When McCartney and his wife Linda were on vacation in Jamaica in 1973, they visited the set of the feature film Papillon starring Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen. Hoffman invited the couple over to dinner and asked McCartney how he wrote songs. When McCartney replied that he just made them up, Hoffman produced the April 23 issue of Time with an article about “Pablo Picasso’s Last Days and Final Journey” and challenged him to write a song about that. The piece reported that Picasso had told his friends, “Drink to me, drink to my health, you know I can’t drink anymore,” then went to bed and died in his sleep. McCartney started strumming a guitar and quickly made a chorus out of the quote.
“He’s doing it! He’s doing it!” Hoffman cried. He later said that the experience was “right under childbirth in terms of great events of my life.”
Later that year, Wings flew to Nigeria to record Band on the Run, by which time McCartney had fleshed out a few more lines. The painter wakes in the middle of the night and sings that he’s waiting. Either he’s waiting for death, or he’s already died and waiting for his wife on the other side to join him. Recently, McCartney had suffered the near-death experience of a bronchial spasm due to smoking and was told by his doctor to cut back on cigarettes, so perhaps that helped him relate to Picasso’s words.
Cream’s drummer Ginger Baker had a studio in a Lagos suburb called Ikeja and was pushing for McCartney to do the whole album there. McCartney didn’t want to but agreed to do “Picasso’s Last Words” at Baker’s place. Baker and some additional people from the studio filled some cans with gravel and shook them for percussion.
With his technique called cubism, Picasso would paint an object by breaking it up and showing different viewpoints of the object randomly recombined on the same plane, transforming something representational into something abstract. As quoted in Paul Gambaccini’s Paul McCartney: In His Own Words, McCartney said, “We started off doing [the song] straight. Then we thought, Picasso was kind of far out in his pictures, he’d done all these different kinds of things, fragmented, cubism, and the whole bit. I thought it would be nice to get a track a bit like that, put it through different moods, cut it up, edit it, mess around with it—like he used to do with his pictures. You see the old films of him painting, he paints it once and if he doesn’t like it he paints it again, right on top of it, and by about twenty-five times he’s got this picture … We were just making it up as we went along. We didn’t have any big concept of it in mind at all. I just thought, we’ll mess it up, keep messing it up until it sounds good, like Picasso did, with the instinctive knowledge you’ve got.”
Along with a drunken chorus singing “Drink to Me,” McCartney mixed tempo changes with echoes of other songs from the Band on the Run album — the “Jet” refrain and the “Ho Hey Ho” bit from “Mrs. Vandebilt.” A Frenchman from a tourist service offers to send free travel guides. The highlight of the collage is the “Sound of Philadelphia”/proto-disco string arrangement by Tony Visconti.