so tall that they disappeared into the clouds, and we don't know what to believe. Add to that the endless name-dropping (everyone from Ram Dass to Dick Cheney to JFK Jr. makes an appearance) and the choppiness of the presentation (chapters jumped all over the place, never staying in a semi-followable timeline), and the book became a bit of effort to read at points. Also. I know many "counter culture icons" were/are not paragons of ethical behavior, and I do applaud JPB's honesty about *some* of his shortcomings, but I gotta be honest here: after a while the chapters begin to look like a pattern of selfish behavior without a lot of remorse for the effects it must have had on those who loved him. And it seems this pattern continued throughout the writing of this book, as JPB seemed to have no qualms about airing other people's dirty laundry (saying Daryl Hannah is "mildly autistic," "had so many trust issues," and is "not terribly sophisticated"? Opining that JFK Jr. "liked psychedelics" and was in love with JPB's wife?) for no discernible reason - like, didn't affect the narrative one bit and were just rambling asides. NOT A GOOD LOOK. But I guess ultimately what was the biggest disappointment for me as a reader was the writing style. This is a man who was most well-known for writing song lyrics, yet there was so little melody and poetry to his writing here. It was mostly "this happened, then I went here, and that's all about that I guess. Then this thing happened." I know he'd been struggling with health issues for a while before and during writing this book, so maybe he just didn't have it in him at the time. I don't know. I just hoped for more.

Thank you Penguin RandomHouse for the advanced copy of this book - all opinions are my own. This book took me completely by surprise - John Perry Barlow was a highly interesting man, who lived a provocative and unique life on the path less travelled. John Perry chose to tell his story in bite sized snippets - snapshots into his life at various stages of what he clearly felt were highly transformative periods. Reading this book feels a lot like what I would imagine sitting and having a drink with John Perry would be like - easy, messy, honest and blunt. A man who obviously took on living life on his very own specific terms, his was a journey that will not be seen again. From writing songs for the Grateful Dead, to leading the Internet into what exists today, this was a pioneer in a very different sense than the traditional, but nonetheless, a true trailblazer all the same. Overall, this book manages to be both an easy read memoir and a wildly different perspective on American history in the last few decades - as unique as John Perry himself.

The name dropping in this memoir became overkill. As fiction, I would have set the book aside. It just tired me. So, editing was definitely required. This is a (presumably) real life without focus; the memoir didn’t need to be as well. The now-deceased author felt he was present at almost every significant cultural crossroad of his generation. And if he wasn’t, he might as well have been because he was there the night before or the next morning. Strung out or looking for his next thing, he was an ever-present spirit; or so he says. Maybe he was the spark of his times. He certainly was part of the background music. I wish the book was better.

Opening the cover to this book is like getting on a roller coaster, you never know which direction John Perry Barlow's life will take. He seems to have led one of the most incredulous lives you will ever read about. From growing up in rural nowhere Wyoming, he goes on to the big stage of becoming a lyricist for The Grateful Dead. That isn't enough for him though, he goes on to have concerns about the budding Internet and the safety and privacy that will become topics of the nightly news. He founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) because of these concerns and later founded The Freedom of the Press Foundation. Between The Dead and the Internet John Perry lived fast and hard. He kept the company of some famous as well as infamous people; Timothy Leary, JFK Jr., Steve Jobs, Gilberto Gil, Owsley Stanley, and many others. He did some outrageous things, like attempting to blow up Harvard and dating the Dalai Lama's sister. To find out the rest of the things his life entailed you will have to open the cover and take the ride yourself. I have not read any of John Perry's essays or other writings, so I don't know if the pace and feel of this book is his, or his ghost writer's. I do know that he was working hard to finish this book before he died, which might be the reason it feels a bit frantic. It lays out fact after fact of his life in somewhat of a disjointed way at times. Or maybe that is just the way his life was since he lived such a full life. That said, it is not a difficult book to immerse yourself in, and feel that you are right there with him.

 


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