What do Bob Dylan and Steve Jobs have in common?

light-309103_1280Continuing 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.

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  1. High IQ seems to be connected, often enough, with low EQ.

    Or maybe folks like Dylan and Jobs and Lennon can see the objective, right there at the tips of their finger, and all us mere mortals keep getting in their way with silly things like life and death, and if we'd just shut up and back off they could save the world. Or themselves.

    I don't know if I truly wish I was born with a bit more edge in the IQ department and a bit less caring in the EQ department, or if I only think I wish that. But sometimes I see how my art is less because I care about people.

  2. dylan was mighty tightly wound in the 64-66 period -- as we see in 'don't look back' -- but i don't think he was as bullying as jobs or lennon.

    1. You're probably right. And Dylan was more introverted than Jobs or Lennon. He also had to deal with the pressures of very sudden fame by himself (as opposed to Lennon who was part of a closely knit band). Dylan once complained about that to Bono, suggesting that Bono had the benefit of U2 to buffer the craziness when Dylan had no one.

      Every time I hear Dylan's "Positively 4th Street" I wonder how embarrassed he was years later by the sentiment of that tune. That's got to be one of the most bitter take-down songs of all time. "I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes…You'd know what a drag it is to see you." Possibly written to Richard Farina.

      1. I know well the ambivalence of "they had it coming" and "I can't believe I said that out loud."

        I'll bet ol' Bobby finds a way to cope.

        The 'team' thing: if it were not for my wife, I would be drunk or dead (or both) in a ditch. Literally, not metaphorically.

        A team, even of one more person, makes a world of difference. Because the 43 years I had no team, the trajectory of my artistic life was obvious (see the aforementioned ditch.)

    1. All three — Dylan, Jobs, Lennon — have been linked to Baez. I didn't even think of that until now. (Baez denied that anything between her and Lennon ever happened.)

      Only at Business Lessons From Rock will you get this kind of trenchant reporting.

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