A Love Letter to Steve Jobs and John Lennon
by Asif Khan
Today, Sunday October 9, 2011, is an auspicious day for us Beatle fanatics. It is John Lennon’s 71st birthday: millions of us every year celebrate the life of the man on this day by swimming in his music. Interestingly, today is also the day that Sir Paul McCartney is marrying for the third time. I hope he got a prenup this time and I wish him better luck than he had with #2…that last one was a doozy!
Of course, this week also gave us the sad news of the passing of my other hero, Steve Jobs. It is no coincidence that Steve was a huge Beatles fan and even modeled his business philosophy after them. Both the Beatles and Apple impacted our lives in analogous ways. Neither ended wars (though John gave it the old college try) and neither cured cancer (those that were looking for a cancer cure are now mostly working on boner pills anyway). Their contributions were more personal and far-reaching.
To call John Lennon a singer or Steve Jobs a businessman is totally missing the point. They challenged the boundaries of the disciplines which made them famous and boldly forged new and previously unimagined frontiers. They didn’t give the people what they wanted. They gave the people what they didn’t even know they needed. Like Henry Ford once said, “if I asked the people what they wanted, I would be selling faster horses.” And where would we be today?
Neither men sought fame, wealth nor approval for what they were doing…but were nourished by it. Both men found traditional religion constricting and carved their own niches. Steve was born to a Muslim father and Jewish mother. His adoptive parents were (probably) Christian. He was a keen student of religion at Reed College and sought enlightenment in a Hindu Ashram in India before eventually embracing Buddhism.
John, on the other hand was pummeled for once comparing the Beatles to Jesus Christ (it was a quote taken out of context). A few years later, he thumbed his nose at those people by singing “the way things are going, they’re gonna crucify me.” But his biggest criticism to this day is for his supposed belief in “atheism” (belief/atheism = oxymoron?) as supposedly manifested by his most famous lyric:
“Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try
No hell below us, above us only sky”
But it turned out he was “just” being pragmatic and idealistic:
“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world can live as one”
Why do we celebrate the birth of John Lennon 40 years after the Beatles broke up? Why are we all taking Steve’s death so personally? For me, I think it is because they both touched our lives in such intimate ways…it was as though they were talking directly to us. Can you imagine anyone else singing All You Need Is Love? Imagine? Norwegian Wood? Jealous Guy? In My Life? (Note to Miley C, Justin B, L Gaga, et al: I love you but please don’t try!). John may not have had the vocal range of Sinatra and his songs may not have had the concise and catchy melodies of McCartney but damn! He really meant every word. Besides, it was the idea that was important to him anyway. Music was just his vehicle to convey those ideas. His lyrics were often interpreted as, what many consider to be, serious poetry. It’s no wonder that Bob Dylan was John’s (and Steve’s) musical idol. And Bob Zimmerman named himself after his favorite poet, Dylan Thomas.
Similarly, every time you use an Apple creation, you can just feel Steve’s presence in every design aspect: every curve, every surface, every click, every font. He didn’t just create beautiful things, he gave birth to them. You don’t have to be an art historian to recognize a Van Gogh when you see one. And you don’t have to be an Apple fanboy to recognize an iDevice.
I read a lot of Steve Jobs tributes this week. Many of them practically canonized him while at least one was a major league asshole about it. For those who don’t get the significance of Steve Jobs, I refer to a bumper sticker I once saw: “If you don’t like the Beatles, you’re WRONG!” The Beatles changed the music landscape forever and then went onto conquer higher mountains. Everything that came after them was directly or indirectly, knowingly or unknowingly, influenced by their incredible body of work.
Same for Steve Jobs. We all learned to use computers based on his unrelenting vision. We rediscovered music and movies on his exacting terms. We appreciate and better understand beautiful design aesthetics because of him. Our standards and expectations have been raised forever (especially where we accepted beige-box mediocrity before).
Steve may no longer be with us but his vision will live on with Apple, Pixar, Disney and all their competitors that looked to him to tell them what was around the next corner. As he once famously said, “we don’t build computers, we design bicycles for the mind.” (Please click this link and hear what he has to say about it. The phrase makes for a great bumper sticker but what he actually meant is far deeper and more interesting!)
John Lennon, who so tirelessly promoted peace, was killed almost 31 years ago, ironically, in the most violent way. Steve Jobs, who was known for his impeccable timing especially when it came to his much anticipated product keynotes, continued to amaze: two days before his death, Apple announced a less than spectacular iPhone upgrade (the first such announcement without him) seemingly so as not to distract from the real news of the week. And two weeks from now, Walter Isaacson’s long awaited (and first ever) authorized biography of Steve Jobs is being released. Perfect timing, as usual. And apparently, he opened up to Isaacson like never before because he wanted his kids to know him after he was gone #fightingbacktears.
The man said goodbye to his audience for the last time but remembered to leave us with “just one more thing”! Man, I’m gonna miss him!
So I hope this inspires you to take a little break from your usual routine today: turn off the computer and phone for a little while. Don’t keep up with the Kardashians, dancing stars or the unreal housewives. Reject the empty calories of 24 hour cable news. Instead, carve some time to yourself…just a few minutes…and listen to your favorite Beatles song. Download it from iTunes and listen to it on your preferred iDevice. And ride the bicycles of your mind for a little while. I promise you’ll enjoy the ride!
And if you are not quite an Apple fanboy or Beatles fanatic, well, I hope someday you’ll join us…
Journey well, Steve. Shine on, John. And best of luck, Paul.
…and always remember John’s timeless words: “all you need is love…love is all you need.” Well, that and an iPad.
UPDATE (11/1): I thought I had read just about every meaningful tribute to Steve Jobs this past few weeks. But Steve’s biological sister, Mona Simpson, published her eulogy in the NY Times. I was moved enough to post it here. Just try keeping a dry eye as you read this: