Pablo Picasso once said: “Good artists copy, great artists steal,” a line which was actually ironically stolen from T.S. Eliot. The filmmaker Jim Jarmusch also joined the discussion when he said, “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent.”
Over the years, Paul McCartney has taken a similar approach. Not that he is some musical magpie, but he takes all that stirs him and spits it out in his own songs. This is near enough exactly what he told the actor Dustin Hoffman when they bumped into each other at a Jamaican resort in 1973, according to the 1988 biography Yesterday.
“How do you write songs?” the diminutive actor asked (the sort of simplistic question that might get you slapped as a journalist). To which Paul McCartney replied: “They just come out of the air, I don’t know,” which is the sort of answer that sounds like ‘Macca’ doing a bad Bob Dylan impression.
“Can you write them about anything,” Hoffman apparently continued and when McCartney answered with a shrugging affirmative, the plucky Graduate star pretty much offered up a song request before the event. “Try this,” Hoffman said and thrust Time Magazine’s obituary of the Cubist pioneer Pablo Picasso towards the former Beatle and his wife Linda.
Therein, Hoffman’s finger pointed towards Picasso’s supposed parting words. Far from a death-rattle groan, they are ones befittingly artful that we’d all surely love to depart with: “Drink to me. Drink to my health. You know I can’t drink anymore.” Like a songbird, McCartney turned the tale into a tune on the spot and Hoffman was off bounding, yelling, “Look, he’s doing it! Goddamn it! Holy shit!”.
Thus, that month in Jamaica, Hoffman not only recorded the film Papillon with Steve McQueen, but he also inspired the Wings classic ‘Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me)’. However, it only came to fruition after the idea of ‘great artists stealing’ motif came to the fore once more. The track eventually featured on the album Born on the Run and ‘Macca’ opted to travel to Nigeria to record it.
“The first thing that happened to me was that I was accused of stealing the black man’s music.” This was a recurring theme throughout his previous tenure with The Beatles, and whilst a degree of appropriation was definitely occurring, it was much more so a celebration that sought progress than anything demeaning.
Thus, when McCartney was met with disparaging claims when he arrived in Nigeria, he was quick to investigate. He heard the figurative shouts of “He’s come here to steal the music!” and he wanted to see who was yelling it. “So, I said ‘Who’s doing that?’ Because it was in the newspaper and it was Fela [Kuti], of course! So, I got his number, and I rang him up and I said, ‘Hey man, come on. I’m not here to do that I just love the idea of it. I love African music. I just want the kind of atmosphere, but I’m certainly not stealing any of your stuff,” McCartney recalled.
So Fela went to the studio and McCartney played him his stuff and Fela agreed that it was nothing like African music after all and they became very good friends. Kuti invited ‘Macca’ “out to the African Shrine, which was his club, just outside Lagos and I had this fantastic evening, really quite a wild experience there,” McCartney says. “Talk about the black experience! We were the only white people there and it was very intense, but when this music broke, I ended up just weeping.” After a musical handshake like that, the pair were bound to keep in touch.
The final symmetry to this tale is that former Cream drummer Ginger Baker was working with Fela Kuti at the time. And Baker can be heard on ‘Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me)’ playing the humble shakers. Thank you, Mr Hoffman!