JOHN PERRY BARLOW, who died this year at age 70, was a Grateful Dead lyricist, a pioneer in the fight for online civil liberties, and possibly a mutant. As Barlow recounts in his posthumously published memoir, Mother American Night, his mother as a girl was treated for tuberculosis by a quack who administered a prolonged beam of X-rays right into her hip. Forty-five minutes of this treatment gave her radiation sickness. Her hair fell out, she suffered severe burns, and she was informed that, oops, she'd been sterilized.
The sterilization didn't take. Two decades later, in 1947, she gave birth to John Perry Barlow. One of his X-Men superpowers seems to have been to unerringly locate centers of the American Zeitgeist and discover some pivotal role he could play in them.
IF YOU'D ENCOUNTERED Barlow as a child--by his account, he was raised primarily "by drunken cowboys and farm animals" on his parents' ranch in Wyoming--you wouldn't have guessed there were any awesome mutant genes at work. Young Barlow finished his freshman year of public high school with a straight-F average. "A root vegetable could have done better," he writes. "But I didn't give a fuck." As he explains it, "I was in such a spiteful little mood back then that I was intentionally giving the wrong answers to questions both in the classroom and on tests." Barlow joined other disaffected teens to form a laughably minor-league motorcycle gang. (They had met in the Boy Scouts, they rode tiny Hondas, and their idea of terrorizing the straights was blowing up Coca-Cola vending machines.)
Barlow's father, state Sen. Norman Barlow, eventually decided it would be politically expedient to send his wayward son away to boarding school. Barlow finished his secondary education at the Fountain Valley School in Colorado Springs, which he says "specialized in admitting bright miscreants."
It was at Fountain Valley that Barlow's uncanny gravitation toward cultural singularities began to manifest itself. He quickly befriended the musically inclined dyslexic kid who roomed across the hall--Bob Weir, who would become a founding member of the Grateful Dead.
Barlow did well enough in his classes to earn admission to all six of the colleges he applied to, including Yale and Columbia. He opted for Wesleyan, which at the time was an all-male college. For Barlow, this meant frequent motorcycle trips to New England's all-female colleges. "I always tended to keep some kind of relationship going with a...