John Perry Barlow: Looks Like Rain (From ‘Mother American Night’)
John Perry Barlow’s memoir, Mother American Night: My Life in Crazy Times, is a spirited, engaging account of a fascinating life. The book traces Barlow’s journey from Wyoming to India to Haight-Ashbury to Silicon Valley, while searching for truth and beauty. Along the way, the Grateful Dead songwriter and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation shares a series of fascinating vignettes as he crosses paths with numerous fellow American iconoclasts, including: Timothy Leary, Steve Jobs, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Edward Snowden.
The following selection looks back at Barlow’s collaboration with his best friend, the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, as they create music together at Barlow’s ranch in Wyoming.
In January 1972, Weir came out to the Bar Cross so we could write songs together for his first solo album. That was when he saw the ghost.
Actually, it was his dog who first discovered the ghost. Bobby had brought with him a young malamute named Moondog who wasn’t even a year old. They were both staying with me in an old homestead ranch house at the Finn place, across the ditch from the cabin where I had gone to school. Suddenly, at about three in the morning, the dog did a couple of revolutions around the kitchen and left a dog-high line of liquid shit around the full circumference of the room. The dog had been completely freaked out by something so we got up and dealt with that, got the dog situated outside and went back to sleep.
The ghost itself had deviled me ever since I had moved into the Finn place. It was the practice of this ghost to manifest itself invisibly but palpably at the end of my bed and look at me in a stark way. It seemed like a man, and I had experienced it many times while sleeping. After the first few times, I had come to the conclusion that the damn thing wasn’t going to do anything but stand there and look at me.
On this night, though, Weir encountered the ghost at the end of his bed. He woke up in horror and as soon as he was out of its thrall, he called up Rolling Thunder, a shaman to the Eastern Shoshone, who was living in a trailer house on an Indian reservation near Carlin, Nev. By then, Rolling Thunder had decided that he liked being the darling of rock stars, and so he was more than happy to talk to Bobby, even at such an ungodly hour of the night.
Weir said, “I’ve just experienced a ghost and it scares me. What should I do?” Rolling Thunder said, “You can exorcise this ghost. I would bet that if it’s a ranch you are on, there are cedar fence posts somewhere nearby because they last a lot longer than regular fence posts.” Rolling Thunder told Weir that he should get a drawknife and peel the fence posts, and then take all the bark peelings and put them in a coffee can. After he had punched holes in the side of the can and set the bark peelings on fire, he should go around the house with it and begin singing a Shoshone chant that Rolling Thunder started teaching him.
Now, it was true that there were cedar fence posts nearby, but they were all under about three feet of snow. So Bobby said, “No, no, no. Is there something I can do with less work?” And Rolling Thunder said, “You could take a box of stick matches and get a plate and burn the entire box and then grind them up until they are a fine carbon powder and then smear it all over your face.” And Weir said, “That sounds doable.”
So he went and got a box of stick matches from the kitchen and did just that. I only found out about what he had done when I went into his bedroom at six-thirty in the morning to wake him up so we could go feed the cattle together. Weir came up out of bed looking like Al Jolson about to break into “My Mammy.”
It was one of those rare moments in my life when I was totally speechless. I had seen him earlier in the night when he was dealing with the dog, and he sure as shit hadn’t looked like that.
We were feeding about 800 cows every morning and then writing songs in the afternoon and evening. We were still trying to figure out how to do this together. Bobby would sit there with a guitar and I would sit there with a legal pad.
We began with “Black-Throated Wind.” Oddly enough, I had written the chorus while riding on a bus to the airport in Kathmandu and not anywhere near drowning in the Mother American night. If anything, I was drowning in the weird Nepali night. It was the first thing that ever showed up that seemed like it might be part of a song and not a poem.
I sang those lines for Weir, and he perversely put them into a different melodic setting than I’d just sung. I then wrote the rest of the lyrics. The last few verses were like a dental extraction. They have grown on me over the years, but at the time, it was all perspiration and no inspiration and wretchedly painful. I do think the line “You ain’t gonna learn what you don’t want to know” is actually pretty good.
Weir and I were drinking Wild Turkey one night, which we did all the time because I don’t think Bobby and I ever wrote a song together when we were not drinking Wild Turkey, and up on the wall of the cabin, I had this old-timey N.C. Wyeth print of an Indian with his hands out. Weir looked at the print and said, “You know what he’s saying, right?” I said, “No, what?” And he said, “Looks like rain.”
I thought that was hilarious. Only Weir would say that. It was a total Weir-ism. And it led to “Looks Like Rain.” He planted the seed, even though at that point my experience with “being in love” was pretty much restricted to Shakespeare, opera and novels by women with three names from the southern states in which someone would swoon. I had often thought about what actually being in that sort of love would be like and had concluded that it was a fiction humans had created to make us all feel more painfully aware of our limitations.
In a sense, the lyrics were fraudulent because I was not writing from experience. But I was writing from a kind of foreknowledge, and it all came to me relatively easily. I then did something that I had sworn, after “Mexicali Blues,” I would never do again, which was just give the lyrics to Bobby without any sense of where they ought to go or what the song should sound like. But Bobby did an incredibly beautiful job of writing the melody, and I was delighted when I heard it.
Many years later, the Dead were playing “Looks Like Rain” in Nassau Coliseum, and I was snuggled up against a woman with whom I actually was in that kind of love. I suddenly realized who this song had been composed for and who it was that I felt this way about. I started singing it to her and said, “I swear I wrote this for you many years ago.”
(Reprinted from Mother American Night: My Life In Crazy Times by John Perry Barlow with Robert Greenfield. Copyright © 2018 by John Perry Barlow. Published by Crown Archetype, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.)
This article originally appears in the July/August 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.