Pablo Picasso (The Modern Lovers, 1972).
Pablo Picasso (The Modern Lovers, live, ca. 1971).
Pablo Picasso (John Cale, 1975).
Pablo Picasso (Cale, live, 1976).
Pablo Picasso (Talking Heads, live, 1976).
Pablo Picasso (Simple Minds, live, 1980).
Pablo Picasso (Burning Sensations, 1984).
Pablo Picasso (Cale, Rockpalast, 1984).
Pablo Picasso (Iggy Pop, broadcast, 1994).
Pablo Picasso (Television Personalities, ca. 1995).
Pablo Picasso (Bowie, 2003).
Pablo Picasso (Bowie, Riverside Studios performance, 2003).
Pablo Picasso (Bowie, live, 2003).
Pablo Picasso (Bowie, live, 2004).
Pablo Picasso (Jonathan Richman, live, 2007).
BGN: Who do you get your direction from in life and music? Does your song “Pablo Picasso” give us an idea? Do you love his paintings so much….(Jonathan starts shaking his head)…no, you don’t love his paintings so much. He was just not an asshole?
Jonathan Richman: I read about him when I was 18. I moved to New York and was intimidated by these girls who I thought were attractive. I was afraid to approach them. I didn’t have too high a self-image. I was self-conscious and I thought “well Pablo Picasso, he’s only 5 foot 3 but he didn’t let things like that bother him.” So I made up this song right after I saw those girls. You can picture it; I had this sad little look on my face and I was thinking ‘Why am I so scared to approach these girls?’ That was a song of courage for me.
Boston Groupie News, 1980.
Jonathan Richman was born in Natick, a suburb west of Boston, in 1951. Like Lewis Reed of Freeport, Long Island (born a decade earlier), Richman was a suburban Jew estranged from his parents who used rock ‘n’ roll music as a passkey. Richman’s catalyst was Reed’s band the Velvet Underground, whom Richman saw whenever they played Boston. By 1971 Richman had formed his own band, the Modern Lovers; a year later, they were recording demos with John Cale.
Like Ray Davies, a spiritual counterpart across the Atlantic, Richman wrote about the straights of the Sixties, those getting left behind, the suburbanites who read about the counterculture in newsweeklies. Richman’s masterpiece “Roadrunner” isn’t celebrating the freedom of the open road, as a drive around Natick or on the name-checked Route 128 (a traffic-calcified beltway that encircles Boston—its early Seventies incarnation aptly described by Joshua Clover as “a scungy corridor of doughnut shops and furniture stores”) will demonstrate. “Roadrunner” is about finding traces of the sublime in suburbia, taking refuge in your car when you drive through it: Stop ‘n’ Shop supermarkets, AM radio, McDonald’s, decaying tire outlets and car dealerships (“the spirit of 1956”). Richman sang about the dead Fifties, the dignity of old people, the secretaries and functionaries of Boston’s charmless Government Center. Hippies, when they showed up, were wastrels and creeps.
Yet Richman didn’t celebrate this prosperous middlebrow America (also the world of They Might Be Giants—Johns Linnell and Flansburgh were growing up in nearby Lincoln) as much he saw the beauty in its oddness, its sobriety, and saw how he stood apart from it. There’s darkness in his early songs. Richman’s girls get institutionalized (“She Cracked,” “Hospital“) and his first-person characters aren’t as guileless and sweet as they say they are. Instead they often come off as early-edition “nice guys,” putting girls on pedestals and growing resentful they aren’t appreciated for their efforts. “Hippie Johnny,” Richman’s rival on “I’m Straight,” sounds more fun than clingy straight-edge Jojo does, to be honest.
“Pablo Picasso,” written around 1970, was one of the Cale demos later released on the 1976 Modern Lovers (a time-bomb of a record—while the band had broken up years before its issue, and Richman had moved to a softer style by ’76, the likes of “Roadrunner” and “Picasso” suddenly appeared for the fledgling punks to take up). As Richman said, he didn’t know anything about Picasso except what any suburban kid could’ve gleaned at the time. This was the Picasso of Life magazine profiles: an intense, bald, short man who lived with a string of impossibly beautiful women in canvas-strewn ateliers. He seemed older than America: he’d known Braque, James Joyce, Hemingway, probably King Henry VIII. He was often photographed shirtless, thrusting his chest out, striking poses like a boxer. He made painting seem like a war he’d won in single combat. A caricature of masculinity, king gorilla of the art world.
The song came from a trip to New York that Richman made right after graduating high school. Hoping to find a place in NYC bohemia, he instead was mainly left on his own. He found his idol Lou Reed distant and soon gone (Reed left the VU to go home to Long Island, working for his dad for a while). Richman hung around Warhol’s Factory but was merely tolerated. After a month, Richman went to Israel, where he only found a more intense degree of loneliness. Standing out in the desert, he realized “he had to start a band,” his friend (and bandmate) John Felice recalled. “He wanted people around him.”
They were like the Velvet Underground, except with whimsy.
Bowie on the Modern Lovers.
When I started out, I was kind of lonely…when I had more success with girls, I had less need to be hostile, so the volume came down, and I needed happier songs with more melody.
Jonathan Richman, to Julia Sweeney, SPIN, February 1993.
“Pablo Picasso” was funny (Picasso as king greaser on the block, scoping out women while driving a Cadillac), envious, a piece of dating advice (be confident, don’t be a schmuck, get out of your head), prophetic—it’s a song that barely seems to exist as one (just jamming on one easy-to-play chord), a joke that goes on forever.
It was Richman’s low-rent take on a VU track like “Sister Ray”: a clattering vamp on E minor. On the demo, Cale establishes the drone on piano, offering a few variations as the song goes on; the drums (David Robinson) keep to one chugging pattern (Richman wanted the feel of a New York subway train), Jerry Harrison’s bassline is mainly one string bothered for four minutes; the guitar solos (Richman and Ernie Brooks) are screaming, whining jitters along the Em scale. “The original is a little dirgelike,” Bowie told Interview in 2003. “It doesn’t move much, which gives it a power, but it gives it the power of another era.”
In its various covers over the years, you can hear others trying to channel and variate its power. Cale* (officially the song’s debut performer, as his cover on Helen of Troy came out half a year before Modern Lovers) hardened the drone with a whinnying Chris Spedding guitar riff and shook up the percussion line—some tom fills, some little jumpy start-stops on guitar and bass (playing “Picasso” live, Cale kept things simpler, hanging the song back on a hammered Em chord). Coke-fueled and frustrated, Cale howled out the lyric: “never GOT called an ARSEHOLE—TOO BAD!!!…NOT LIKE YEEEW!!” The LA band Burning Sensations, for the soundtrack of Alex Cox’s Repo Man, changed the bassline, throwing in a bit of the “Peter Gunn Theme.” Television Personalities’ Daniel Treacy, centering “Picasso” on haunted-house piano and filling the mix with sirens, phone rings and wails, made it obsessive.
Bowie wanted “a more contemporary feel,” so he changed the lyric (no big deal: everyone from Iggy Pop to Richman himself already had done so) and added some chords. While Bowie’s “Picasso” still keeps for long stretches on a single chord (E-flat), Bowie threw in a new sequence (Bb-C#-G#-Bb-G#-F#) for a “refrain” (“swinging on the back porch, jumping off a big log…”) that’s has a touch of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” And he sang Richman’s verses over a three-chord shift: (F#)”girls could not resist his stare/(G#)Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole/(Eb) Not in New York!”
For an intro, Gerry Leonard added an out-of-phase, panned “Spanish” lead guitar,** which later gets a solo with glum backing by Bowie’s foghorn of a baritone saxophone. There’s a chirpy hook on Yamaha Digital piano that sounds like it was incidental music for a Dell desktop, and some scraping rhythm guitar dubs mixed right (possibly Bowie’s refurbished Supro). Sterling Campbell’s drum tracks were among those Bowie had remixed at Allaire Studios to get a “bigger,” reverb-laden sound.
Bowie took “Picasso” at a brisk tempo (Cale had always wanted Richman to play the song faster) and sang it like a carnival barker with long, loopy phrases—he seems to be always trying to get one step ahead of the song. He said it was meant to be Reality‘s equivalent to his cover of the Pixies’ “Cactus” on Heathen, but his fizzy “Picasso” was more like the latter album’s goofy take on “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship.” Filming a concert in Rotterdam in 2003, a fan kept panning into the audience during this song—you can see various people singing “never got called an ASSHOLE!” at the top of their lungs. “Pablo Picasso” was always an anthem in spirit. Bowie just gave it some amplification, some bits of sweetening, kicked it out into the world again.
It’s a fitting bookend to Bowie’s other painter song, “Andy Warhol.” The latter is Bowie peering into a man who isn’t there, the song of a chancer looking to pick up a few tricks. “Pablo Picasso” is a happy cartoon, a bit of advice from a man who knows. After all, you could replace “Pablo Picasso” with “David Bowie” in the lyric and it would work nearly as well. Good luck coming up with a better rhyme, though.
Recorded: (rhythm tracks, vocals) January-February 2003; (lead guitars, lead and backing vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Released 16 September 2003 on Reality.
Sources: Steven Lee Beeber’s The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk is good for Richman backstory; Joshua Clover’s “Terrorflu” (collected in Best Music Writing 2009) has a great one-page encapsulation on Richman’s “Roadrunner.” Any Richman interview that you come across is charming and funny.
* Cale was the band’s evangelist, distributing cassettes of the demo sessions to journalists and musicians in the mid-Seventies; it’s possible Bowie first heard the Modern Lovers this way.
** As you’ll see in the last clip, Richman also played cod-Spanish acoustic guitar solos when performing “Picasso” live in the 2000s.
Top: Tony Soprano, never called an asshole (well, sometimes). From Sopranos Season 4: “Mergers and Acquisitions,” first aired 3 November 2002; virile Pablo; Danny Fields, “Modern Lovers on the beach” ca. 1972.