December 04, 1995 12:00 PM

ON A VISIT TO THE 22,000-ACRE Bar Cross Ranch near Pinedale, Wyo., where he grew up, computer guru John Perry Barlow feels a tinge of yearning for the cowboy life he left behind. “I used to lie down out there in the middle of about 300 head of yearling cattle,” he says, pointing across the windswept pastures of the ranch he sold eight years ago. “Then I’d jump up and watch them scatter like a piece of mercury you’d hit with a hammer. It’ll be a long time,” he says wistfully, “before cyberspace can match an experience like that.”

That’s quite an admission for a man renowned as a prophet and protector of the digital community. With a résumé that looks like it was written on acid—a drug the former cowpoke, onetime Republican county chairman and longtime Grateful Dead lyricist admits an enduring fondness for—Barlow, 48, is no computer dweeb. Rather, he has parlayed a gift for gab and provocative pronouncements about the electronic frontier—on the Internet, he says “we’re all reduced to free-floating, undifferentiated wisps of thought”—into a gig that earns him up to $7,500 for speaking engagements and a $3,000 day rate as a much-in-demand consultant to firms like Apple and Microsoft. “He’s a hippie mystic, a natural-born storyteller,” says Kevin Kelly, executive editor of Wired, the cyber-news magazine Barlow helped raise funds to launch in 1993. “He’s the first to talk about this stuff in a way that a cowhand can understand.”

Or, for that matter, a computer mogul. “He’s the uncrowned poet laureate of cyberspace,” says Mitch Kapor, founder of the software giant Lotus Development. In 1990 he and Barlow joined forces to form the Electronic Frontier Foundation, now based in San Francisco, which has taken Washington to task—and to court—for infringing on the rights of computer users. “Basically, we’re seeking to ensure freedom of expression in cyberspace,” says Barlow, who is battling anti-porn and digital copyright legislation now pending in Washington. “I’m convinced that copyright is about to become the Vietnam of cyberspace,” he says. “The U.S. Patent commissioner has recommended calling something a copy each time a computer writes it into memory. That means anything you transmit across the Net would be subject to license control and regulation.”

Barlow first began using a computer in 1987 to keep track of finances on his Wyoming ranch. “I used it like most people do—as a better form of Wite-Out,” he says. But once he logged on to the Internet, he discovered a universe that reminded him of the vast range lands where he grew up. “There are a lot of similarities between cyberspace and open space,” Barlow says. “There is a lot of room to define yourself. You can literally make yourself up.”

An only child who roamed the Bar Cross ranch his great uncle had started in 1907, Barlow says his parents—Republican state legislator Norman Barlow and his wife, Miriam—were almost as distant as the nearest neighbors, who lived four miles away. “My parents had been married 20 years before I was born,” he says. “They had their own lives by that time. I was pretty much raised by the employees of the ranch.” A troublemaker in grade school, by age 15, John Perry was shipped off to the Fountain Valley Military Academy in Colorado Springs. There he met a rowdy, guitar-playing teen from Atherton, Calif., named Bob Weir. “Oh, we got in a lot of trouble,” says Barlow, who wrote poetry when he wasn’t raising hell with Weir. “I felt it really unfair when he got kicked out and I didn’t.”

In 1965, the same year Weir became a founding member of the Grateful Dead in San Francisco, Barlow graduated from Fountain Valley and enrolled in Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, where he majored in comparative religion. Graduating in 1969, he traveled around India before heading back to the U.S. in 1970. That same year, with Weir’s encouragement, Barlow began writing songs for the Dead. “I thought it was a misuse of the holy gift of poetry,” he says of his earlier attempts to meet women by writing catchy lyrics. “Then I realized, this is what poetry has always been for.”

Barlow’s lyric gifts would eventually yield more than 30 tunes for the Dead, including such concert staples as “Estimated Prophet,” “Mexicali Blues” and “Cassidy.” But instead of joining the band’s entourage, Barlow returned to his family ranch in 1971 to help care for his father, who had had a stroke in 1966 and died in 1972. Coping with a $700,000 debt, Barlow worked the ranch for 17 years, with only occasional breaks to accompany the Dead on tour. But his colorful sideline attracted an array of visitors to the ranch, including Weir, Marlon Brando and John F. Kennedy Jr., who, at 17, worked on the Bar Cross as a ranch hand (returning the favor, Kennedy recently hired Barlow to write a column for his new magazine, George). After his marriage to Elaine Parker, an old high school pal, in 1977 (the couple, who separated in 1992 and divorced this year, have three daughters, Leah, 13, Anna, 11, and Amelia, 9), Barlow decided to take up politics, eventually serving as Sublette County GOP chairman. “It’s a family tradition,” he says of his party affiliation. “And I wanted to keep an eye on the bastards.”

After selling the ranch, Barlow moved to nearby Pinedale in 1988, where he now lives in a small, two-bedroom house, three doors from Parker and their girls. There, he became enthralled by the sense of “shared community” he found on the Internet and made his career leap into cyberspace. “I was intrigued by all the people I met online,” says Barlow, whose witty postings and freelance writings soon made him a star among Net-heads. “They struck me as so alive, so whimsical and so filled with a great sense of expanded possibilities.”

He found solace there too. In April 1994, his fiancée, 29-year-old psychiatrist Dr. Cynthia Horner, with whom he had been sharing an apartment in New York City for almost two years, died of an undiagnosed heart ailment while on a flight from Los Angeles. After posting a heartrending eulogy to her on the Net, Barlow received thousands of e-mail condolences. “Incredibly moving, intimate stuff from people I don’t know,” he says. “It was really comforting.” Then, says Barlow, “I hit the road. It started as a way of coping, and it’s become my mode of existence.” One stop he did make was at Jerry Garcia’s funeral in Belvedere, Calif., last August. “It reminded me of a big old community funeral in a small town,” he says. “He’s been such a fundamental part of my life, it’s not going to be easy to figure out how to proceed without him. But I’m working on it.”

For now, he is doing so through his lobbying and lecture tours. “One of the reasons I got into computers was because I thought I could keep myself in Pinedale and let my mind roam the planet,” he says. “The amazing thing is, precisely the opposite took place. My mind is firmly planted at barlow@eff.org [his e-mail address], and my body roams the planet.”

STEVE DOUGHERTY

JOHNNY DODD in Pinedale

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