Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson: Biography of a Rock Star

Throughout Walter Isaacson’s account of the life and times of Steve Jobs it’s obvious that his career trajectory was more akin to that of a high flying and creative rock star than that of a conservative suit.  Isaacson was given full rein by Jobs to document his remarkable career, warts and all, and he doesn’t disappoint.

In 2004 U2 appeared in an iTunes commercial to promote their album How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.  In response to a suggestion from the Chicago Tribune’s music critic Greg Kot about whether U2’s association with a technology company like Apple was akin to selling the band’s soul to the devil Bono made the statement that “the ‘devil’ here is a bunch of creative minds, more creative than a lot of people in rock bands.  The lead singer is Steve Jobs.  These men have helped design the most beautiful art object in music culture since the electric guitar.  That’s the iPod.  The job of art is to chase ugliness away.”  

Jobs was heavily influenced by the counterculture movement of the sixties which was unfolding right in front of him in San Francisco.  As a vegan he embraced diets which left him whippet thin, and with very bad b.o.  An early job with Atari led to him being moved to the night shift after one co-worker complained that he was a “goddamn hippie with b.o…and impossible to deal with.”

The love for counterculture  didn’t just stop at going to Grateful Dead concerts, he was an active participant in sampling the delights of drugs, LSD in particular. According to Isaacson in an interview with John Markoff of the New York Times Jobs revealed that “taking LSD was one of the two or three most important things he’d done in his life…People who had never taken acid would never fully –understand him.”

The seventies photos of Jobs and Steve Wosniak, the brains behind the first two Apple computers, are eerily similar to early photos of Donald Fagan and Walter Becker of Steely Dan.  Both partnerships flourished in California in the mid to late seventies and had an uncompromising approach to producing great work.  A scene in a documentary about the making of their classic album Aja (1977) shows Becker and Fagen running through old takes of the song Peg and offering withering appraisals of the numerous attempts made by an army of session guitarists to nail the guitar solo.   In the end Jay Graydon produced the take that they eventually used.  Jobs had a similar approach to perfection, to the extent that even unseen parts inside a computer had to be crafted perfectly.  Over the years Steely Dan built up a reputation for hiring only the finest session musicians, which Jobs emulated by hiring only what he called “A players” as opposed to “bozos.”

There’s no evidence in the book that Jobs was a fan of Neil Young.  None of Young’s music appears in the chapter devoted to what was on Jobs’s iPod.  Young himself had no time for iTunes and was quoted as saying that Jobs “had a lot to answer for” and that “putting on a headphone and listening to an MP3 was like hell.”  That said both had a lot in common.  Young’s view, shared in an interview last year with The Sunday Times’s Rod Liddle, that “you never, ever listen to your fan base…the last thing you should do is follow your fan base…that’s all they are – a fan base” would have definitely resonated with Jobs.  He never did market research for any Apple product as he felt that “customers don’t know what they want till we’ve shown them…great art stretches the taste, it doesn’t follow tastes.”

Jobs’s great musical love was Bob Dylan, with the Beatles a close second.  He regarded Dylan’s early career from his eponymous debut in 1962 to Blood on the Tracks in 1975 with awe.  He draws parallels between Dylan breaking the mould and finally going electric in 1965 with that of his own career and a need to keep “evolving, moving, refining.”  Going electric led to Dylan hitting three consecutive creative home runs with Bringing it All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (1965), and Blonde on Blonde (1966).  With the exception of Blood on the Tracks (1975) they are easily his most compelling albums and while they were recorded close to the beginning of his career Jobs can point to a similar ground breaking achievement towards the end of his own career with the production of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad.

Jobs was a brilliant salesman and showed all the instincts of a rock star whenever he was called on to pitch for business or launch a new product.  When he presenting the strengths of the NeXT operating system to the Apple board in 1996 – Jobs set up NeXT after he left Apple in 1985 – the then Apple CEO, Gil Amelio, was moved to remark that “Steve’s sales pitch on the NeXT operating system was dazzling…He praised the virtues and strengths as though he was describing a performance of Olivier as Macbeth.”

Jobs treated attendees at Macworld conferences with virtuoso performances at every meaningful product launch.  Jobs would spend days rehearsing and perfecting the synchronicity of the words, music, and images of a presentation.  According to Lee Clow, Jobs’s favoured advertising creative “he wanted to be sure that an image hit at the exact moment as a beat of the music.”  It reminds me of a recent interview with Bob Mould where he extolled the excellence and importance of his one-time drummer Anton Fier by saying that “Anton will throw a house at you if you try to speed up.”  Fier may have had a reputation for snapping viciously at people in the studio but he was the only white man to ever play the drums for Miles Davis.

As wealthy as he was, and despite his love for well-engineered cars, Jobs was not overly driven to rock ‘n’ roll style consumption, unlike his friend Larry Ellison, who one of Jobs’s children revealingly described as “our rich friend.”  Heavily influenced by Buddhism when he was younger he led a relatively simple life, eschewing materialism, in an open Palo Alto residential area and unlike most high profile executives shunned the use of private security.

Many rock stars have the reputation for being difficult and Jobs was no different.  In fact he was probably worse than most.  His nastiness was legendary and Isaacson’s entire tome is littered with examples.  Some people put it down to him being abandoned at birth and put up for adoption.  Jobs also abandoned his first- born, Lisa, who he ignored for the first few years of her life.  Chrisann Brennan, Lisa’s mother was moved to remark that “he was an elightened human being who was cruel…that’s a strange combination.”  Jobs tirades and outbursts at work were astonishing and at times left people feeling brutalised and burned out.  Some were able to cope though and saw it as his way of improving things.

Nobody was immune from his temper.  His Apple soul mate, the designer Jony Ive, recounted a different kind of virtuoso performance when the iMac production process had slowed: “He did one of his displays of awesome fury and the fury was absolutely pure.”  Tina Redse, a former girlfriend, put his manner down to Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  She said that “it explained some of the choices he’d made about his daughter Lisa at that time.  I think the issue is empathy – the capacity for empathy is lacking.”

Towards the end of the book Isaacson remarks that the “nasty edge to his personality was not necessary.  It hindered him more than helped him.  But it did, at times, serve a purpose.”  Indeed former Sony CEO Andy Lack described him as pathological, and then commented that it was a very useful trait to have in negotiations.

There’s no doubt that Jobs had an elevated sense of taste which was reflected in his marvellous intuitive products.  People who didn’t measure up in this regard were dismissed out of hand.  When preparing for her wedding to Jobs, Laurene Powell invited a woman who was going to do the calligraphy for the invitations to the house to show some samples.  In the middle of the visit Jobs left the room and didn’t return.  When Powell found him skulking in another room Jobs told her to “get rid of her…I can’t look at her stuff it’s shit.”  He once cut a cruise holiday short because he didn’t like the design of the boat.  The high water mark of his difficult behaviour regarding design sensibility came when he was in hospital recovering from his liver transplant.

“At one point the pulmonologist tried to put a mask over his face when he was deeply sedated.  Jobs ripped it off and mumbled that he hated the design and refused to wear it.  Though barely able to speak, he ordered them to bring five different options for the mask and he would pick a design he liked.”

Neil Young’s music may not have made it on to Steve Jobs iPod but it’s fair to assume that the most charismatic, creative, and successful CEO of the last decade would agree with his best known lyric:

“It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”

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