Painting Masterpieces: Five Sublime Songs Inspired by Great Works of Art

Painting Masterpieces: Five Sublime Songs Inspired by Great Works of Art

Game Recognize Game.

Art Recognize Art.

As many of the greats will tell you, before reaching new artistic frontiers, you must learn to steal relentlessly, right from the start.

This theft could mean re-tracing another artist’s steps, or pilfering a different creation for inspiration.

This isn’t limited to shared forms of creative expression.

A poet may spark a photographer.

A dancer might influence an actor.

In these instances, artists inspired musicians.

Here are five musical treasures, born from art world inspiration.


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Pablo Picasso-The Modern Lovers

I first came upon “Pablo Picasso” in cover form by Burning Sensations, featured on the mid-80’s Alex Cox-directed, Emilio Estevez cult classic Repo Man soundtrack.

That version knocks in its own right.

Even David Bowie eventually took a crack at it, in the early 2000’s.

But upon further review, the original version, recorded in 1972 by the Modern Lovers, trumps any replica.

The Modern Lovers, an NYC band fronted by singer-songwriter-guitarist Jonathan Richman (aka dude doing the interludes in Something About Mary) that also included keyboardist Jerry Harrison (pre-Talking Heads) and drummer David Robinson (later of The Cars), produced by John Cale of the Velvet Underground, were broken up before their first single was released.

But great music, like great artwork, outlives its creator.

This song’s frustrated narrator declares, matter-of-factly and repeatedly, “Pablo Picasso, never got called an asshole”.

Picasso had two wives, a bevy of mistresses, and at least four claimed children, from three different women during his lifetime.

I don’t know how to say asshole in Italian, but I’m pretty sure Ole Pablo got called that, or worse, by some of them sometime during his 91 years on earth.

Key Poetical Portrait:

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.


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Mona Lisa-Slick Rick

There was a plethora of musical muse options with Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”.

The standard made famous by Nat King Cole in 1950 is iconic.

Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues, you can tell by the way she smiled”, from Bob Dylan’s 1966 classic “Visions of Johanna”, is one of his most beloved lyrics.

The Mona Lisa that Wyclef serenaded on “Nappy Heads (Remix)” in 1994 gave The Fugees a proper introduction, saving them from being dropped by their label prior to The Score, following their debut flop Blunted on Reality.

But for a kid raised on Slick Rick, who hasn’t been bumping much Nat King Cole in the headphones, or the ride, The Ruler rules.

As MC Ricky D, then of Doug E Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew, does with The Beatles’ “Michelle” on 1985’s classic “La Di Da Di”, Rick flips another familiar ballad in his inimitable British-born, Bronx-raised croon.

While doing so, Rick displays his art of storytelling and knocks it out the box.

Key Poetical Portrait:
Well, it was one of those days, not much to do/
I was chillin' downtown, with my old school crew.
I went into a store, to buy a slice of pizza/
And bumped into a girl, her name was Mona, what?
“Mona Lisa (what?) Mona Lisa, men have named you”.
You know what I'm sayin? So I said, "Excuse me, dear
my gosh, you look nice!
Put away your money
I'll buy that slice!"


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When I Paint My Masterpiece-Bob Dylan & The Band (Live on NYE at the Academy of Music in NYC, 1971)

As a young music nerd, I used to read compilation books of artist interviews with rock journalists, like Kurt Loder’s Bat Chain Puller.

Loder asked Bob Dylan in a Rolling Stone interview from the mid-80’s, whether he’d painted his masterpiece yet.

Bob replied, “I hope I never do”.

The interview ended on that mic-drop moment.

That line has stuck with me ever since.

If an artist becomes fully satisfied, or convinced he or she has arrived, invariably the quest to make their best art has died.

The question was posed to Dylan with a nod-and-a-wink, due to the title of this song.

And Dylan, almost as testament to that ethos, long before that reply, changed the lyrics and arrangement of this tune countless times over the past forty years.

But this version here?

It's the best to my ears.

It lacks the Botticelli reference from the studio version but the energy felt as Dylan, “freestyling” lyrics while joining The Band in a surprise encore during their first gig together in five years, is the closest anyone has come (including covers by everyone from the Grateful Dead to Elliott Smith) to completing this masterpiece.

Key Poetical Portrait:

Train wheels, runnin’ thru the back of my memory/
When I went on the hilltop, following a pack o’ wild geese.
Someday, everything’s gonna be smooth like a rhapsody,
When I paint, my masterpiece.



Mural-Lupe Fiasco

Chicago MC Lupe Fiasco is an artist in multiple senses of the word.

He's got oil painting chops, utilizing them for the cover of the album (Tetsuo & Youth) where you can find this song.

But we’ll go out on a limb and say that nothing Lupe ever put on canvas equals the brilliance of the picture he paints with pen, pad and microphone on “Mural”.

There’s art references in it, beginning with the title, but what’s more mesmerizing is how his rhymes, meshed with minor-key piano-based production, manages to create an aural equivalent to Jackson Pollock’s ‘Mural’ (1943).


It may not possess the linear structure you’re typically accustomed, but you’ll be too busy holding your breath to worry about whether everything makes sense.

Key Poetical Portrait:

I like cartoons, southern cities with large moons
Faith healers, ex-female drug dealers and art booms
Apologise for my weird mix
What taste like hot dogs and tear drips
And looks like pantomime and clear bricks
And smells like shotguns and deer piss


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David Bowie-Andy Warhol

David Bowie’s commercial and critical breakthrough album, 1971's Hunky Dory, is best known for its singles, “Changes” and “Life on Mars?”.

But “Changes” b-side, the acoustic “Andy Warhol”, paid respect to the artist of the same name who Bowie had been admiring from afar for several years.

It’s since been covered by everyone from Generation X in '81, to Stone Temple Pilots in '94.

Bowie soon became, along with Stevie Wonder, the definitive album artist of the 1970’s.

Nine years after Warhol’s 1987 death, Bowie would portray Andy onscreen, alongside Jeffrey Wright in Basquiat, a biopic based on the life of Brooklyn-bred art luminary Jean-Michel Basquiat, whom Warhol befriended and mentored.

Key Poetical Portrait:

Andy Warhol looks a scream
Hang him on my wall
Andy Warhol, Silver Screen
Can't tell them apart at all


Wudder-Colored Bonus Cut:
Beat-Bop-Rammellzee (produced by Jean-Michel Basquiat)

Speaking of Basquiat, despite Jean-Michel tragically dying at age 27 in 1988, he was a crucial figure in the not only the art world but also the nascent stages of hip-hop. With the aid of Fab Five Freddy, Basquiat would help bridge the gap between late-70’s South Bronx grafitti and the downtown art scene. In between, he also produced a classic hip-hop record in 1983, with absurdist stream-of-consciousness rhymes from friend/collaborator Rammellzee.

You will hear in this ten-minute opus samples that turn up in multiple Beastie Boys songs, while the nasal vocal mid-way thru anticipates Cypress Hill's B-Real eight years early.

If you stumble upon an original twelve-inch copy, with its Basquiat-designed cover art, then congratulations, you just made yourself a grip of money.

And yes, I’m aware The Five Spot's supposed to stop at five.

But sometimes an artist has to scribble outside the lines.

And in honor of the man whose portrait made the header photo, as well as the artwork in this episode’s upcoming sequel, Critical Beatdown: Five Savage Songs by Artists Addressing the Critics, we just did so.

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