Continuing my recent Bob Dylan fixation I just devoured A Freewheelin’ Time by Suze Rotolo, a 2008 book that details her three years as Dylan’s girlfriend, beginning soon after he arrived in New York in 1961. Several things caught my attention.
First, though Rotolo painted a mostly favorable portrait of her ex, she did admit that “artists we admire aren’t necessarily exemplary human beings just because they are exceptional in their chosen fields.” Whoda’ thunk? In particular she commented on the webs of deception Dylan spun about his pre-NY past and other women in his life. No breaking news here. But when Rotolo described his occasional tirades and “telling-it-like-it-is” cruelty to friends and colleagues it reminded me of other creative geniuses who are similarly famous for their withering take-downs of coworkers, including Steve Jobs—especially as depicted in the recent film of the same name.
I’ve often wondered about innovative wunderkinder—like Jobs—who are capable of such hostility to colleagues. Are they dealing with pressures that the rest of us mortals can’t comprehend? Are they dealing with old childhood wounds that have never been healed? And are they so above reproach because of their immense talent that no one dares to call them out on their incivility and immaturity, allowing them to continue it indefinitely?
Second, from watching Dylan up close for years, Rotolo had a simple take on innovation, which also applies to Jobs’s modus operandi: “The learning process for artists of all stripes usually follows the path of imitate, assimilate, then innovate.” Jobs, like Dylan, was famous for his expropriation of others’ ideas. (To be fair to Dylan, that's accepted practice in the world of blues and folk music.) As mentioned in a previous post, Jobs and Apple became experts at “recombining existing technologies” (including, in the first Macintosh, the rudimentary graphic interface of Xerox’s PARC computers). Jobs himself has admitted that creativity is just synthesizing.
Third, Rotolo also wrote about her post-Dylan life in the 60s, when she visited Cuba soon after the U.S. travel ban was imposed and (incredibly) scored private meetings with Che Guevera and Raul Castro. Perhaps after living for several years with a revolutionary artist like Dylan she wasn’t that intimidated by meeting revolutionary military leaders—even if they couldn’t carry a tune. This gave me a great title for a book on Latin American politics: When Guevera Went Electric.
I should mention that one other innovative genius who could also be cruel to friends and colleagues—and whose creativity was also “recombinative” (borrowing elements from other artistic works and combining them into new forms)—was John Winston Lennon, who died 35 years ago last night.