The Steve Jobs Nobody Knew

How an insecure, acid-dropping hippie kid reinvented himself as a technological visionary - and changed the world

October 27, 2011
Steve Jobs on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Steve Jobs on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Norman Seeff

When I first met Steve Jobs, I thought he was a loser. It was 1980, and I was just a Silicon Valley kid who knew nothing about computers. I had gotten a job at this little computer company near my house called Apple because my mom worked there. It was based in what looked like an abandoned dentists office on Bandley Drive in Cupertino, just a block or two from Apple's current headquarters. Jobs was 25 at the time, and what I remember about him is how he would storm around the office, yelling, and how he wore tattered jeans, and how everyone seemed to be afraid of him. I knew his type: uneducated, blustery, a guy who thinks a lot of himself. At the time, I had no idea what computers would amount to and no idea that this guy would turn out to be one of the greatest visionaries of our time. To me, he just seemed like a lost hippie kid, and I was not terribly interested. After less than a year at Apple, I left to go on to more exciting things, like dealing blackjack in Lake Tahoe.

It was only a few years before I understood exactly what I had walked away from. Jobs not only turned Apple into the most valued company in the world, worth an estimated $342 billion, he rewrote the rules of business, combining Sixties idealism with greed-is-good capitalism. At a time when software was the model, he built hardware. At a time when everyone focused on the macro, he focused on the micro. He never did anything first, but he did it best. More than anyone else on the planet, he is responsible for fusing the human realm with the digital, for giving us the ability to encode our deepest desires and most intimate thoughts with the touch of a finger. "He's the Bob Dylan of machines," says Bono, who knew Jobs for years. "He's the Elvis of the hardware-software dialectic."

Exclusive Q&A: Bono on Steve Jobs' Rock and Roll Spirit

But, God, he could be a dick. Those who knew Jobs best and worked with him most closely - and I have talked to hundreds of them over the years – were always struck by his abrasive personality, his unapologetic brutality. He screamed, he cried, he stomped his feet. He had a cruelly casual way of driving employees to the breaking point and tossing them aside; few people ever wanted to work for him twice. When he fathered a daughter with his longtime girlfriend Chrisann Brennan at age 23, he not only denied his paternity, he famously trashed Brennan in public, telling Time in 1983 that "28 percent of the male population of the United States could be the father." His kinder side would only emerge years later, after he had been kicked around, beaten up, humbled by life. He grew up poor, an adopted kid who felt cast aside by his birth parents, feeling scrawny and teased and out of place, and he remained deeply insecure for most of his life, certain that it would not last long.

"Steve always had that James Dean, live-fast, die-young thing," says Steve Capps, one of the key programmers on the first Apple Macintosh. As they worked late into the night to design and build the device that would revolutionize personal computing, Jobs would talk about death a lot. "It was a little morbid," Capps recalls. "He'd say, 'I don't want to be 50.'" Brennan recalls Jobs making similar comments when he was only 17. "Steve always believed he was going to die young," Brennan says. "I think that's part of what gave his life such urgency. He never expected to live past 45."

In 2005, not long after he was diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually kill him, Jobs gave a now-famous commencement address at Stanford University in which he hailed death as "very likely the single best invention of life," one that "clears out the old to make way for the new." Perhaps it was not unexpected that Jobs, the archetype of the modern inventor, would conceive of death in such terms – as if life itself were an idea that had been hacked together by a larger, more powerful version of himself in some big garage in the sky. But if death is life's greatest invention, the greatest invention of Steve Jobs was not the iPod or the iPhone or the iPad. It was Steve Jobs. Before he could alter the landscape of the world as he found it, he first had to design and assemble the Jobs the world would come to idolize. "Steve was a shallow, narcissistic person who became more fully developed emotionally as he went along," says John Perry Barlow, a digital pioneer and former lyricist for the Grateful Dead who knew Jobs for several decades. "He created a lot of great hardware, but over the years, he also invented himself."

Jobs was born to insecurity. His mother, Joanne Schieble, was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, where she got involved with a Syrian student named Ab-dulfattah Jandali. When Schieble found out she was pregnant, her father objected to her marrying a Syrian. "Without telling me, Joanne upped and left to move to San Francisco to have the baby without anyone knowing, including me," Jandali would later tell a reporter. "She did not want to bring shame onto the family and thought this was the best for everyone."

Steven Paul Jobs was born on February 24th, 1955. Schieble gave her baby up to Paul and Clara Jobs, a working-class couple in San Francisco. Paul, a high school dropout who grew up on a farm in Wisconsin, made his living as a debt collector, a repo man and a machinist. Clara worked as a payroll clerk at Varian Associates, one of the first high-tech companies in Silicon Valley. It was not what Schieble wanted for her child, but she made one provision for him before she left. The first in her family to go to college, Schieble believed in the value of education: Before she signed the adoption papers, she made Paul and Clara promise to send her son to college.

From the start, Jobs was a temperamental kid. He jammed bobby pins into an electric outlet and burned his hand. He had to have his stomach pumped after he drank ant poison. He woke up early, so his parents got him a rocking horse, a gramophone and some Little Richard records to entertain himself. "He was so difficult a child," his mother would later confide to Brennan, "that by the time he was two, I felt we had made a mistake, and I wanted to return him." Like many other parents of the time, Paul and Clara soon plunked their son down in front of a relatively new technology called television, where he eagerly devoured everything from Dobie Gillis and I Love Lucy to Jonny Quest.

When Jobs was three, Paul moved the family from San Francisco to Mountain View, an unsophisticated town of tract houses and apricot orchards just south of Palo Alto. It turned out to be a fortuitous move, putting young Steve right in the middle of the engineering culture that was just beginning to blossom in Silicon Valley. Not that the Jobs family had much connection to it. Paul tried fixing up old cars and dabbling in real estate, but money always seemed to elude him. In the fourth grade, Steve's teacher, Imogene Hill, asked the class, "What is it in this universe that you don't understand?" When it came to Steve's turn to answer, his reply was heartbreaking: "I don't understand why all of a sudden we're so broke."

Jobs was too mouthy and inattentive to be a great student. But he was saved from truancy and delinquency by Hill. "She was one of the saints of my life," he would later recall. "She taught an advanced fourth-grade class, and it took her about a month to get hip to my situation. She bribed me into learning." Hill paid Steve $5 bills out of her own pocket to do his homework and read. Spurred by her confidence in him, he skipped the fifth grade and went straight into Crittenden Middle School. It proved a rough place for a thin, wispy kid who was never much of an athlete. The other children taunted Jobs about his adoption. "What happened?" they would sneer. "Didn't your mother love you?" When he would recount the teasing years later, his girlfriend Chrisann recalls, "the pain of it still showed on his face."

At 11, Jobs announced to his parents that he was not going back to Crittenden. But instead of telling him to tough it out, Paul and Clara moved the family to Los Altos, a richer town a few miles away, with a better school system. It was in those years that what we now know as Silicon Valley came into being. The orchards that had covered the Valley had recently been bulldozed, and there was a sense of a new world rising, a belief that you could engineer your own future. There were no stuffy traditions, no cultural baggage. You could be whatever or whoever you wanted to be.

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