Monday, December 31, 2007
I don't know how to write this. It's just... much, much too big. But Bruce always started with the story, and let things grow from there, so I'll try to do the same.
I met Bruce Steinberg when I was 20 years old, and I was vaguely scared of him. It was 1988, and I was halfway through college, and starting my first corporate job, at SCO. He was Vice President of something or other, and I was naive enough at the time to think that meant he was Very Important Indeed, and Not To Be Disturbed, lest he Rain Down Disapproval Upon Me.
I got to know him better over the next few years via the SCO-internal USENET newsgroups. He had a breezy, friendly, funny, encyclopedically-knowlegeable writing style, and as letters on a screen he wasn't so scary.
One day, someone said something in one of the groups about Bruce's "old band", It's A Beautiful Day. I was taken aback--I loved that band--and I went home and looked at the cover of their first album, and there his name was in the credits. I thought it must be a joke--the person posting must have been kidding Bruce around because he had the same name as a famous harmonica player. But when I asked Bruce about it, he said, "Yeah, that's me." It seemed oddly unimportant to him.
A few years passed. Bruce and I worked together on a short-term project, designing a customer survey card and a database for the results, and got to be friends. We'd shoot the breeze a little bit in the cafeteria from time to time, chitchat in the hallways. Then one day he walked past my office on the way to a meeting and stopped off to say hello. I don't remember now what we talked about at first--probably some recent upper-management idiocy at the company--and I said, "I am never going to be a manager."
He said, "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Okay, look... I just have a few minutes, but I need to tell you a story, so listen..."
And Bruce pulled up a chair, turned it around and straddled the back of it, and started telling me his life story. After a few minutes he realized he wasn't anywhere close to the end, so he decided to blow off his meeting, because this was more important to him.
Bruce started out as a child performer, doing summer stock and (I think) Broadway, singing as "The Li'l Bad Wolf" on a Mitch Miller-produced Walt Disney/Little Golden Record of the same name, and appearing on a Sunday morning live TV show. I'm not sure--I don't think he ever mentioned--how he'd gotten involved with all that, but he told me once that he'd had an insight working on that TV show: that the things he did for a few minutes every Sunday were appearing on 8-inch B&W TV screens all over metropolitan New York, and that that was really cool. It wasn't an ego trip at all, he wasn't immodest about it--but he really grooved on the feeling of action at a distance--a little thing done here that ripples outward into the world and has effects there. It was a formative experience for him.
He developed an interest in ham radio and electronics, and spent his time and allowance skipping signals off the ionosphere, getting signal reports from far-off countries, and tape-recording Sputnik. In the fullness of time he went to Cornell, studied electrical engineering, graduated, and went to work for NASA, designing telemetry hardware for Apollo at the Kennedy Space Center, and later working on the Mariner probes at Berkeley.
Meanwhile, he had developed an interest in music, art, and photography, and now that he was living in the Bay Area, he started taking pictures of rock 'n roll shows on spec. One day, with a casual fearlessness borne of having been around celebrities lots of times in his life, he called up Janis Joplin--her phone number was listed--introduced himself and asked if she'd like to see some of his photographs of her and her band from the San Jose Pop Festival. She was encouraging--eventually selecting one of his shots for cover art on her first solo album--and it led to regular work for him. He left engineering and pursued photography and art direction full time, designing some great album covers.
Somewhere in there he hooked up with It's A Beatiful Day, worked with them in his usual capacity as photographer and art director, but also played harmonica and worked as a truck-driver and roadie and all-around useful guy. Somewhere in there he produced an album by Link Wray. Somewhere in there he designed a billboard for Tower of Power, which gave him contacts in advertising, and somewhere in there he started branching out to working as an advertising designer and copywriter. As I remember the story, he'd done exactly one gig in that capacity, working for a hi-fi store, and the client was pleased--and recommended him to Larry and Doug Michels, who were starting a little software company in Santa Cruz called SCO.
They called Bruce in to help write copy for some early XENIX material, and the three of them hit it off. He hadn't been an engineer in a while, but he had the engineering background going for him--he understood technology, and he understood techies even better. And he had a key insight: That techies aren't any different from rock stars: kind of geeky, obsessive people who spend a lot of time immersed in highly technical details, building something beautiful. The story he told in his work was that techies are rock stars, in their own world.
Doug and Larry liked him enough to want to hire him full-time to do their marketing communications. He said he'd consider it, but set conditions: He wanted a title, so when he made calls it would be obvious he wasn't just some flunky, and he wanted the facilities to do all his production in-house. They gave him what he wanted, and he moved to Santa Cruz, and that's the story of how Bruce Steinberg, engineer and rock'n'roller, became the Vice President of Marketing and Communications at a high-tech company.
And here he got down to the point. "It sounds like a pretty random career, going from Apollo to rock'n'roll to SCO, but there was always a common thread that's run through all those jobs--it's always been about communication, about action at a distance. Every step happened organically, but I could never have told you five years in advance what I was gonna be doing. And I sure as hell couldn't have told you what I was never gonna do. Maybe you'll end up as a manager someday, maybe you won't, but you can't decide that now."
It was a hell of a good story, and well told, too, but mainly what I was struck by that day was the fact that this cat--this very hip and funny and in all ways admirable guy--was so generous with his time as to skip a meeting and sit down and Lay Wisdom on me, just because he didn't want to see me making the mistake of foreclosing too many options in my life. And he really did permanently change the way I see the world.
That set a pattern for us, afterward. We didn't talk all that often, but when we did, in person or by phone, more often than not it'd be two or three hours before we stopped. Sometimes there'd be email correspondences that went on for days or weeks, letters hundreds of lines long going both directions. He was one of only three people whose email I always saved. We were both storytellers, with similar conversational styles in some respects--both of us had a tendency to turn dialogues into monologues--the main difference being that his monologues were better. (Though I guess he appreciated mine. He once compared our conversations to "having a lounge gig playing for tone-deaf drunks who are challenged by the occasional jazz chord in a blues tune...then coming home to play with a neighbor who's into exactly the same kind of music you are".)
Several times, by happenstance, we ran into each other at Costco, and it got to be a running joke between us that we had a regularly scheduled meeting there. I always got home really late after those Costco trips, and my wife would want to know what took so long. "I ran into Bruce..." "Oh."
Bruce fell ill early this month with something I'd never heard of before called cardiac amyloidosis. I'd spoken with him for a few hours a few days before that, and he was fine--we had a great talk; I was trying to hook him up with my new employer, ISC, for some marketing consulting. But then I went off on a business trip, and then came back and got busy with holidays. A few weeks passed before I got around to one of my email folders and found a note from a mutual friend saying Bruce was in the hospital.
As soon as I read it, I called Bruce, and we talked for a while, then I went to visit him for a few hours the day after Christmas. He was obviously in bad shape, but in fairly good spirits, aside from some worry that he was having difficulty with words--"I feel brain damaged," he said. I knew he wasn't expecting to recover fully, but he had hopes of recovering enough to go home and get back to a less energetic version of his life. I left him an old powerbook we'd had around, and it turned out the hospital had wi-fi, so I was hoping that there'd be some email contact from him... but a few days passed and there was none.
Then yesterday the news arrived that Bruce had died in the wee hours of December 30, surrounded by his family. He was 64.
One of the last things I told him was about my six-year-old son, Ben--who Bruce quite liked, and it was mutual, though they'd only met a few times. "How's m'boy?" he'd ask me. I told him Ben has lately developed a deep enthusiasm for print advertising: paging through catalogs and magazines, pointing out the poses and props in the photographs, analyzing how and why each ad was made, improvising and reciting his own ad copy for imaginary products he's planning to invent someday, making the occasional powerpoint slide presentation on his mac. Bruce got a kick out of it, and showed me pictures and talked to me about his granddaugther Teagan.
I started noticing that Bruce was spacing out and falling half-asleep at odd moments during our conversation, so I told him to call me if he needed any assistance with the laptop, gave him a hug and told him I loved him, and drove home. I'm really, really grateful I had a chance to do that.
I told his daughter Jenny on the phone yesterday that Bruce was... well, not like a father to me, but a hip uncle, or a big brother. And one of the best friends I'll ever have. He might have given me some flack for saying this, but fuck it: The world's a much emptier place today.
Rest in peace, my friend. I miss you.