Striking Parallels Between Steve Jobs and Freddie Mercury
The movie, Bohemian Rhapsody, was recently drawing crowds at theatres across the globe. The UK band, Queen, received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2018 Grammys. The group, fronted by the confounding, layered, complex Freddie Mercury continues to seize the world’s attention an astonishing twenty-seven years after its star performer died at Kensington, London. Even in Bengaluru, the city I inhabit, the radio channels were abuzz with specially-curated Queen events at local clubs or trivia about the musician’s life.
Delving into the experiences that transformed the awkward, bashful Farrokh Bulsara into a rock icon who still reverberates across the global stage, I couldn’t help but note some uncanny parallels with Steve Jobs. So, I dug out the weighty Isaacson tome on the genius technologist to chart out striking similarities between these two creative icons.
Both Wanted to Remain Fascinating in Public Memory After Death
A few days before his death in November 1991, Freddie Mercury plotted a public announcement about the disease he had contracted. He had known for some time that he had AIDs, but had understandably postponed relaying the news to his legions of fans. He was in acute pain, and notably weaker. He was only forty-five years old, but was keen to manage the manner in which he would be remembered. One of his final diktats to his manager was: “You can do whatever you want with my music, but don’t make me boring.”
Like Freddie, Steve was known to shield his privacy. So, the biographer Walter Isaacson was rather baffled when Jobs started courting his services. Of course, Isaacson did not know that the Apple CEO had already been diagnosed with cancer and was directing the manner in which his story would be documented and revealed. Conscious that his weaknesses were as riveting as his strengths, Steve did not constrain Isaacson’s investigations in any manner.
Both Felt Abandoned in Early Childhood
Freddie, then known only as Farrokh, was born in 1946 to Jer and Bomi Bulsara, a Parsi couple who lived in Zanzibar (now a part of Tanzania in Africa). He was the oldest of two children and was sent to a local missionary school. Dissatisfied with the education system at Zanzibar, his parents sent him, at the age of eight, to a boarding school at Panchgani, Maharashtra.
The journey to India involved a sixty-day ship ride, imposing a temporal and physical separation that continued to plague his psyche, even during his adult life. At the school, he reported feeling ‘rejected’ and ‘clingy’, often crying himself to sleep. To compound the emotional distance from his family, he met with his parents only once a year.
Steve Jobs, too, despite being parented by remarkable adoptee parents, felt abandoned by his biological parents. When Steve was only six or seven years old, he recalled a conversation with a girl in the neighborhood. On disclosing to her that he had been adopted, she said: “So does that mean your real parents didn’t want you?” When dredging up the memory to Isaacson, Steve said: “Lightning bolts went off in my head.”
Though later, Jobs himself dismissed the sense of abandonment, intimate friends and partners corroborated this aspect. Chrisann Brennan, the mother of Steve’s first child (that Jobs himself would abandon), said “that being put up for adoption left Jobs ‘full of broken glass’”.
Both Were Bullied in School
Being shorter and skinnier than most of his peers, Freddie was bullied at his Indian school. Moreover, his protruding front teeth inspired a nickname that also became a taunt: ‘Bucky’ Bulsara. The self-consciousness imposed by his teeth and self-perceived ugliness was to stay with him through his life.
Steve was also, like Mercury, bullied in middle school, to the extent, he insisted his parents fund his admission to a different school. “When they resisted, I told them I would just quit going to school if I had to go back to Crittenden,” he said. Steve was aware that his demand was financially-wrenching for his parents, but knew he could not withstand the teasing.
Both Stumbled On Their Lifelong Passions in Their Teens
At his Indian school, Freddie became a member of a band called The Hectics. Even today, some of his erstwhile school bandmates recall his astonishing ability to reproduce tunes, after hearing them only once. Though he wasn’t the lead singer or performer in the group, he started basking in the glow of audience attention and the fleeting retreat from his physical shortcomings.
Though Paul Jobs tried to get his son interested in mechanics, Steve did not mirror his father’s interest in mechanical things. In the process of helping Paul refurbish used cars to resell them, Steve discovered “rudimentary electronics.” Though Paul himself was not well-versed in electronics, Steve was distinctly compelled by the simple electronic parts.
Later, Larry Lang, a HP engineer would induct Steve into the Hewlett-Packard Explorers Club, where he glimpsed his first desktop computer. He described the encounter in strongly emotional terms: “[It] was a beauty of a thing. I fell in love with it.”
Both Watched Parents Grapple with Tough Material Circumstances
Paul and Clara Jobs were both high school dropouts. Paul Jobs worked as a “repo” man, a person who picked car locks in order to repossess them for a finance company. Steve’s mother was a bookkeeper. Growing up, Steve witnessed the stresses of a couple who struggled to make every dollar count. When a teacher asked Steve: “What is it you don’t understand about the universe?” Jobs replied, “I don’t understand why all of a sudden my dad is so broke.”
The 1964 revolution at Zanzibar compelled Freddie and his family to seek refuge in the UK. At Zanzibar, his father had held a reasonable position at a Government office, and the family lived in a decent house with servants. But as immigrants into the UK, they suffered a steep drop in status and wealth. His father was compelled to work as a cashier and his mother, as an assistant at Marks and Spencers.
Both Were Cocksure About Their Abilities Before Succeeding Socially
Freddie, while pursuing a Diploma in Art and Graphic Design at Ealing College, also performed odd jobs to fund his pocket expenses. He worked at Heathrow airport, at the cafeteria and as a baggage handler. At his workplace, he was often teased for his effeminate and showy ways. He responded that he was just marking time, as he was a musician in the making.
While Mercury seemed to have arrived at his own assessment of his superior talents, Jobs had always grown up “with a sense that he was special.” This was a feeling that was bolstered by his teachers and especially, by his parents. At school, he even tested as being intellectually special and was advised to skip two grade levels, though his parents chose for him to skip one grade.
Both Felt Cleverer Than Their Parents
As he worked at his Diploma, Freddie’s home life was beset with ongoing squabbles. His parents, like most conservative Asians, wanted him to study Law or Accounting. A defiant Freddie often stayed out late, and frequently slammed the door or argued with his mother. In a poignant scene that’s depicted in the movie, his father, drawing from the Zoroastrian scripture, asked him to adopt “good thoughts, good words, good deeds.” Freddie’s snappy response was: “And how has that worked out for you?” Unlike his modest father, Freddie had already figured out that an immigrant’s success required a special chutzpah that his father may have lacked.
Jobs recalled a vivid incident that taught him “that his father did not know everything.” When participating in an electronics experiment with his friend Larry Lang, Jobs realized that a microphone could work without an amplifier. Excitedly, he hurried home to impart the discovery to his father, who pooh-poohed it. Later, when Steve insisted that Paul accompany him to Lang’s house to witness the working mike, Paul was compelled to acknowledge his error.
Later, Jobs said: “It’s a very big moment that’s burned into my mind. When I realized that I was smarter than my parents.”
Both Grew Up In the Sixties Counterculture At the Epicenters Of Intense Change
London, in the late 1960s, was a magnet for young people and for novelty in all things. Besides the larger shifts in social and political consciousness, art, music and fashion were being remade. Beatlemania still gripped the world, but many newer bands and artists were breaking into the city’s clubs.
It was a thrilling decade for fashion, and in particular, women’s fashion. As the suffragette and other women’s rights movements gained traction, clothes were being morphed to allow greater freedoms. The mini skirt was introduced so that women could move around more easily and be as playful and youthful as their male counterparts.
To young Freddie, emerging from his sheltered decade in India and then Zanzibar, the razzle-dazzle and gaiety beckoned. According to a fellow-student from his college, “[he] wanted it all and he wanted it now, right on his doorstep: the fashion boutiques, the record stores and bookshops, the music venues, pubs and clubs.”
Because of military investments in California, several defense contractors had started setting up labs and experimental centers around the area where Jobs grew up. Steve himself lived fairly close to NASA’s Ames Research Center in Sunnyvale. The legendary Bill Hewlett and David Packard had grown their eponymous company – started, famously and iconically in Packard’s garage – to a large business that employed 9000 people.
Jobs attributed his future motivation and choice of career to growing up in the hotbed of technological reinvention. “I got inspired by the history of the place,” he said.
Both Were Master Showmen
Right from the early days of the band’s rise, there were two Freddies. Off-stage, a shy, cowering lad, self-conscious about his dark eyes and protruding teeth. Then, on-stage, a theatrical, flamboyant and stunningly fearless performer. This schizophrenic persona was to persist through his life. As a former TV executive recalls: “What Freddie knew, instinctively, was the golden rule of showbiz: you make a show.”
His electrifying performances were an outcome of carefully choreographed details. For instance, his wild, androgynous dressing, his subsequent adoption of prevalent gay styles, his hyper-energetic stage movements, his showy virility, the hypnotic manner in which he held sway over his audiences. At a concert at Rio, one observer noted that Freddie was like a God: “He’d lift his hand and they would sing along. He’d drop his hand and they would fall silent, because he said so. The effect was unbelievable. Like seeing a nuclear reactor split the atom.”
He was also among the first stars, to start introducing local touches in shows. For instance, at Budapest, he set the crowd on fire by singing “Tavasi Szel Vizet Araszt”, a Hungarian folk ballad. At Madison Square Garden, he wore the Yankees hat and jacket.
Jobs was as obsessive about the ‘show’ as Freddie was, more than other CEOs in the tech industry. For his legendary product launches, he fussed over the tiniest details, including the outfit he would be wearing, the minutiae of the sound and stage lighting. These were not aspects that were willingly delegated to junior team members.
For the Macintosh launch, he insisted that John Sculley – recently lured in from Pepsi to serve as Apple’s CEO – shift from seat to seat in an empty auditorium while Steve himself fiddled with the lights. Sculley recalled later that Steve was “driving people insane,” by running through every variation of his tightly-choreographed theatrical launch.
Both Branded their Ventures with Simple Common Nouns that were Outlandish in Their Domains. Both Brand Names were Infused with Their Personal Traits and Quirks
Freddie suggested the band, Smile, change its name to a memorable one word, Queen. He was aware of the word’s association with the gay movement, but beyond that, he was drawn by its regal heft. While “Queen” seems like a perfectly kosher name today, it was a radical departure from the distinctly masculine culture in which rock shows were embedded at that time. It was a bold and outlandish move to imbue an all-male band with a feminine identity, and with a lead singer who seemed unafraid to flaunt his effeminate persona on stage.
Jobs also broke new ground when he called his company “Apple”, a word that any layperson could bite into. During an early interaction, Isaacson asked Steve if Apple was inspired by the fact that Alan Turing, the British computer legend, had committed suicide by eating a cyanide-laced apple. Steve said he wished he had thought of that, but he hadn’t. As it turned out, the origins of the freaky name for a technology company seemed more flippant and intuitive, rather than deeply thought-out.
Steve had been volunteering at a farm to prune apple trees. He also happened to be on one of his extreme fruitarian diets. He and Wozniak had already decided to start a company and they needed to file papers the next day. So, on a ride Los Altos, they tossed around options. At first, they considered some typical techie-sounding ones like Matrix and Executek. Finally, Steve proposed Apple. “It sounded fun, spirited and not intimidating.”
Both were Business Savvy but reluctant to align themselves with conservative or large commercial forces
Freddie convinced the band to sell its van in order to finance their first recording. Even later, he was quick to grasp the commercial aspects of the music business. At the same time, while introducing the band to industry executives, he said their music was meant for the outcasts, for people who did not belong. As a gay immigrant with an Asian heritage and facial deformity to boot, Freddie identified with misfits rather than with power-wielders. Even after he was a successful star, many of his gay partners were, ironically, from the working class or lower-income groups. He was known to consciously avoid schmoozing with other celebrities or hanging out in spaces that radiated power.
Like Freddie, Steve always liked to think he was taking on ‘conservative’ industries, smashing through walls and fighting Evil forces. Sometimes, he used such words and phrases in his launches and ads. Despite Apple growing into an equally large commercial behemoth, Steve never seemed to identify with stodgy corporations. Perhaps, deploying his famous ‘reality distortion field,’ he managed to position Apple as a David battling various Goliaths, an ironic spin that he seemed to intensely buy into even for himself.
Both had fraught personal relationships, till they eventually met their more stable partners.
Freddie’s Relationship with Mary Austin
In his early years at London, Freddie encountered the woman who was to remain a friend and anchor through his life. Mary Austin, worked as a sales assistant at one of the clothing stores, and Freddie and she embarked on a romantic, live-in relationship that lasted six years, and especially through the band’s tough early years. But, by then, Freddie had also started engaging in furtive encounters with men, and though he was engaged to Mary, he admitted his bisexuality to her. She told him that he wasn’t bisexual but gay, enabling him to confront a repressed aspect of himself.
Even later, when he had garnered unimaginable wealth and fame, Freddie could not find a relationship that fulfilled him in all dimensions. According to Jones, “he could have anything money could buy, but he had to work harder and harder for pleasure.” The Queen song, “Hard Life” that was released later, was possibly a deeply-felt reflection of Freddie’s real life. When a Munich friend, who had a family and kids, complained about his finances, Freddie poignantly remarked: “You have everything I can never have.”
His famous song, “The Great Pretender” seemed to echo his ongoing anguish despite his blazing career and euphoric performances: “Oh yes, I’m the Great Pretender/Pretending that I’m doing well/My need is such/I pretend too much/I’m lonely but no one can tell.”
Freddie’s last partner, Jim Hutton, who was with him for his last five years till his death, seemed to be the most stable relationship he had.
Steve with Chrissie Brennan
Jobs started dating Chrissie Brennan towards the end of his high-school years. Defying his father’s wishes, Steve even spent a summer at a cabin in Los Altos with Brennan. She occasionally visited him at Reed College, and for the next few years, they seemed to have a sporadic on-off relationship (which was typical of many young people in the Seventies). Eventually however, when Chrissie got pregnant with Steve’s child, Jobs willfully and ruthlessly tuned the news out. He also denied that he was the father. Only later, when he was sued by the County of San Mateo, and compelled to take a paternity test, did he begin to assume some financial responsibility for Chrissie and her daughter, Lisa.
Much later, his marriage to Laurene Powell was perhaps the most enduring and positive relationship he had. But even at that time, when he had already suffered from a long bout with cancer and seemed to be on a recovery path, Powell thought he would spend more time with his family and kids. He chose not to. “Like many great men whose gifts are extraordinary, he’s not extraordinary in every realm,” she admitted to Isaacson.
The Success of Both Drew from Immensely Talented Teams That Were Unafraid to Question/Defy Them.
The Queen team shared a distinct chemistry. In a field dominated by sex, drugs and thumping sounds, they had strangely academic dispositions. Brian May, the guitarist, was studying astronomy and would later, complete a doctorate in the field. Roger, who already had a degree in Biology, was admitted into a medical school to pursue dentistry. John was an electronics engineer. Freddie, with his Arts Diploma, was relatively less educated, but perhaps, given his family’s academic ambitions for him, self-consciously so.
Moreover, all four were perfectionists. “We’re very highly strung, very meticulous and fussy,” said Freddie. While each was immensely talented in their distinct roles, Freddie was clearly the most gifted among them. Like other bands, they bickered and argued, but they each brought a remarkable striving for excellence that might have contributed to their eventual dominance. Of their process, Brian once said, “We would argue for days over one particular note.”
While one can dwell on several partnerships that were indispensable to Steve’s rise (for instance, the early days with Wozniak or the aesthetic chemistry with Jonathan Ive), I’d like to dwell on an amusing and telling incident that highlights how defiant reportees often saved the opinionated founder.
Bob Belleville, the head of the Mac engineering team, consciously disregarded Steve’s emphatic order to reject Sony’s disk drive, and to rely on a smaller supplier instead (Alps). Given Jobs’ legendary fury and intemperate outbursts, the Sony engineer at the Apple site was deliberately hidden from Steve’s view. Once, the poor man was even stuffed into a janitorial closet. Later, when Belleville (and Sony) were found to have saved the day, Jobs said “You son of a bitch” with an approving grin on his face.
Both rewrote the rules of their domains with defiantly standout products/singles:
Freddie: The Release of Bohemian Rhapsody
Though Queen had generated a few hits and been noticed on tour circuits, they did not show signs of the phenomenon that was to emerge, till Freddie composed “Bohemian Rhapsody.” During the phase preceding the song’s release, the band was bankrupt and in debt.
The song, ignoring all rock conventions till then, was of a length unacceptable to record companies and to the BBC Top of the Pops show. Most songs were 3 ½ minutes on average, while Mercury’s master piece was a defiant 5 minutes and 55 seconds. The obscure lyrics introduced characters from literature, science and music history. It spoke of Scaramouche, a clown from commedia dell ‘arte (Italian comedy theatre), Galileo (the astronomer), Figaro (from The Marriage of Figaro, which inspired operas by Rossini and Mozart), Beelzebub (the devil in the new Testament and in Milton’s Paradise Lost), and Bismillah (from the Quranic phrase, bismillahi-r-rahmani-r-rahiim, which means ‘in the name of the God, most gracious, most merciful’).
Despite all these high-sounding allusions, the lyrics were deliberately obscure, though some commentators felt it might have been Freddie’s ‘coming out’ song. Mercury himself, deploying the conceit of poets and literary writers, refused to explain the words. Musically, too, the song was like nothing anyone had heard before. It had elements of everything, a mini-opera inside a rock show. The late Tommy Vance, a well-known figure in rock broadcasting, said it was “the rock equivalent of the assassination of JFK.”
Contrary to the wary expectations of their record company and other industry executives, the song broke into the Number One position on the UK charts, and boosted Queen into the rock world renown.
Steve: The 1984 launch of the Macintosh
There might be many contenders for the most inventive product launched by Apple under Steve’s stewardship. I will pick the Macintosh for the manner in which it put all users – homemakers and professionals, poets and quants, experts and laypersons – on an equal footing.
Like the Bohemian Rhapsody, which drew rather cheekily from high culture references like the New Testament and classical arts, Steve and the ad agency cleverly exploited the fact that the product was being launched in 1984, and hence positioned the computer as a means to freedom from the Orwellian ways of their competitor, IBM.
Steve’s speech at the Mac launch emphatically linked the product to larger social and historical forces: “IBM wants it all, and is aiming its guns at its last obstacle to industry control, Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right?”
Soon after, he played the controversial commercial, that depicted a young woman slamming a sledgehammer through a screen that featured a mind-controlling speech by Big Brother. The audience went berserk with excitement. Through the manner of his launch and with a product that empowered users and intuition, Steve, had projected the sense of being a renegade and rebel, a self-image that he always clung to as a Sixties’ teen.
Both exuded intense creative energie even after being diagnosed with terminal conditions
Freddie @ Live Aid
While at a break (from Queen) in Munich, Freddie noticed the first signs of a new disease creeping up on his body. Around then, the New York Times had started reporting the outbreak of a fatal skin condition – Kaposi’s sarcoma – on gay people. AIDs had not yet been named, but its symptoms and the accompanying fear had started rippling through the community. Freddie, already worn out by his giddying lifestyle, decided to return to the UK, and to the solace of a more sedate partner, Jim Hutton.
Just around then, Bob Geldof organized for all the top musicians of the time to perform at an enormous charity event at Wembley Stadium. This was the historic Live Aid event, held to garner public support for the famine in Ethiopia. Drawn together by a social purpose, a crowd of 70,000 people had gathered at Wembley and Queen, among other top bands, had decided to perform as a group.
Though Freddie had been diagnosed with a throat condition (though not yet formally diagnosed with AIDs) and was asked not to sing by a doctor, he leapt up on the stage with his usual sprightliness. For the next twenty-plus minutes, Mercury, already a hypnotic performer, mesmerized the Wembley crowd in a jaw-dropping manner that no artist had achieved in rock history. Many of the other artists, like Elton John, U2, David Bowie and other greats, who were gathered backstage or in waiting areas, were staggered by Mercury’s sway over the stage and crowd. No other band or artist could match up to Queen’s performance, not that night and not for any known night, since then.
Later, after announcing his diagnosis to his band members, he insisted on working for as long as he could. For the last four years of his life, he carried the same intensity and passion into new releases. He appeared on stage for as long as he could, covering his scars and rashes with make-up.
Steve Launches the IPad:
Even when his cancer showed signs of spreading in 2008, requiring a liver transplant in 2009, Steve was back at work soon after, with the original intensity and fierce involvement. Isaacson echoed the question that must have been on the Apple team’s mind, when Steve unexpectedly resurfaced at the office: “Would he now, after facing death, be more mellow?” The team need not have speculated at all. On the first day, “[he] ripped apart people he had not seen for six months, tore up some marketing plans, and chewed out a couple of people whose work he found shoddy.” He even said “I can’t believe how creative I’m feeling.”
And then, like Freddie’s resurgent Live Aid, came the Ipad. This time, the media created a frenzy even before Jobs had drummed it up. One wonders if there was worldwide empathy for Steve’s persistent zeal despite his illness, because some magazines seemed to go overboard. “The Economist put him on its cover robed, haloed and, holding what was dubbed ‘the Jesus Tablet’” The Wall Street Journal said, “The last time there was this much excitement about a tablet, it had some commandments written on it.”
Though the launch, despite Steve’s carefully-plotted theatrics, drew a more ambivalent response, the product subsequently skyrocketed to global popularity. It also stood for a principle that Jobs wished to embody all his his life: the interplay of technology and liberal arts.
Both Left Enduring Legacies that Survived Long After Their Deaths
Unexpectedly for a band that lost its lead singer more than twenty years ago, Queen continues to inhabit public consciousness. Album sales worldwide are estimated to be 300 million or more. A statue of Freddie Mercury was installed in Switzerland, near Lake Geneva. A plaque, carrying a Hollywood Star of Fame was unveiled by Freddie’s mother in Feltham, UK, where the family lived. The remaining members of Queen set up a Trust to raise money for AIDs causes. The movie, Bohemian Rhapsody, that was ten years in the making for various reasons, has already raked in $472 Mn worldwide, and might overtake X-Men: Dark Phoenix according to a recent Forbes columnist.
After Jobs died, there was much anxiety in the tech world and beyond, on whether Apple, without its iconic founder, would survive. So far, of course, it has shown a remarkable resilience, and a capacity to preserve its singular DNA. Despite where the company is headed in the future – in terms of profits or market capitalization – there is no doubt that Steve’s stamp on the Valley and other parts of the globe is here to stay. It was Apple that bolstered the notion of marrying art and technology, the humanities and the sciences, spurring many enterprises – across sectors as widely different as education and healthcare – to adopt design-thinking precepts. In Steve’s own words, in his biography, “if you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying.”
Isaacson, Walter, Steve Jobs, London, Little Brown, 2011. Print.
Jones, Lesley-Ann, The Definitive Biography of Freddie Mercury, Bohemian Rhapsody, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 2011. Kindle.