Skip to main content

In 'POST-', Avowed Pessimist Jeff Rosenstock Surrenders To Creative Optimism

Critic Ken Tucker says he former ska/punk musician's new record is filled with "angry confusion," but Rosenstock also reveals himself as a singer-songwriter with a gift for delicate melodies.

06:46

Contributor

Related Topic

Other segments from the episode on February 9, 2018

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 9, 2018: Obituary for John Mahoney; Review of the album "POST-," Obituary for John Perry Barlow; Review of the film "The 15:17 To Paris."

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're going to remember John Mahoney, the British-born actor best known for playing Martin Crane on the long-running sitcom "Frasier." Mahoney died Sunday at the age of 77. As Martin Crane, he played a retired cop and the unlikely father of two pretentious psychiatrist sons. In this scene, his oldest son, Frasier Crane, played by Kelsey Grammer, is sitting at the table, showing off his fancy, new chess set.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRASIER")

KELSEY GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Oh, hi, Dad. You see my new chess set?

JOHN MAHONEY: (As Martin) Oh, yeah. It's nice.

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Nice? The inlay was made from the same travertine marble they used at Hadrian's palace outside Tivoli.

MAHONEY: (As Martin) Really? Well, I'm going to celebrate with a beverage brewed from the crystal-clear waters of the majestic Colorado Rockies.

(LAUGHTER)

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Good one, Dad. Say, how about a game?

MAHONEY: (As Martin) No, I don't think so.

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Oh, come on, Dad. You know how to play, don't you?

MAHONEY: (As Martin) Well, Daphne showed me once. But really, checkers is more my speed.

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Oh, come on. Checkers is a kids' game. Come on, Dad. I just got it. Please? Nobody will play with me.

(LAUGHTER)

MAHONEY: (As Martin) All right. I'll give it another shot. Those guys at the park make it look great - eating bologna sandwiches, smoking cigars. Sometimes, a fistfight even breaks out.

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Well, let's just start with name calling and see where it goes.

(LAUGHTER)

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Your turn. No, Dad, please, you don't have to rush. As a novice, you have the right to sit back, survey the board, take your time. I will not pressure you or hover like a vulture. Please feel free to ask any questions you might have.

MAHONEY: (As Martin) Is this a checkmate?

(LAUGHTER)

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Why, yes it is.

(LAUGHTER)

MAHONEY: (As Martin) You mean I won?

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Well, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

MAHONEY: (As Martin) Hey. I won. How do you like that?

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Well, in all fairness, my mind was a bit distracted by having to monitor your side of the board, but touche (laughter). How about another game, Dad?

MAHONEY: (As Martin) No, I think one will do it for me. Thanks.

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) All right. Fair enough.

MAHONEY: (As Martin) Boy, I really clobbered really clobbered you, though, didn't I?

(LAUGHTER)

MAHONEY: (As Martin) I got almost all of your prawns.

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Pawns, Dad.

(LAUGHTER)

MAHONEY: (As Martin) I think the turning point is when I got that tower thingy.

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) It's called a rook.

MAHONEY: (As Martin) But the real knockout blow is when I backed your little horsey guy into the corner.

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) Can we call it a night, Dad?

MAHONEY: (As Martin) OK - when I cornered your knight.

GRAMMER: (As Frasier) No. I mean, can we call it a night?

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: Mahoney didn't start acting until he was 37 and soon after joined Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre at the invitation of actor John Malkovich. He went to New York with the Steppenwolf production of "Orphans" and won a Tony Award in the production of "House Of Blue Leaves." He appeared in the films "Eight Men Out," "Say Anything," the Coen brothers' "Barton Fink" and "The Hudsucker Proxy" and in Barry Levinson's "Tin Men." In the film "Moonstruck," he played a professor on a date with his college-age girlfriend. They get in a fight while they're at the restaurant, and she leaves. Olympia Dukakis, who's eating by herself, witnesses the scene and invites him to sit with her.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOONSTRUCK")

OLYMPIA DUKAKIS: (As Rose) Can I ask a question?

MAHONEY: (As Perry) Yeah. Go ahead.

DUKAKIS: (As Rose) Why do men chase women?

MAHONEY: (As Perry) Nerves?

DUKAKIS: (As Rose) I think it's because they fear death.

MAHONEY: (As Perry) Well, maybe. Listen. You want to know why I chase women? I find women charming. I teach these classes I've taught for a million years. The spontaneity went out of it for me a long time ago. I started out - I was excited about something. I wanted to share it. Now it's rote - multiplication table. Except, sometimes, I'll be droning along. And I look up, and I'll see a fresh, beautiful, young face. And it's all new to her. And I'm just this great guy who's brilliant and thinks out loud. And when that happens, when I look out there among those chairs and see a young woman's face and see me in her eyes - me, the way I always wanted to be - maybe once was - I ask her out for a date. It doesn't last long - few weeks - couple of precious months. Then she catches on that I'm just this burned-out, old gas bag, and she's as fresh and bright and full of promise as moonlight in a martini. And at that moment, she stands up and throws a glass of water in my face - some action to that effect (laughter).

DUKAKIS: (As Rose) What you don't know about women is a lot.

DAVIES: More recently, Mahoney appeared in the HBO drama series "In Treatment" and in the comedy "Hot In Cleveland." But acting wasn't Mahoney's first career. He was editing a medical journal when he changed course. Terry asked him about that when she spoke to him in 1990.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: When did you know that you were really unhappy in this job?

MAHONEY: It wasn't anything where you go home every night and bang your head against a wall and say, oh, my God, I'm so unhappy. It was just an insidious thing. You just keep doing it and doing it and doing it. And, gradually, you realize that you're smoking an awful lot and that you're drinking a little bit too much and that you're sleeping very late whenever you can. And it wasn't until I started to do my new job, which was acting, that I looked back and realized the absolute depth of my depression while I was doing the editorial work.

GROSS: It takes a lot of guts or a lot of despair to make a big change like that...

MAHONEY: Exactly.

GROSS: ...When you don't know what the outcome is going to be. Was there a pivot point - a moment where you said, OK, that's it - I'm quitting?

MAHONEY: Well, it's not so much that it made me say, I'm quitting. There was a point that made me say, my God, I've got to do that as opposed to what I'm doing now. And that was when I was in London, and I went to the National Theatre and saw a production of "Jumpers" by Tom Stoppard. It just ignited me, and I just was left limp at the end of it. And I thought, my God, I've got to do that. I've got to do that, no matter what. And if I can't do it, I've at least got to try to do it. And I just can't be 60, 65, 70 years old, looking back on a life and saying, oh, my God, why didn't I do that?

I came back to Chicago, and I saw that they were offering classes at St. Nicholas Theater. And I thought, OK. Well, this is it. This is my chance. So I enrolled in an acting class at the St. Nicholas Theater and, at the same time, quit my job because there was no time to rehearse with other actors or do anything if I were working. And looking back on it, it was madness. I mean, to give up a good, well-paying, prestigious job and embark on probably the most precarious career in existence, a career where, at any given time, 95 percent of the union is out of work, was just insanity.

GROSS: When you started to act - and you were already - what? - in your late 30s?

MAHONEY: Yeah, 37.

GROSS: Was it embarrassing or awkward being a mature man and being a novice as an actor? I don't know who the other people were who you were acting with and who were taking classes with you.

MAHONEY: Yeah.

GROSS: You might've been older than they were...

MAHONEY: You know, it's funny...

GROSS: ...Less experienced than they were. Can make you very self-conscious.

MAHONEY: It would in a situation where you weren't so happy. I mean, I was never self-conscious in that situation. I'll tell you when I was more self-conscious in a similar situation - is when I went to - is when I started college.

GROSS: When you were younger.

MAHONEY: When I was younger. But I had been in the Army, and I'd emigrated. I'd gotten out of high school in England. I'd emigrated to the United States. I'd worked for a while. I'd been in the Army for three years. And I was quite a bit older than the rest of my class. And I was constantly mistaken for a teacher as opposed to a fellow student. And I always felt a lot different. I don't know whether it was because of the maturity that came with being an ex-serviceman or whatever it was. But there was always a little uncomfortable quality there. But with acting, even though I went into - even though I was in class with people who, on average, were probably 15 years younger than I was, I never felt any self-consciousness at all because I was too consumed with the excitement and the thrill of doing this.

GROSS: You grew up in England. What happened to your English accent?

MAHONEY: Well, I tried very hard to lose it. I emigrated to the States when I was 19. And I'm from the north of England. And I just - I'm not the sort of person who likes to stand out in a crowd, which might sound strange for an actor. I mean, I like to shine on the stage or in a film. But on one on one, I just like to be like everybody else. And even in those days, it used to drive me crazy when people would say, oh, I love the way you talk. Oh, isn't that wonderful? Or say this, or say that, or say banahna (ph). Or say, you know - and they were being nice. But it would drive me crazy.

And so I set out to learn how to speak like an American. And I was in the Army at the time, and I had to ask people, how do you pronounce this? How do you say hauf (ph)? And they'd say half. And I say, how do you say banahna (ph)? Banana. And I'd write them down. And I'd drill myself just like I was learning a foreign language. The only trouble was I was in the Army with people from all over the United States, so...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MAHONEY: Somebody from Nebraska would tell me how to say one thing, and somebody from Brooklyn would tell me how to say something else. So I had this horrible mongrel accent when I got out. But when I went to school in Quincy, Ill. - I went to Quincy College. And by the time I got out of Quincy, of course I'd pretty much settle into this Midwestern thing that I have now (laughter). But I tried very hard to lose it, and it was to fit in. As boring as that sounds, it was to be like everybody else. That's why I did it.

GROSS: When you started acting in movies or on Broadway, did you feel like there was anything you had to fake because you weren't very experienced yet?

MAHONEY: That's very interesting. I - not so much fake, but I did - I was intimidated. I must admit. Being older than people didn't intimidate me, but being less experienced did. And I've - I don't know whether that's why I rely so much on a director. I hate being left to my own devices when it comes to developing a character. I relish a good, strong director.

I was more intimidated by my lack of experience than I - than anything else. In fact, I act a little differently than most of the - my fellow Steppenwolfians (ph). I remember John Malkovich telling me, you know, you're the only person I know who speaks in sentences. And I said, what do you mean? And he said, well, when you say lines, you can see where the period comes. You can see where the capital letter starts. You can see where the paragraph ends.

And I noticed when I watched other people in Steppenwolf work that that's true. They try very consciously to break things up to make it more conversational. But you see; conversational to me is sentences. I think I express myself well, and I don't know whether it's my education or my background or because my family did. I never did speak that broken way. So I felt, well, what should I do?

GROSS: So it must be hard for you to do Mamet then, huh?

MAHONEY: Should I try? Well, no. Actually, David at least writes in sentences. I'm trying to think of what would be more difficult. When we did "A Nightingale Sang," it was a little difficult because - or to do something like Virginia Woolf would be a little difficult because it's written with so many ellipses - but Mamet, no. Even though there were a lot of short, one-word sentences even, it's at least - you know what he wants, even, like, in this particular adaptation of "Uncle Vanya."

At one point, I say, eat; sleep; drink. I'm talking about the way my life is now. As opposed to working, all I seem to do now is eat, sleep, drink. They're all one-word sentences according to David, I guess, to stop you from doing that horrible thing that so many people do now. All I do is eat and sleep and drink, you know, that horrible way that people have learned how to talk from television. And I guess as a way to get around that, David very specifically made them sentences. And so it stops you from doing that, and it's great. I love it because I wouldn't do it anyway. And it's nice to know that I'm doing what David wants as well.

DAVIES: Actor John Mahoney speaking with Terry Gross in 1990. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLDENBOY'S "KITTENS OF LUST")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1990 interview with actor John Mahoney. He died Sunday at the age of 77.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: You've said that you like to work with strong directors.

MAHONEY: Mmm hmm.

GROSS: In movies, some of the directors you've worked with are John Sayles, Costa-Gavras, Norman Jewison, Cameron Crowe.

MAHONEY: Yeah.

GROSS: Give me a sense of something you've learned from working with a strong director.

MAHONEY: The directors you mentioned are all so different. Norman Jewison and Roman Polanski, for example, would be behind the camera jumping up and down, laughing, crying, cheering you on silently to such a degree that it's almost distracting to you. John Sayles and Barry Levinson, on the other hand, will be behind the camera, and you have no idea whether they like what you're doing. You get to the end of a take for Norman or Roman, and they say, wonderful, oh, great, great, great. That was wonderful. You get to the end of it take with John or Barry, and it's, OK, let's move on, or, OK, new setup. And you say, well, how was it? Oh, it was good - well, just good, (laughter) you know? Well, no, it was very good. It was very good. That's why we're moving on. They're just not very demonstrative.

And I like a little more structure. I like to be able to discuss something. I like to go up to, like, with Norman Jewison in "Moonstruck" and be able to say, Norman, do you think this whole thing is a line that he's used before? And Norman will say, well, OK, well, let's sit down and talk about this and then start to give me reasons, pro and con, and what his feelings are and how they should be played as opposed to a director who will say, well, let's see; what do you think...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MAHONEY: ...Or, you know, which is always - which drives me nuts - or, well, just do what you feel, you know, or something like that. It's such - oh, it's just sluffing off responsibility because I think a director should be there for you and should be there to help you through things. And that's what I mean by a strong director. I don't mean somebody who - Erich von Stroheim or somebody who holds a whip and snaps it or something like that or makes you jump through hoops. But I mean somebody who has very definite opinions, who's thought about this and who will give them to you and will help you as opposed to somebody who might think that the sun rises and shines in you and therefore you do whatever you want. I don't like that.

GROSS: You know how you worked on your voice to get rid of your English accent?

MAHONEY: Uh-huh.

GROSS: When you started acting, did you do any work with your voice on enunciation? You have a beautiful voice and great enunciation.

MAHONEY: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: Yeah. I mean, not over-enunciation.

MAHONEY: Thank you, yeah.

GROSS: But it's just really great.

MAHONEY: No, I think...

GROSS: Did you work that up? Was it natural already?

MAHONEY: That was pretty natural, yes. I'll tell you. I did - I worked on the timbre of my voice when I was doing "Orphans" before we moved to New York. I was going to be playing an alcoholic, and I wanted a rough quality of my voice that I didn't have. And so I worked very, very hard to get a gravelly quality to it, and my voice never quite recovered from that. And so it's - it sounds a little different now than it did when I first started out, but it's to my advantage actually because I guess I have a much more distinctive voice now than I used to have. People notice it and remember me by it, which I like very much.

As far as enunciation, no, that just comes I think from possibly being born and raised in England perhaps. Or I just do tend to enunciate, in fact, to such a degree that I've had other actors tell me that I do it too much. I remember I was doing "Born Yesterday" at Steppenwolf, and Glenne Headly used to tell me - she played Billie, and I played Harry Brock. And she'd sometimes tell me, you're hitting those final consonants much too hard. You know, people don't talk like that. And I said, well, Glenne, it's - people do talk like that because I talk like that.

GROSS: When you were working up the gravelly voice, what did you do?

MAHONEY: I used to lock myself in closets, and I used to do very, very strenuous vocal warm-up exercises. And I used to - people didn't want to be in the same room as me. I made these horrible sounds. I mean, I started slowly, and I warmed my voice up before I started doing that. And I - as far as I know - knock on wood - I haven't hurt it or damaged it. But people do say, especially as - at the end of an evening when my voice is pretty much shot or not at the end of an evening but at the end of a two-show day, people get worried about it and say, you all right? Is your voice OK? Is it - and I say, oh, yeah, it's fine - no problem. We'll be back tomorrow just the same as - and it always is. It's always there just as strong as can be. But it did - the things that I did did sound terrible. I know it shocked a lot of actors with the ferocity of my vocal warm ups. I shocked a lot of people in New York when I...

GROSS: My gosh, what were you doing?

MAHONEY: Well, I can't do it on the radio because for one thing, it's much too loud (laughter). And for another thing, it's just much too ugly, you know? If I could - if I back way away from the microphone, I might be able to give you a little demonstration here. It's just something like - (imitating vocal warm up).

GROSS: Wow (laughter).

MAHONEY: Now, I don't know what you heard there 'cause I backed away quite a bit.

GROSS: That's really something. So you'd lock yourself up in a closet and do that for a long time.

MAHONEY: Well, it's - no, no, I mean - and I'd - I wouldn't do it just right off the bat just like I did then. Like, I - what I'd be doing - what I - I'd do very gentle things first, you know, just sort of...

GROSS: Yeah.

MAHONEY: ...(Imitating vocal warm up) - Things like that until - for a good half hour. I spend a lot of time warming my voice up so that I don't damage it.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

MAHONEY: And I'm very happy with the way it turned out, actually (laughter). I think it's gotten me a lot of work to tell you the truth.

GROSS: Yeah, well, you really have a wonderful voice.

MAHONEY: Oh, thanks, Terry.

GROSS: You took a really big risk when you left writing and editing to work in acting. Once that risk, like, paid off not only in terms of success but in terms of just fulfilment, did you find yourself taking other big risks in life that you wouldn't have dreamed of taking before?

MAHONEY: I don't think I'm afraid to do anything or go anywhere. I have a tremendous amount of confidence now in myself as a person, in myself as an actor, in myself as a successful person, and I think it has carried over into all aspects of my life. I can't - I'm not intimidated by anybody or any situation. If I look out at an audience when I was doing "House Of Blue Leaves" and see George C. Scott out there or Jack Nicholson or Paul Newman or Henry Miller - Arthur Miller or - I'm not intimidated by anybody whatsoever or any situation whatsoever. And I guess this has a lot to do - that I guess my - the success that I made in the biggest challenge of my life had a lot to do with that.

GROSS: Well, listen; thanks so much for talking with us.

MAHONEY: It's been my pleasure.

DAVIES: Actor John Mahoney spoke with Terry Gross in 1990. He died Sunday. He was 77. After a break, we'll remember John Perry Barlow, an advocate for a free and open Internet. And David Edelstein reviews the new film "The 15:17 To Paris." Here's John Mahoney singing from an episode of "Frasier." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRASIER")

MAHONEY: (As Martin Crane, singing) Can't you hear the pitter-pat? And that happy tune is your step. Life can be complete on the sunny side of the street. I used to walk in the shade with my blues on parade, but I'm not afraid. This rover crossed over. If I never have a cent, I'll be rich as Rockefeller - gold dust at my feet on the sunny side of the street.

(APPLAUSE)

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Jeff Rosenstock is a singer, songwriter and guitarist from Long Island who began making music in his teens and 20s, playing ska and punk in the bands The Arrogant Sons of Bitches and Bomb the Music Industry. Since embarking on a solo career, Rosenstock also started Quote Unquote Records, which he calls a free/donation-based digital record label. Rosenstock's new album is called "POST-." Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THIS USELESS ENERGY")

JEFF ROSENSTOCK: (Singing) Darkness holds, begging me to lose control. We wrestle it back and forth until urban silence cuts through night with a scalpel for the light that bleeds through the margins and leaves me semi-conscious. I haven't found the rhythm yet to anchor down my life. I didn't know I needed one to hold me through the night.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: I haven't found the rhythm yet to anchor down my life, sings Jeff Rosenstock on that song, called "All This Useless Energy." Now in his mid-30s, Rosenstock has been making a notably garrulous form of punk rock for more than a decade now, and his new album, "POST-," is a highly enjoyable addition to his body of speechifying set to music. That's "POST-" with a hyphen, as in postmodern or post-punk or, given his tendency to work himself into a tizzy, this one seems apt - postapocalyptic. In his songwriting, Rosenstock veers between small, closely observed scenes and bigger, broad-canvas themes. This album's most elaborate statement is the seven minutes it takes for him to sum up the state of the Union in a song called "USA."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "USA")

ROSENSTOCK: (Singing) I saw the sign, but it was misleading. I fought the law, but the law was cheating, screaming for help, but somebody keeps on telling me to settle down. Please be honest. Tell me; was it you? Clerk at the Midwestern service station - striped uniform, giggling at catch phrases, look in her eyes like we're up to something. Oh, it doesn't matter now. Man in a crossover...

TUCKER: Please be honest, Rosenstock sings in that song. Tell me; was it you? I won't hate you. I just need to know. He could be talking to a lover who has betrayed him or asking someone who they voted for in the last election. All around him, Rosenstock sees and hears echoes of his own frustrations and befuddlement about the world. He is a world-class complainer and one of music's better illustrators of angry confusion. On a superb song such as "Yr Throat," he nearly goes hoarse yelling about finding his own voice only to realize he lacks a purpose for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YR THROAT")

ROSENSTOCK: (Singing) I can't find any way. I can't find any way to relax. I can't do anything. I can't do anything of impact. I emptied out my brain in hopes that I would have some success finding some clarity, but I just made a mess. What's the point of having a voice? What's the point of having a voice when it gets stuck inside your throat? I'll ramble incessantly.

TUCKER: In his blabbermouth eloquence, his compulsive confessionalism, Rosenstock reminds me of another effusive wordsmith - Loudon Wainwright III. But where Wainwright contrasts his edgy speech with attractive folk-based melodies, Rosenstock places his copious verbiage in a punk rock context, as can be heard in this fractured homage to The Ramones.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEATING MY HEAD AGAINST A WALL")

ROSENSTOCK: (Singing) Talk, talk, talk, talk, talking to you, but you don't want to hear me speak. I'm try, try, try, try, trying to give you the courtesy of listening - beat, beat, beat, beat, beating my head against a wall - beat, beat, beat, beat, beating my head against a wall. I know, know, know, know, know in my heart that all I want to see is peace. But I, I, I, I, I want to fight you with every little bit of me. Beat, beat, beat, beat...

TUCKER: When Rosenstock decides to lower his volume and slow down for a few minutes, he reveals himself as a singer-songwriter with a gift for delicate melodies. He assumes the plaintive voice of a dissatisfied fellow who rides the subway aimlessly at night to avoid being alone with his thoughts at home.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "9/10")

ROSENSTOCK: (Singing) Every night you go to bed, you wake up just a little more in pain. Every time you're dressing for a sunny day, the clouds surprise you with rain - every cigarette you smoke 'cause you're addicted to a quiet source of company, every time you told them you were busy 'cause you'd rather go to sleep. Nine times out of 10, I'll be stoned on the subway, reading backlit directives of what I should do, dodging eye contact with anyone who looks my way. Nine times out of 10, I'll be thinking of you.

TUCKER: Jeff Rosenstock loads up this album "POST-" with song titles like "Powerlessness" and "Beating My Head Against The Wall." But his work stands as a contradiction of such depressive sentiments. Furiously prolific, his power pop anthems are his best response to a world he insists is conspiring against him. Ultimately Jeff Rosenstock is an avowed pessimist constantly surrendering to creative optimism.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed Jeff Rosenstock's new album called "POST-." Coming up, we remember John Perry Barlow, an influential activist for a free and open Internet. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MOUNTAIN GOATS SONG, "SOUTHWOOD PLANTATION ROAD")

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. John Perry Barlow, an expressive advocate for a free and open Internet, died on Wednesday. He was 70 years old. Wired magazine called Barlow the bard of the Internet. Barlow was also an occasional lyricist for the Grateful Dead, writing songs with the Dead's guitarist, Bob Weir.

In 1990 during the early days of the worldwide web, Barlow cofounded the Electronic Frontier Foundation to defend civil liberties in cyberspace. In 1996, he issued an influential manifesto titled "A Declaration Of The Independence Of Cyberspace."

But his background wasn't in computers. He was born into a family of Wyoming ranchers and later ran a cattle ranch he inherited from his family for nearly two decades until he sold it in 1988. There are a lot of similarities between cyberspace and open space, Barlow told People magazine in 1995. There's a lot of room to define yourself. You can literally make yourself up. Terry interviewed John Perry Barlow in 1996.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Do you have two visions of the Internet - one a utopian vision and the other a dystopian vision?

JOHN PERRY BARLOW: Well I have - (laughter), I'm a Taoist, so I have two visions of everything. But...

(LAUGHTER)

BARLOW: You know, I think this is a very, very large event in the history of humanity - I mean, the coming of the net. And, you know, the transfer of all of human knowledge into the - into bits is probably the most sweeping technological occurrence since the capture of fire in terms of its long-term capacity to change what it is to be human. So I assume that a lot of things will come as a result of the Internet. And saying is this a good thing or a bad thing is a little like saying is the weather a good thing or a bad thing? You know, sometimes it's sunny and beautiful and grows flowers, and sometimes it rips the roof off your house.

GROSS: So you see the Internet as something that, you know, more than any other technological advancement is going to change what it means to be human. Why not the telephone or television or radio? I mean, why do you think that...

BARLOW: Well, actually...

GROSS: ...The Internet has this great transformative power?

BARLOW: I would say that the telephone is a continuous part of what I'm talking about. I mean, what I think about - I mean, I look at this as the formation of cyberspace. And cyberspace started forming with the telegraph, which was the first time that you could really converse with another human being over a great distance in real time.

And, you know, the first almost face-to-face encounter in cyberspace was when Alexander Graham Bell met somebody named Watson there in 1876. And it's been growing ever since. But we didn't recognize it as being a space until quite recently because it was an end-to-end conversation, or it was a one to many non-conversation, as is the case with broadcast media. And what we had was not what we have now, which is telematic assembly. You could have telematic conversation, but you couldn't have telematic assembly. Now you really do have a social space and a marketplace.

GROSS: You're a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties and cyberspace group. You say that the mission was to civilize cyberspace. What does that mean?

BARLOW: Well, that was the original idea. I mean, you know, I come from the Wyoming frontier - I mean, really very recently settled part of the North American continent. My great-great-uncle was the first white man to spend a winter in the Evergreen river basin and not that long ago. So I - you know Pinedale, Wyo., is still kind of a frontier settlement. And it - I was looking for frontiers. So I when I first got into the world that was being created inside digital media, I was immediately struck by frontier analogies and metaphors - I mean, that this was an unsettled place, that it was filled with sort of wild, woolly characters that were social misfits and able to tolerate very austere conditions and that the railroads were coming, you know, and that the settlers were coming. And so when Mitch Kapor and I started EFF, we were looking to make cyberspace safe for the women and children essentially in sort of a 19th-century Manifest Destiny kind of way.

GROSS: I'm not going to point out the sexist nature of that analogy (laughter).

BARLOW: Well.

GROSS: Go ahead.

BARLOW: I said it was 19th century now. And, you know, frankly there were damn few women and children in cyberspace when I encountered it.

GROSS: True, right.

BARLOW: And that was - along with practically everything else besides, you know, smart white guys who can't dance. And, you know, I may be a smart white guy, but I can dance. And I like the company of lots of other kinds of folks. And so I was eager to make it a place where other kinds of folks could be comfortable.

GROSS: Well, I believe before you started the Electronic Frontier Foundation, you were visited by the FBI. What did they want to know about cyberspace?

BARLOW: Well, first of all, they didn't know that there was any such thing. And at that point, neither did I - or at least I hadn't started talking about it that way. But I got a visit from Special Agent Richard Baxter in the Rock Springs, Wyo., field office back in early 1990. And I knew Agent Baxter from before. I'd had livestock stolen when I was still in the cattle business, and he's a pretty good hand with livestock theft.

But in this instance, he was at sea. He was very nervous on the phone. And I hate it when I hear an FBI agent call me up on the phone and not want to talk about why he's coming to visit and be real nervous. That's a terrible sign. And - but he showed up, and he was investigating something that he referred to as the new prosthesis league, which was in fact something that called itself the new Prometheus league.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BARLOW: And that was just the - that was the tip of the iceberg. I mean, he had this - somebody had taken a little snippet of Apple's source code for the Macintosh Roms and was shipping it around in a copyright protest - I would say - because of Apple's very proprietary behavior regarding intellectual property. And it posted it at various places on the net. And Apple characteristically had freaked out and had decided that somebody was about to reveal the entire Macintosh recipe and that the Taiwanese would be turning them out in no time. Or at least that's what they told the FBI, and the FBI didn't really know what to do with this. So they were just sort of roaming around like the brooms in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," sweeping miscellaneously.

And Agent Baxter knew through the FBI that I had attended something called The Hackers Conference, which actually had nothing to do with computer crime. It was attended by people like Steve Wozniak, you know, in the old sense of hacker. But the FBI decided that maybe the people who went to The Hackers Conference would know something about this digital terrorist that was going to blow Apple out of the water. And I had to spend two hours with Agent Baxter explaining to him what exactly the crime was before I could tell him that I hadn't been the perpetrator and wasn't likely to know the perpetrator. And I realized then - I mean this was such an "Alice In Wonderland" experience. I realized that what I was seeing was the first incursion of American federal government into this new place.

GROSS: It sounds like this has become like a metaphor for you - of people who are trying to regulate something that they don't understand.

BARLOW: It was one of those conversion moments where I realized that here you have, you know, clueless, well-armed, insecure people roaming around in a place they don't understand, and it scares them. And nothing good can come of this. And now, instead of Richard Baxter, we've got the entire United States Congress coming in and proposing to regulate someplace they've never been, using tools they don't happen to have.

GROSS: How did you first use a computer when you got it? Did you get it knowing that you'd be using the Internet and using it as a way to communicate with people you'd never met?

BARLOW: No, I think I had the - I had the usual misconception about what a computer was. I mean, I thought it was a better form of Wite-Out or a bigger adding machine, which is how most people first encountered computers, I think. I mean, most of the computers in the world are still dedicated WordPerfect servers. And, you know, all they are is a fancy kind of typewriter.

GROSS: And how'd you branch out from there?

BARLOW: Well...

GROSS: You were living - what? - on your cattle farm, right?

BARLOW: I was ranching in Wyoming at that point. And I started to think a lot more about Deadheads and community. I mean, I came from this little town in Wyoming that seemed to be languishing in the demise of agriculture. And I was concerned about the end of community in America because, you know, as far as I'm concerned, as somebody who comes from a small town, it's been largely abolished. I mean, most of America is now Generica. There is very little of the kind of social interaction that I see common in my little town.

And I was wondering what was going to be the repository of community after all those little agricultural towns died off. And I was looking at things like the Deadheads, who seemed to have that kind of - that sense of shared responsibility for one another - you know, the sense of themselves against the collectively adverse. But I couldn't - I couldn't understand how they maintained a sense of continuity given that, you know, they only got together at shows or when the band was on the road. And then somebody told me about The WELL, which is a conferencing system, still one of the best little towns in cyberspace.

GROSS: You're on the board of directors of it now.

BARLOW: Yeah. Yeah. And this was a system that had been set up by Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog folks. And the Deadheads had gone there, and they were using that as their - as their point of continuity. That was their virtual village green. And so I - somebody told me about this, and I got a modem and hooked my computer up to a phone line and logged into The WELL. And lo, there they were. And there it was. And it seemed - at first flush, it seemed an awful lot like a small town, you know, and still has many of those elements.

DAVIES: Internet activist John Perry Barlow speaking with Terry Gross in 1996. Barlow died Wednesday. He was 70. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new Clint Eastwood film, "The 15:17 To Paris," about a terrorist attack on a French train thwarted by three Americans. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSETTE EXPLOSION'S "DOUCE JOIE")

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. At age 87, Clint Eastwood shows little signs of slowing down. His last two films, "American Sniper" and "Sully," were hits, and with "The 15:17 To Paris" he continues the theme of ordinary people who become heroes. The title comes from the train on which three Americans, two of them soldiers, stopped a 2015 terrorist attack. In the film, all three play themselves. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Clint Eastwood's "The 15:17 To Paris" celebrates old-fashioned American heroism, and I like it. The heroes and their story are well-known. On August 21, 2015, three friends - Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler - were traveling by high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris when a Moroccan gunman with known terrorist sympathies emerged from a lavatory armed with multiple weapons. The first good thing is that he didn't really know how to use them. The second is that several French passengers managed partially to disarm him, though one was critically wounded. The third is that Stone, on leave from the Air Force, barely hesitated before charging up the aisle towards a likely death.

The problem for any filmmaker is that all this went down fast, so a narrative has to be constructed leading up to the event, framing it, making sense of it. Eastwood gives you striptease-like flashes of the attack in the first hour, lingering in particular on the shooter's sneakers. But much of "The 15:17 To Paris" makes use of Eastwood's preferred template. Working from Dorothy Blyskal's screenplay based on a book by Stone, Skarlatos, Sadler, and Jeffrey E. Stern, he demonstrates how bureaucracies try to keep heroic individuals in check.

In a Sacramento middle school, an icy administrator informed Stone's mother, played by Judy Greer, that her son stares out the window too much. Citing statistics, she says he needs medication for ADD. The mother is incensed. My God, she says, is bigger than your statistics. The three boys bond in Catholic high school. They play in the woods with toy semi-automatic rifles, but constantly run afoul of over-officious teachers, principals, and coaches who don't like their independent streak. Later, Stone will be a square peg in the Air Force's round hole. When an active shooter alarm sounds, he refuses his instructor's order to hide under his desk and stands beside the classroom door, waiting to plunge a ballpoint pen into any invader. Stone's faith is individual, too. He believes that God has a purpose for him.

In "The 15:17 To Paris," Eastwood has made the audacious choice not to cast actors as Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler. The men play themselves. After a night of partying in Amsterdam, the three sit in a cafe and contemplate the journey ahead.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE 15:17 TO PARIS")

ALEK SKARLATOS: (As Alek) You guys just want to skip Paris?

ANTHONY SADLER: (As Anthony) Or at least delay it a little bit.

SKARLATOS: (As Alek) I'm starving.

SADLER: (As Anthony) Maybe it's like you're saying, like, life's kind of catapulting you towards something.

SPENCER STONE: (As Spencer) Right now it's catapulting me towards some hangover food.

SKARLATOS: (As Alek) Wait. What'd you say?

STONE: (As Spencer) I don't know, man. It's something I said in Venice. I was caught up in that European high. I'm not going to lie.

SADLER: (As Anthony) No, no, no. You should have heard this guy. He was talking about how life is catapulting him towards something, like, some greater purpose or something like that.

SKARLATOS: (As Alek) Spencer said that?

SADLER: (As Anthony) I know. Deep, right?

SKARLATOS: (As Alek) Do you still think that?

STONE: (As Spencer) I mean, I guess, but nothing's actually stopping us. If we weren't meant to be on that train tomorrow, something would physically stop us. An object in motion stays in motion unless acted upon by a greater force.

SADLER: (As Anthony) I'm telling you, man, he's been deep as hell on this trip. I can't even deal with it.

EDELSTEIN: It's a cheap shot to say these three might have won the French Legion of Honor but won't win any Oscars, but I'll say it anyway to make a point about Clint Eastwood. It's well-known he hates rehearsing and doesn't work closely with actors, relying on them to get things right on the first or second take. To use non-actors, give them dialogue that wouldn't pass muster in a Sunday school pageant and throw them undefended in front of the camera seems reckless, though I'll add that the kids who play the men in middle and high school seem even more undirected and inept. It's a credit to Spencer Stone that he holds the screen as well as he does. He has real weight.

Much of "The 15:17 To Paris" is a travelogue with lovely, postcard-worthy shots of the heroes in Rome and Venice. But even at the movies slackest, Eastwood's intent comes through. Americans abroad might seem insignificant against the backdrop of Western European history and culture, but as we'll see, they're what stands between that civilization and dark forces of evil. In the train sequence, the film's rickety construct comes together. There's no music, just screams, shots and the sounds of flesh being stabbed and pummeled. Badly wounded himself, his thumb nearly severed, Stone still manages to stop a passenger shot in the neck from bleeding out.

And Eastwood brings the camera close to show how precarious the man's life is and, by extension, how dependent we all are on people like Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler who throw themselves into harm's way. The final sequence uses shots of the actual French Legion of Honor presentation. I'm sure I wasn't alone in thinking I ought to stand up.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. On Monday's show...

KATE BOWLER: When you think you're going to die, you really start to feel like you're fading to gray and everyone else is still in color.

DAVIES: Kate Bowler was diagnosed with incurable cancer in her 30s. She's married, has a young child and teaches at Duke Divinity School. Her new memoir is about how religion has affected how she deals with illness and how illness has affected her faith. Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANAT COHEN'S "HAPPY SONG")

DAVIES: Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Julian Herzfeld and Joyce Lieberman. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANAT COHEN'S "HAPPY SONG")

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

36:13

No More Mr. Nice Guy: Hugh Grant Embraces The 'Blessed Relief' Of Darker Roles

Grant started out in romantic comedies. Now he's up for an Emmy for his role as a narcissistic doctor accused of murder in the HBO series The Undoing. Originally broadcast Dec. 1, 2020.

05:40

Albums By The Murlocs And King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard Explore New Sounds

The Murlocs are a side project of sorts to King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, where Ambrose Kenny-Smith and guitarist Cook Craig join other musicians to amalgamate all different styles of pop.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue