John Perry Barlow (1947 ~ 2018)

I’m struggling to process the passing of JPB this week. For many that got connected via dial-up in the 80’s he was the soul of the .net. He set the tone. His spirit prevailed as the founding principle of many online communities – his tone of “live & let live and be helpful and nice y’all” was foundation of many of the pinned posts of the early BBS that taught us how to behave in this new world. Whenever we struggled with some great calamity, we would turn to Barlow for guidance. Through it all, he was ever the prankster reminding that no one should take themselves too seriously.

Others have been more eloquent.

John Battelle

Steven Levy in Wired

Kevin Kelly

Cory Doctrow

Alabama Getaway

With last Tuesday’s ground-breaking repudiation of Roy Moore this past week in the Alabama special election a Facebook friend shared a few lines that opened up a journey down a rabbit hole that I had to share.

Thirty two teeth in a jawbone
Alabama cryin for none
Before I have to hit him
I hope he’s got the sense to run

If you know me, you know I’ve had an obsession with the Grateful Dead that spans many years. There are so many aspects of this band that make them an endless well of lore and history. While I get my own special satisfaction from their music it is the rich history of their songs and performances that makes them so fascinating. Like an intricate Tibetan mandala, the closer you look, the more you see.

Reason those poor girls love him
Promise them anything
Reason they believe him
He wears a big diamond ring

Go to Heaven was released in 1980 during the dying days of disco. Funkytown, Captain & Tennille, and the Commodores were in the Billboard 100 but green shoots of something new were coming through from Blondie, The Police, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Rolling Stone was impressed by the band’s cover photo which they felt was “very contemporary, very artsy, airbrushed soft-focus portrait” but not by the music which they dismissed as “uninspired fluff”

What many didn’t seem to realize is that the incessant pranksters were pulling an epic inside joke on the entire music industry. This was their last album under their disastrous record contract with Arista before they could go back to releasing live albums which curated the best music from the shows which they and their fans loved so much. Go to Heaven was the band’s giant kiss off.

Alabama getaway
Alabama getaway
Only way to please me
Turn around and leave
and walk away

Which brings me to Alabama Getaway. Ever the free love, why-can’t-we all-just-get-along types from Northern California, the band has always had a love/hate relationship with the South. Tracing their roots from jug bands and bluegrass pickers from folk America, many of their songs told tales of cowboys and the backwoods spirit of frontier folk. But while they celebrated the spirit of the individuals, they shunned the racist and divisive culture from where they came.

Majordomo Billy Bojangles
Sit down and have a drink with me
What’s this about Alabame
Keeps comin back to me?

I think Alabama Getaway, the opening song on Go to Heaven, is the band’s way of sneaking in a political message wrapped in a hard-driving Chuck Berry beat that would have fans in the South swinging their hips before they knew what hit them. References to male privilege, corruption, and lynching are woven throughout the cryptic verses, hidden in plain sight.

Heard your plea in the courthouse
Jurybox began to rock and rise
Forty-nine sister states all had
Alabama in their eyes

Neil Young didn’t do himself any favors by so directly confronting the South with his accusatory anthem Southern Man. I’m sure he stirred up quite a bit of controversy and probably wore out his welcome. Lynyrd Skynyrd even took his message and turned it into their own hit with Sweet Home Alabama’s rallying cry, “A Southern Man don’t need him around, anyhow.”

Alabama getaway
Alabama getaway
Only way to please me
Turn around and leave
and walk away

The Grateful Dead were more subtle. Like a Shakespearean court jester they will have you laughing and singing before their deeper message sinks in. Yes, they wanted to send a message but knew they would not be able to do so shouting down at people or dividing their fans against their friends. As any “social media consultant” will tell you today, the best way to crowdsource a movement is via your core fans. The only way to deliver this particular medicine was with a spoonful of sugar.

Why don’t we just give Alabama
rope enough to hang himself?
Ain’t no call to worry the jury
His kind takes care of itself

But none of this was really obvious to me until I carefully parsed the lyrics and consulted the lore. It was not until I looked into the history of this song that I unlocked the masterful prank being played. Go to Heaven was released on April 28, 1980. That very evening, the band made a special trip for a one-day concert at the Boutwell Auditorium in Birmingham, Alabama. The first song? Alabama Getaway.

Twenty-third Psalm Majordomo
reserve me a table for three
in the Valley of the Shadow
just you, Alabama and me

It cracks me up to think that all these years the band would play this song all across the South with no one the wiser. Look at the photo on the album cover again. They are all trying desperately to keep from smirking, determined to play the part of cool disco kings – only Phil Lesh, in the back, can’t keep from cracking up. Merry Pranksters indeed.

Alabama getaway
Alabama getaway
Only way to please me
turn around and leave
and walk away

If you want to listen to the Grateful Dead playing Alabama Getaway at that concert in Birmingham in 1980, visit this page and click play. It’s the first song.

Taper Dave’s Drunk Friend

In the digital age it seems quaint to have a collection of audio cassette tapes. Most of my collection was replaced by CD and then ripped to a hard disk archive years ago. But I hung on to my hundreds of Grateful Dead concert bootlegs over the years and dutifully packed them up for moves across the country and around the world.

On occasion, I plugged in an old Nakamachi deck, and played some of these old tapes to see what was on them. Many were inferior to the carefully restored digital transfers that serious traders have spruced up and put into circulation. When better copies were to be found, I chucked the tapes and was left with a 30 or so original tapes that I had made myself by “patching in” my Sony D5 into another taper’s mic setup.

I finally digitized one of my last originals and found this gem of a segment from a New Year’s Eve run in Oakland. It’s amazing how listening to something from 27 years ago can bring you right back. I’ll set the scene.

There were three or four of us daisy-chained off of a mic setup in the taper’s section which was towards the rear of the Oakland Coliseum Arena. It was the second night in a four night run and after an fairly standard first set we were just relaxing waiting for the second set to begin. I’d been chatting with one of the other tapers and we were swapping tales and discussing what might come next. The guy with the mics was named Dave and he seemed a bit nervous and was checking his equipment.

Just then, Dave’s friend came over carrying two enormous buckets of beer. He wasn’t really hip to the whole “taper vibe” and the friend was clearly annoyed because it’s not really cool to be a loudmouth in the Taper’s Section and Dave was clearly concerned that his friend was going to cause a ruckus once the music started.

Anyway, Dave’s friend tries to make his way over, climbing over the seats and is trying to watch his step as he tiptoes over all the cords and equipment below while keeping the beers from spilling over. The other taper and I are looking on with bemusement but Dave’s eyes are getting wider as his friend lumbers over to his delicately calibrated setup.

“Dave! Hey Dave! I got you some beeer!” he hollers.

Just then he trips on something and falls into the mic stand which he hits with his elbow, crumpling it in the process.

“What the hell? Watch what you’re doing?” Dave and his friend start to argue. Everything is in disarray. Dave is visibly annoyed and tries to salvage the situation by pulling out some duct tape to see if he can patch things up and get the mics pointing in the right direction.

The taper dude and I are completely at the mercy of Dave and we basically resigned ourselves to not being able to tape the second set. The argument continues with Dave muttering under his breath and Dave’s drunk friend half-apologizing but also giving Dave grief for not packing the right equipment. It’s a funny moment – two East Coasters clearly out of their element, definitely not “go with the flow” types that are the Deadhead types on the West Coast.

It’s a funny moment. I look over at the other taper and we both decide at that point to hit <Rec>

To cap things off, Dave gets everything patched up right as the lights go down and the band drops into a sweet China Cat > Rider. A slice of history.