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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.


An album that left a footprint

Fifty years ago this week one of the most important records in rock history was winging its way to music stores across North America.

Rubber Soul was a major pivot by The Beatles—a distinct turn towards more sophisticated songwriting and eclectic instrumentation. (The album was considered by some to be their first “work of art.”) It was their answer to a string of signature hits—all blockbusters—by their competitors in the previous months: “Tambourine Man” by The Byrds; “Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones; and “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan.

The day after RS was released, the Byrds’ second monster hit, “Turn Turn Turn,” became the #1 single, soon to be followed by “The Sound of Silence,” sung by an unknown folk duo named Simon & Garfunkel. Rock had come of age! (It’s true that The Beatles had recently scored a #1 hit themselves—with “Yesterday”—but it was time for them to assert their mastery of the album format.)

Rubber Soul soon became #1 (displacing The Sound of Music as the top-selling album!) and remained on the US charts for most of 1966. A work that greatly expanded the bounds of pop music at the time—featuring inventive lyrics, exotic sounds, and creative production techniques—Rubber Soul remains one of the most critically acclaimed rock albums and is ranked #5 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” Tracks such as “In My Life,” “Norwegian Wood,” and “Michelle” still stand the test of time.

But to those in business—who live in a world of projects, deliverables, and deadlines—Rubber Soul should represent another kind of achievement, as mentioned here. No other business author or music writer has picked up on this, so I’ll continue to trumpet it: RS was one of the most amazing time-to-market breakthroughs in the history of the music business—and perhaps in business at large—especially considering the quality and originality of the product.


P.F. Sloan, Bob Dylan, pyrotechny, and a crazy doc running for U.S. President

explosion-139433_1920 I was sorry to hear of the passing of P.F. Sloan, a singer/songwriter/musician/producer who wrote several pop hits in the 60s, including the campy, not-intended-to-be-funny "Eve of Destruction.” (He wrote some good songs too.)

It was Sloan who, in describing his experience performing at a California rock concert in 1967, said his audience transformed into "undulating love jello.” That's one phrase I haven't been able to get out of my brain. But I have to remember that Sloan was in an altered state at the time (it WAS the Summer of Love, as reported here) which may be why I haven’t been able to reproduce that experience with my business audiences. I guess there are some things that don’t carry over so well from rock to business.


As I continue to work my way through Elijah Wald’s book, Dylan Goes Electric (from which I’ve been gleaning business lessons, as reported here and here), I’m reminded of an early connection I had with Dylan. During my first summer in New York, I was doing all-night session work at Richard Alderson’s recording studio on W. 65th Street and sleeping in his back room, where different artists stored their musical equipment. My bed during that period was a sleeping bag on top of a Fender amplifier cabinet that had the name “Dylan” stenciled on it. I found out later that Alderson had been Bob Dylan’s sound engineer during his first “electric” tours and was warehousing some of Bob’s gear there. Looking back on my music career, I’d have to say that sleeping on Dylan’s amplifier was the closest I ever came to greatness.


Elvis the introvert

elvis-presley-157006_1280 I continue to be amazed that so many stars—celebrity entertainers, political VIPS, business luminaries—turn out to be, on close examination, introverts! Especially in this era of self-promotion, when so many of us would sell our offspring to gain more Likes, Fans, Friends, and Followers.

As mentioned in a previous post, best-selling author Susan Cain has pointed out that we—in the US at least—live in a society that deifies extroverts, especially in business, where display is paramount and the public trumps the private. A killer presentation too often hides a lack of originality. So it's refreshing to discover successful public figures who don't fit the expected profile.

Before I go into those exceptions, you may be asking, “Who gives a tweet?” Here’s who should: folks in any field (whether it's education, business, healthcare, politics, sports, entertainment) who possess real talent but wonder if they have the “right stuff” because they lack the overbearing confidence or out-sized personality they see in the extroverted leaders around them.

To them I say, “Larry Page.” (Or Mark Zuckerberg. Or Marissa Mayer. Or Michael Jordan. Or Guy Kawasaki. Or Angela Merkel. Or Elon Musk.)

What sparked this line of thought was my discovery that our first rock & roll megastar, Elvis Presley—whose wild gyrations were deemed so scandalously outlandish that he could only be shown from the waist up on national TV in 1957—was, in fact, an introvert. So says Sam Philips, the man who first recorded Elvis, as recounted in Peter Guralnick’s new book, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll. Elvis was “one of the most introverted people to come into the studio” according to Phillips, who recorded hundreds of early rockers for Sun Records.


When Dylan discovered electricity—part two

Lightning Still reading—and still ruminating on—Elijah Wald’s Dylan Goes Electric: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties. This is fast becoming my favorite history book on anything related to rock, folk, or blues. This dude knows his subject.

(No, I don’t get any perks or payoffs from honking books. I don’t know Elijah Wald personally except for bumping into him at a Boston radio station where I was performing 20 years ago.)

The point I made in my last post—that Dylan has something to teach business (or art or entertainment) about the value of being distinct—bears further elaboration. What made Dylan so fascinating to so many was not just his uniqueness but how threatening his uniqueness was. In “The Times They Are A-Changin’” Dylan warns:

"Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway, don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside ragin’
It’ll shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’."

One can be unique and still be inconsequential and harmless. Or one can be unique and be disruptive and a serious threat to the status quo. Dylan was a "dent maker"—to use Steve Jobs' term. At least in the 60s. (I haven’t been able to make as much sense of his later identities and incarnations, but that's ok. He did more with those first five years of his career—and those first seven albums—than anyone else has done before or since, with the exception of The Beatles.)


When Dylan discovered electricity—part one

guitar-861929_1920I’m finally getting around to Dylan Goes Electric by Elijah Wald, an especially good read if you’re interested in the roots of rock and folk or the mid-sixties transformation of pop music that Dylan instigated (with the help of a few others).

The book, subtitled Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties, puts in broad context the fateful night that Bob Dylan, the darling of the Newport Folk Festival, allegedly broke tradition—and thoroughly pissed off the old guard—by performing there with a loud blues-rock backup band on the evening of July 25, 1965.

Elijah Wald, a folk-blues guitarist and music historian, is just the right fellow to put this event in perspective, given his encyclopedic knowledge of the music genres in play at Newport, the colorful characters who made the music, and the myths surrounding those characters.

It will take several posts over the coming months to tease out what I’m learning from this book—and what I'm relearning from Dylan's career—that applies to business, innovation, marketing, and more. But here’s the major headline (if I may steal a quote from Tom Peters): Be distinct or be extinct!


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