Driving back from Seattle this week I finally listened to the recent Pere Ubu album in its entirety. Imagine my surprise when, 26 seconds into this song, David Thomas drops in a random “Pablo Picasso” reference:
“Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil,” says Mr. Thomas. “Pablo Picasso never sold his soul to the devil, but a black guy from the Delta, I guess that’s gotta be the explanation.” From there “Worried Man Blues” goes off in seven different directions, and at times tries the patience in vintage Ubu fashion. But I consider it a valuable contribution to the ongoing dialogue.
The original “Worried Man Blues” is a traditional song first recorded by the Carter Family way back in 1930. But Philistine that I am, the first version I heard was by Devo, who recorded it for Neil Young’s movie The Human Highway in 1982. That performance is not on YouTube, because Neil I assume; this Vimeo link is subject to expire at any moment. Enjoy it while you can.
Apparently Devo also used to do this song back when they used to open for themselves as Dove, the Band of Love — sadly, before my time.
It’s a funny song, when you think about it. “I may be worried now, but I won’t be worried long.” I don’t know how to take that other than, “I’ll be dead soon and none of this will bother me anymore.” Talk about your cold comfort. Reminds me of Douglas Adams:
Consider how lucky you are that life has been good to you so far. Alternatively, if life hasn’t been good to you so far, which given your current circumstances seems more likely, consider how lucky you are that it won’t be troubling you much longer.
And while we’re approximately on the subject, one thing that is on YouTube is this fantastically weird number, also from Human Highway. Sit back, turn it up, and leave your worries behind. Rock’n’roll is here to stay, man.
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: (more…)
Marc Leeds, The Vonnegut Encyclopedia
Sean L. Maloney, The Modern Lovers (33 1/3)
Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country
D.M. Thomas, The White Hotel
Mark Twain, The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn
Charles Shields, And So It Goes
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.”