Pablo Picasso


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.

35 Responses to Pablo Picasso

  1. fhgaldino says:

    It’s great to see the way started to cover other artists since he covered himself on ‘Toy’. ‘Pablo Picasso’ is a great sing-a-long song, one of the reasons ‘Reality’ is such a good, fun and fresh listen.

  2. humanizingthevacuum says:

    I can’t tell whether you like it, Chris. This is the only song I skip. I can’ get past the spongy keyboards.

  3. Mike says:

    I appreciate it as a tribute, but this cover simply didn’t work for me. Maybe I just love the original too much, Or maybe this is a song that needs to be sung by an angsty young man, and would have been better covered by 1973 Bowie…

  4. crayontocrayon says:

    So many cool versions of this. I am guessing Bowie adds to the lyric because at this tempo he would blitz through the entire song in a minute without some padding and he’s having too much fun for that. Solo is nice enough but the whole ‘Spanish solo for song about the Spaniard’ angle is a but unimaginative. The synth hook over the Eb is pretty annoying too but overall it works pretty well and the song is a great fit for Bowie.

    • dm says:

      A spanish or “latin” solo is literally my least favourite kind of solo. The only exceptions? This and “Make Me Smile” by Cockney Rebel.

  5. dm says:

    I absolutely adore this cover. It’s done with such joy and spunk and it’s just the best. When I’m not in a “Sorrow” or “Wild is the Wind” mood this is my go-to for a great Bowie cover. He’s taking the piss, reverently. The original was a great artist taking the piss out of a great artist with a great song, so Bowie takes the piss out of the song.

    This, Days, Fall Dog and Disco King are the absolutely essential Reality tracks and the rest (“Try Some” aside) are all very worthy. Still a Heathen beater in my opinion, as much as I love a couple of tracks on that album.

  6. s.t. says:

    Some guys try to pick up girls, and ask for a blowie.
    This never happened to Angela Bowie
    She could walk down your street and they’d avoid her icy stare
    Angela Bowie never got asked for a blowie.

    …is this thing on??

  7. Deanna says:

    I like this song. It’s something happy to listen to to boost my mood. It’s not profound, but it’s not meant to be. I especially love the heavy beats in between verses.

    I also find it particularly hilarious when I watch live versions of it and he sings “…in his Eldorado-oh-oh-OH-OH!”.

  8. Mike says:

    Hmmmm…Pixies, Modern Lovers….Dave’s sure hip, isn’t he? (I’m assuming this is the reaction he was going for).

    • col1234 says:

      well, I dunno—is doing a Modern Lovers cover in 2003 really a way to establish your hip credentials? I take him at his word that it was something he’d been meaning to cover for years & finally it worked out

      i mean, hip is John Cale covering the song *before it came out*

      • Vinnie says:

        I think about this all the time with local bands. “Would it be bad taste if we covered you guy’s song since your record isn’t coming out for another 8 months?”

  9. Maj says:

    Eh, no. You couldn’t replace Picasso w/ Bowie in this particular instance. 😉 Anyway…

    Love this cover…and thanks so much for the link to the Iggy version. It’s almost as good as Bowie’s. Bowie’s is great in how elaborate it is in comparison to most of the previous ones, Iggy’s is great in the exact opposite way. And probably the funniest…that guy has a way of delivering dem words.

    Anyway, Bowie’s version is…juicy…in the fruit meaning of the word. Swell cover. Love the guitar.

    Was Picasso really that short or was 5’3” used for effect? It’s my height…and I’m already on the shorter side for ladies…just curious

    • col1234 says:

      he was 5′ 4″ (according to IMDB, for whatever reason they’re cited as a source). Close to Iggy’s height

      • Dave L says:

        Iggy’s five foot one. He’s also chairman of the bored.

      • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

        Dave, I think Iggy may have been using artistic licence in that song. I jumped onstage at a Stooges gig at Festival Hall Melbourne early last year, and stood just a few feet from him when he did one of his customary crowd invites. Although he’s quite short, he’s considerably taller than five foot one.

  10. Ezekiel Benedict says:

    For me its a great song – I have never heard the original or any of the other covers mentioned. And I don’t want to!! I like the deep space broadcast sounds and the spanish guitar. And the lyrics make it just a real fun song

  11. Momus says:

    1. I’m going to be the dissenting voice here. Not to be an asshole, but because I really don’t see the appeal of this song. Only the TV Personalities version makes it even moderately listenable for me, and that’s mostly because of the beautiful EQ on the drum machine and the haunted piano.

    2. The “dirgelike” quality is no joke. The song just chugs, and you’d have to be a huge fan of chug — or perhaps Satie-like “vexations”, although Vexations itself is a beautiful piece — to do more than tolerate it. It even manages to make early Talking Heads sound boring. Plod, plod, chug, chug.

    3. What is the point of it? How did it merit so many covers? Is it really that “Picasso / asshole” is such an inherently amusing rhyme? There might be a frisson of humour in the incongruity between the Americanness of the world in which people call each other assholes and the Europeanness of a figure like Picasso, but that lasts about three seconds for me.

    4.I really want the verse to resolve differently, something like: “He could walk down your street / And girls could not resist his stare / And his eyes burned through to their underwear”. But instead it’s as if the writer can’t think of another line so he just goes back to “So Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole”.

    5. It’s called bathos, and it’s a legitimate device! I know, I know! But it’s so boring! And it’s also “punk rock” because punk rock made being boring and staying on one chord a virtue. And some punk rock people went to art school, so they liked to sing about painters and be conceptually boring. I know!

    6. Actually, some people HAVE called Picasso an asshole. Ariana Huffington, in her book Picasso: Creator and Destroyer, for instance, said he was “unable to love and was driven to dominate and humiliate the women who fell under his hypnotic spell”. So I really don’t think the song can be any comfort for creative nerds or short people with some sort of Napoleon complex.

    7. To those Napoleon complex people I say: “Yes, you too CAN be assholes, despite making good paintings, because your self-obsession can make you incapable of seeing anyone else’s point of view or feeling with them.”

    8. And to David Bowie I say: “Good artists copy, great artists steal!” Picasso said that, and it’s good advice. You are a great artist. Instead of covering songs that are almost always better in their original versions, please just steal the good bits and make them into new David Bowie songs. You’re four fifths of the way to doing this in Pablo Picasso anyway, with that other section you stole from Subterranean Homesick Blues.

    9. There is no 9. (Conceptual, very art school.)

    10. There is no 10 either. (Bathos.)

    • Patrick says:

      I’ve read many Picasso biographies and the Huffington one was ,to my memory the worst, with the “insight” of a tabloid gossip column. Added nothing new to knowledge about his life or art.
      He could however , be an arsehole , infamously quoted as saying there were only two kinds of women, “godesses and doormats” .

    • s.t. says:

      Jonathan Richman’s not that far from Daniel Johnston in that their idiosyncrasies are the main draw, and butchering songs is part of their charm. They might have a good hook or a snatch of nice melody in them, but when covered the songs usually sound half baked, and in dire need of those lovable quirks.

      As you say, better to steal more selectively, like the Pistols’ nab of “Roadrunner” for “EMI.”

    • Forgive me, Momus, but I think you’re missing the point of the song entirely. You’re dwelling hard on the punchline in points six, seven, eight, four and three. You should be dwelling on the pathetic boy-man who drops it.

      “Pablo Picasso” is really not about the artist at all. It’s about the sexless, powerless geek in his very early 20’s who cannot get laid to save his life. That breeds frustration and he laments those who do (enter “Pablo”) in the sorriest way possible: An inexperienced, one-chord shamble of a song with an oh-so-cheap couplet. The composition is as inexperienced as the singer, the first joke in a song filled with them.

      The best one is told behind the subject’s back: The listeners share in the knowledge that our sexless protagonist doesn’t get it. He has no true knowledge of Pablo’s sex life, only the fantasy of his sexual conquests built poorly from basic information: The car that he drives, his height, his stare, the neighborhood girls he prefers. And even if our anti-hero does have a hint of a clue, the key suggests to us that it’s going to be bitter medicine: He’s growing aware that the women he prefers always wind up with the assholes he hates. “Pablo” could very well be the next in a long line of them, despite his current half-hearted admiration.

      Why can’t I be desirable like that asshole over there? The classic American pop lament. It’s not at all far away from “It’s My Party,” in that regard. It’s a joy then to hear Bowie give it the bubble-gum production it deserves.

      • One more thing… There are lyrical clues that our protagonist knows “Pablo” is indeed an asshole and perhaps he’s too naive to admit it.

        …not like you.

        Wait, did you just call me an asshole? Maybe it’s you with the problem.

        …not in New York.

        So you admit Pablo is an asshole in other places and New Yorkers are simply too stupid to know.

  12. Unless I’m wrong (and its quite possible) its Ernie Brooks playing bass and Jerry Harrison on the other guitar? That would be their more usual roles, unless your sources indicate they switched for this recording.

    And, this song is hella fun to play. In my first good band in the 80s this was our song when one of the guitar players broke a string. We’d start into it and when he got the new string back on, we’d medley into “Pipeline.”

    • col1234 says:

      gah, yes. you’re right. Though there was an article that listed this lineup, but i’m sure that it wasn’t correct

  13. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    I had the good fortune of seeing Jonathan Richman live about 20 years ago (he’s not exactly what you would call a frequent visitor to Australia.)
    He was just as droll, quirky and funny live as he is on record.

    • Ididtheziggy says:

      I’ve seen him a couple of times too, most recently about two years ago. Just a treat to watch. Their really isn’t anyone like him.

  14. humanizingthevacuum says:

    I’m with Momus: one of Richman’s least interesting songs.

  15. Neu 75 says:

    “We saw the lovers, the Modern Lovers.
    And they looked very good
    They looked as if they could.”
    Eno, 1974.
    The Modern Lovers were the great lost band of the 70s…

  16. postpunkmonk says:

    My wife and I stayed away from “Reality” for a year or two after it was released, due to the cover art. When she saw that there was a cover of “Pablo Picasso” on it, curiosity got the better of her and we finally had a copy. Fortunately, as big fans of Jonathan Richman, we couldn’t have been more charmed by Bowie’s irreverent cover that is just a blast to hear. The contrapuntal “Subterranean Homesick Blues” undercurrent is what takes this way over the top into the realm of delight. As for JoJo playing it now with Spanish guitar, he’s way into flamenco guitar and has been for long years. He has an entire album in Spanish and many tracks on his recent releases as well. That’s really got nothing to do with Bowie’s arrangement of this track. Those seeds were sown long before “Reality” hit the racks. Perhaps Bowie heard 1994’s “¡Jonathan, Te Vas A Emocionar!” and picked up on the Spanish guitar style and applied it to this track in 2002?

    • stuartgardner says:

      That cover art is amazingly awful. I’ve never gotten over the shock.

      • postpunkmonk says:

        stuartgardner – Yes. Say what you will about “Tonight” as an album, but at least the Gilbert and George pastiche cover looked good. Bowie has a lot of pastiche covers. “Let’s Dance” ripped off Iggy’s “Bang Bang” cover, albeit with a nearly infinite budget. That he referenced anime (brrrrr!) on “Reality” was extremely off putting. That’s a nice Daddy Zero avatar, by the way.

  17. nh says:

    another interpretation de Pablo Picasso by Babx (oct. 2014-Musée Picasso) :

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