A Classic Video of Pablo Picasso Marking Art, Set to the Song, “Pablo Picasso,” by Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers

Before the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, there were the Modern Lovers, the Boston proto-punk band helmed by lead singer Jonathan Richman. Their sound owed a lot to the Velvet Underground, a band the teenaged Richman idolized, following them to New York City and ingratiating himself to such a degree that their manager allowed him to couch surf for a few weeks.

Their sole album, released two years after they broke up, was cobbled together from two different demo sessions, one of them produced by the Velvets' John Cale.




By the time it came out, Richman had already embraced the gentler, sunnier persona and sound that’s made him a celebrated solo artist with fans of all ages. He famously remarked that he didn’t want to make music that could hurt a baby’s ears. As former bandmate, bassist Ernie Brooks told punk historian Legs McNeil:

Jonathan started saying his old songs were too negative and dark, and he started writing things like “Hey There Little Insect,” and maybe he was way ahead of us, but we couldn’t follow him—he wanted us to go, “Buzz, buzz, buzz” on stage, but we were too cool!

Richman's impulse was correct. More than 40 years out from the Modern Lovers, his solo career is going strong. (On later recordings attributed to Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, he is the only holdover from the original line up.)

But that Modern Lovers album has plenty of staying power, too.

Rolling Stone dubbed it both the 48th best debut album and the 381st greatest album of all time.

And while “Roadrunner” may be its best known track, thanks to a long running campaign to make it the official rock song of Massachusetts (over Richman’s protestations that it’s not good enough to deserve the honor), “Pablo Picasso”'s memorable chorus cannot be unheard:

He could walk down your street

And girls could not resist his stare

Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole

(Francoise Gilot, Picasso’s model, and mother of two of his children, might say otherwise, according to several YouTube comments elicited by the unattributed short film above.)

In 1980, a writer for the zine Boston Groupie News tried to get Richman to reveal the song’s provenance. He had pursued art as a teenager, taking Saturday morning classes at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. He’d put his phone number on the back of his canvases, conceiving of that as a way to connect with people. So, was Picasso his favorite painter or…?

No, as it turns out:

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.

Picasso looks pretty chipper in the well selected vintage footage, above. The expression Richman cops to having cultivated sounds gloomier, a deliberate ploy to entice girls into thinking he was a sad and likely soulful artist.

In other words, irresistible. Like a rock star!

The Modern Lovers’ popularity let him drop the self-conscious pose, but his interest in art remained.

He still paints, and recently identified some of the artists who have inspired him in Art News' Muses column: 

Monet contributed to his appreciation of the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee.”

There’s a direct line between “Roadrunner” and the loneliness of Edward Hopper’s “Gas.”

And Picasso? That asshole doesn’t even make the list.

 

Well some people try to pick up girls

And get called assholes

This never happened to Pablo Picasso

He could walk down your street

And girls could not resist his stare and

So Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole

Well the girls would turn the color

Of the avocado when he would drive

Down their street in his El Dorado

He could walk down your street

And girls could not resist his stare

Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole

Not like you

Alright

Well he was only 5'3"

But girls could not resist his stare

Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole

Not in New York

Oh well be not schmuck, be not obnoxious

Be not bellbottom bummer or asshole

Remember the story of Pablo Picasso

He could walk down your street

And girls could not resist his stare

Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole

Alright this is it

Well

Some people try to pick up girls

And they get called an asshole

This never happened to Pablo Picasso

He could walk down your street

And girls could not resist his stare and so

Pablo Picasso was never called...

Want to hear it again? Try the animated take below, by the endearingly modest 7atenine22.

Readers, if you have any intel on the person responsible for the film at the top of the page, please let us know, so we can give credit where credit is due.

Related Content:

14 Self-Portraits by Pablo Picasso Show the Evolution of His Style: See Self-Portraits Moving from Ages 15 to 90

Pablo Picasso’s Masterful Childhood Paintings: Precocious Works Painted Between the Ages of 8 and 15

Underrated Albums That You Want the World to Know About: What’s on Your List?

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 24 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.


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