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:
When I was in high school, the older guys would talk about picking up girls, so I figured that was what the idea was…. Nowadays you would say “hook up,” except I think “hook up” is actually less predatory than that felt in 1968. If you think it’s bad now, you should have seen it then.
As he thinks back on that era, he reflects:
I got what I deserved, I was young and innocent, but I was also being predatory like I was taught to do, I wasn’t interested in like helping each other with math homework….
Watching the gentle older man that he’s become, it’s hard to imagine him being called an asshole. But it must have happened… maybe only once, but that was enough to make him wonder who in the world was cool enough to pull this kind of thing off.
Pablo Picasso, I am told, never actually came to New York. I doubt he ever drove a Cadillac Eldorado either. But he did have that stare:
The Modern Lovers’ version of “Pablo Picasso” was recorded in April 1972 at A & M in Los Angeles. But due to record label drama it would not see release until 1976, by which time John Cale — who had produced the original and played the hammering piano part — had plundered it for his 1975 album Helen of Troy. Cale’s version has its charms, but frankly he sounds way too self-confident — more like the guy cruising down the street in the Eldorado than the guy watching him enviously:
And here’s a wild one: Just recently I came across this recording of the Talking Heads doing “PP” in 1976. Listen:
Sounds like an early draft of “Psycho Killer,” no? You can easily imagine this guy murdering Picasso in a misguided attempt to impress the girl. (Note for the real Heads: Jerry Harrison, who played on the Modern Lovers’ version, would not join the band until 1977.)
The first version of “Pablo Picasso” that I heard was the one recorded for the Repo Man soundtrack by Burning Sensations in 1984. It’s dripping with attitude and, as with the Cale version, the singer seems a bit too cool for the subject matter; he sounds like the idea of picking up girls is beneath him — the “you” here is not the singer (as it is in Jonathan Richman’s case), but someone he’s watching and mocking:
In 1991 self-described ”All-American Jewish lesbian folksinger” Phranc recorded a gender-swapped version called “Gertrude Stein.” It’s kinda cool but it doesn’t rhyme.
And, wow, this thing is starting to get pretty long. If you’ve gotten this far, you deserve a treat; get yourself a cup of coffee or something. I’ll be here when you get back.
OK, now, would you like to see John Cale and Siouxsie Sioux duetting on “Pablo Picasso”? I hope so:
In the 2000s “Pablo” was covered by both David Bowie and Iggy Pop, a rare distinction I think. Iggy’s version is particularly notable as I don’t recall ever having seen him play guitar before:
And that brings us full circle back to Jonathan Richman. The aforementioned version from 2022 is more a deconstruction than a performance. It’s brave and admirable and informative, if not exactly rock’n’roll.
In reality Pablo Picasso has, of course, been called an asshole many, many times. In recent years he’s become the favorite whipping boy of a certain brand of feminist. This summer comedian Hannah Gadsby curated an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum intended to take Pablo down a peg or two; he was a “monumentally misogynistic and abusive domestic authoritarian dictator,” she says.
She’s probably right. I have no dog in this fight; Picasso’s no hero of mine. The problem is the tendency, one that we all have way too much of, to conflate the artist and the art. Can a bad person make great art? Of course they can, it’s a dumb question. Why do we care so much about the artist’s morality?
We do, though. We still hold Leni Riefenstahl responsible for being a Nazi, as well we should. Kanye maybe less so, because he is clearly mentally ill — but I for one can’t quite enjoy his music like I used to.
It’s a complicated question, and I don’t know why I even bring it up, except that thinking about Picasso raises it. I should probably try to back away from this as gracefully as possible before I start talking about Ike Turner, which nobody likes. So over and out for now. Have a great weekend and keep your powder dry.