Worried Man Blues

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.

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:


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.



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:


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.


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.