A Brief History of “Pablo Picasso”

Of late I have gotten a little obsessed with sussing out the origins of this song, to the point where I purchased both Sean L. Maloney’s “33 1/3” book on the album The Modern Lovers and Tim Mitchell’s Jonathan Richman biography There’s Something About Jonathan. Neither one, sadly, offered much illumination. The latter does provide this one biographical passage which is, perhaps, relevant:

Jonathan was the first of two boys. His musical influences started early; in adult life he was to recall being sung to as a two- or three-year-old by his parents; his memory was of having been very moved by music from this time on. By the age of five he was spending his days drawing pictures — and chasing girls. Their failure to reciprocate his affection made him confused and hurt.

Hmmm, well, yes. (Strokes imaginary beard.) I, too, remember being absolutely enthralled with the female of the species from a tender young age; but admiring them is one thing, and actually interacting with them quite another. With the admiration comes fear, which leads to failure, and at some point one protects one’s self by cultivating a cool detachment. In a performance of “Pablo Picasso” from 2022 — which I only just came across this very minute, and is proving somewhat revelatory — Jonathan says:

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Reading Report, August 2023

Books Acquired:
Marc Leeds, The Vonnegut Encyclopedia
Sean L. Maloney, The Modern Lovers (33 1/3)
Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

Progress Made:
D.M. Thomas, The White Hotel
Mark Twain, The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn
Charles Shields, And So It Goes

Books Finished:
Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman
Gore Vidal, Death in the Fifth Position, Death Before Bedtime, Death Likes It Hot

Gore Vidal’s three mystery novels — written in the early-to-mid 1950s under the pseudonym “Edgar Box” — were perfect summer reading: plot-driven and involving, but with enough literary panache to placate one’s inner English major. I ripped through them in a trice, and used some of the time left over to learn more about Gore, who was a complicated guy. Just to give you an idea, here’s an excerpt from his Wikipedia page:

Vidal would cruise the streets and bars of New York City and other locales and wrote in his memoir that by age twenty-five, he had had more than a thousand sexual encounters. Vidal also said that he had an intermittent romance with the actress Diana Lynn, and alluded to possibly having fathered a daughter. He was briefly engaged to the actress Joanne Woodward before she married the actor Paul Newman; after marrying, they briefly shared a house with Vidal in Los Angeles.

Vidal enjoyed telling his sexual exploits to friends. Vidal claimed to have slept with Fred Astaire when he first moved to Hollywood and also with a young Dennis Hopper.

In 1950, Vidal met Howard Austen, who became his partner for the next 53 years, until Austen’s death. He said that the secret to his long relationship with Austen was that they did not have sex with each other: “It’s easy to sustain a relationship when sex plays no part, and impossible, I have observed, when it does.” In Celebrity: The Advocate Interviews (1995), by Judy Wiedner, Vidal said that he refused to call himself “gay” because he was not an adjective, adding “to be categorized is, simply, to be enslaved. Watch out. I have never thought of myself as a victim… I’ve said — a thousand times? — in print and on TV, that everyone is bisexual.”

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Who’ll Stop the Rain? (Seriously, I Need to Know)

This week, as part of the ongoing process of digitizing my vinyl — a project which really should have been done a decade or two ago, and is now largely redundant due to everything being online already, but that it amuses me to carry on with — I found myself listening, for the first time in ages, to Heaven 17.

This is like hopping on a time machine straight back to the early Eighties. Heaven 17 perfectly encapsulates a certain mood of that era — a giddy, heedless youthful optimism that I don’t think exists anymore. The Seventies were finally over and now the future could begin, and we were going to get it right this time. Even now, knowing how things turned out, I find I can get caught up in it for three or four or seven minutes at a time. (Lengthy remixes were de rigueur during this period.)

Weirdly, many of H17’s lyrics are vaguely Marxist, with income inequality a recurring theme1 — which is totally incongruous with their sleek, spotless technopop sound.

That’s right, I said “technopop.” I know that’s a dirty word to some people, but I was a sucker for it back then, and I guess I still am.

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R.I.P. P.R. a.k.a. P.W.H.

Paul Reubens died this week, and while I was never a big fan of Pee-Wee Herman — who I found more annoying than amusing — I admired some of Reubens’ other work. Particularly his small but memorable role in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which included possibly the most hilariously extended death scene in the history of cinema.

The normal and compassionate thing is to wish someone a quick and easy death. But I have to admit, I kind of hope Paul went out like this:


There are several great songs with this title, including Bowie’s and Pink Floyd’s. But the one I recently discovered is by Richard Hell, who I think deserves to be in the conversation.

Hell refers to “Time” as “what some people, including me, consider to be my best song.” But he had a hard time recording it to his satisfaction; he remade and remixed it numerous times. Five different versions appear on Destiny Street Complete, the omnibus edition of the Voidoids’ star-crossed second album.

My favorite, I think, is the one from the original album. It’s raw and ragged, but really, really real.

The 2021 remaster is cleaned up, maybe a little too much:

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Reading Report, July 2023

Books Acquired:
Martin Amis, Heavy Water and Other Stories, Night Train
D.M. Thomas, The White Hotel
Gore Vidal, Death in the Fifth Position, Death Before Bedtime, Death Likes It Hot
Michael Wolff, Fire and Fury

Progress Made:
Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman
Gore Vidal, Death in the Fifth Position

Books Finished:
Martin Amis, Heavy Water and Other Stories
Martin Amis, Night Train
Richard Brautigan, Dreaming of Babylon
Michael Wolff, Fire and Fury

Note: This month’s entry is on the long side. I’d like to guarantee that it will be worth it, but I can’t in good conscience do so. Sometimes things must just be written, irregardless, know what I mean?

Dreaming of Babylon was an easy read, with short chapters that start halfway down the page. Too easy, really — I was enjoying it, and then it was over. The central mystery is never resolved, or even explored in much depth, not that I really expected it to be. Despite being subtitled “A Private Eye Novel 1942,” this is Brautigan, after all.

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Heathen vs. Reality: Bonus Tracks

The CD of Reality came with three bonus tracks, two of which are as good as or better than most of the songs on the official album. “Fly,” in particular, is a banger:

In it Bowie is playing (as he did on hours…) an age-appropriate character: an anxious suburban dad who cries in his car and is quietly freaking out about what his kids are up to.

The kids have got a gig at an all-night rave
They’re looking pretty tough but I still want to say,
“Do you really have to go?”

But it’s also (ambiguously) uplifting: This guy hasn’t completely given up hope; he’s still looking forward to the weekend, and when he closes his eyes he can see a better world — or see this world from a distance, where he can get a little bit of peace. It’s a life of noisy desperation but it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.

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Heathen vs. Reality, Part 3

Subtracting the cover versions and opening/closing tracks leaves us with 7 songs each for Heathen and Reality.

On Reality, the split is pretty stark. Four of the songs — “Looking for Water,” “She’ll Drive the Big Car,” “Fall Dog Bombs the Moon,” and the title track — I’d call disposable. They’re not embarrassing or grating like the worst of the Eighties or Tin Machine, just drab and uninspired. The other three — “Never Get Old,” “The Loneliest Guy,” and “Days,” are top-drawer. (There are also two excellent CD bonus tracks that probably should have been on the album proper.)

In contrast, all the Heathen songs fall into the good-to-very-good category. None cries out for deletion, nor would any of them make my list of, say, top 100 Bowie songs. So on the whole, I’d say that Heathen has more good songs, but Reality has more great ones. This is of course subjective and I have to admit that in the relistening Heathen has grown in my estimation, such that I’d really have a hard time picking a favorite between the two albums.

Fortunately I don’t have to. Here’s a hybrid that, in my mind at least, combines the best of both. (Pick your platform of choice.)

Bowie was the first artist I can think of to explicitly give us permission to decide which parts of his oeuvre to hold onto and which to discard. He did this by modeling it for us — he was, in one way of looking at it, the biggest Bowie fan in the world, and was constantly reevaluating his own work. I think he believed in everything he did — even Never Let Me Down — at the time of release; but he would back away from things very quickly sometimes. Then later he would circle back and change his mind again, reincorporating something he had previously rejected.

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Heathen vs. Reality, Part 2

We all know that the two most important songs on an album are the first and the last. My theory is that this is why Sgt. Pepper is so overrated — it starts strong and finishes strong, so you tend to overlook the lesser moments in between.

David Bowie knew it too, which is why he recorded the opening and closing songs of Heathen first. “I wanted to make sure that the bookends were firmly in place before I got on with the rest of the album,” he said. I don’t know if a similar method was used for Reality, but it seems likely.

With that in mind, let’s look at the first and last songs of each.

First Songs

The opener of Heathen, “Sunday,” ranks very high among the mature Bowie’s compositions. For most of its length it goes along at a stately pace, with lush vocals and loads of sonic detail including skittery percussion that recalls Earthling but works perfectly in this context. Listening to it right now, “majestic” is the word I’d use. That would have been enough; but then a minute from the end, the bass and live drums kick in and the song takes off for the stars.

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Heathen vs. Reality, Part 1

Friend of the Blog Knox Bronson and I have had a running argument for… I guess… 20 years now over the relative merits of these two albums, which for a long time looked like they would be David Bowie’s last. (There is a similar argument to be had over the actual final albums.) I’ve always favored Reality, which I think is less consistent but has higher highs; Knox prefers Heathen, which he ranks #1 among post-Scary Monsters Bowies.

The time has come to consider the subject further. Not that I intend to settle it, exactly — it is subjective, after all; my motto is de gustibus non est disputandum. But by exploring further I hope that, if we continue to disagree, we will at least disagree on a higher level and about more important things.

Let’s begin by looking at….

The Album Covers

This is an easy one, as the cover of Reality is one of the worst in Bowie’s catalog:

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