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Jean-Michel Basquiat has ascended so far in the night sky since I last saw him, in 1983, and especially since his untimely death five years later, that I have to squint hard to remember his earthly and physical presence. He had a disquieting stare, which was his first line of defense. It was turned on when I, along with Alexis Adler and Felice Rosser and maybe others, first met him at the Mudd Club in the spring of 1979, when he was wearing a lab coat and carrying a briefcase. “Going on a trip?” I asked him, stupidly. “Always,” he replied, inevitably.
Soon after, he became a part of our world and the stare went into part-time abeyance. We did a lot of ordinary things together. We bonded on the subject of shoes: boxing-style sneakers — the laces extending down to the toes, that is — that we spotted on St. Marks Place, and black desert boots, which we found at Konopny’s, the shoe store on First Avenue that sold dead stock and conducted business exclusively on the stoop outside, since the inside was a dense and precarious warren of boxes. I gave him and Alexis the homemade bookcase that had come with my apartment, and he and I carried the tall and wobbly thing down five flights of stairs, across five blocks, and up another six flights.
We smoked pot and listened to music: funk, dub, jazz. I went often to see his band — Test Pattern, later renamed Gray — at various places but mostly Arleen’s (called A’s, with the A in a circle) on Broome Street,a multiuse, semi-communal space that was less a punk club than a miniature utopian Amsterdam. They played some kind of dub jazz with feelers extending into hip-hop. My most enduring visual memory of Jean is of him playing his clarinet, wearing an overcoat, his hair short in front and nascent dreadlocks in back — an Afro-mullet — looking like a historical condensation of New York City skronk, 1942–1982. I used to have a mixtape he made in which all the songs were brutally cut into and out of — no beginnings or endings allowed to survive. It was a painter’s mixtape, cut with a palette knife.
In those days I was putting together a magazine — it was called Stranded, and the work was primarily by employees of the Strand bookstore, where I then worked — that gathered and collated anything anyone wished to supply two hundred copies of. I wanted to include something by Jean, but I knew he had no money, so I offered to fund the copying myself. He gave me a beautiful drawing/collage: paint spatters, fingerprints, diagrams, a businessman’s head, a fraudulent-sounding small ad from the back of a comic book, the heading “Number One.” Unfortunately, it had several layers of relief; it couldn’t be photocopied. Abashed, I asked him for something else. A few days later he gave me a 1950s photo of a large group of schmoes, their eyes and mouths cut out and “BAD” scrawled above. It was as if to say “fuck off,” but I didn’t take it personally.
I ran into him at the Alamo cube on Astor Place one day. He had a stack of color-Xeroxed postcards and I gave him a dollar for one that featured his photo booth self-portrait along with comic-book sound effects, a bar code, and Abstract Expressionist splotches and swipes in red, blue, and yellow. A few days later, as we sat drinking beer on the fire escape stairs next to the old Center Bar on St. Marks, he told me that he had shown another of the postcards to Henry Geldzahler (whom he calls “Henry Godzilla” in Downtown 81), the magnetic center of the New York art world in those days. That was it, I thought, and it was: an interaction that was to lead him to Andy Warhol and beyond. The last time I saw him I had just come through the turnstile at the BMT station on 57th Street, going home from work. I stood at the top of the downtown stairs, he at the bottom. We exchanged waves and he started climbing. On the first landing he whipped out a marker and drew something on the wall. On the second landing two cops emerged from a recess and collared him. I kept going. That scene repeats in my mind like a filmstrip or a flip book. Soon he was famous, and all too soon he was dead.
Luc Sante, the author of Low Life and The Other Paris, is a writer based in New York. Excerpted from Basquiat Before Basquiat: East 12th Street, 1979–1980 by Nora Burnett Abrams, 128 pp., Princeton Architectural Press.
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