As Kevin Young explains in his introduction to this “remix” of To Repel Ghosts, his “discography” of the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat was originally published in a "double-album" version of 350 pages, but for our new paperback he has scaled it back to an “alternate take” that, at about half that length, has a streamlined focus and new punch. This book can be seen as the first installment in an American trilogy that has continued in Jelly Roll and ends with Black Maria, and of the three it is the most edgy, the closest to us historically: it tells the tragic story of Basquiat's rise from graffiti artist with the tag SAMO to the hot painter (“blue-chip Basquiat/ playing the bull/ market”) who was overwhelmed by his reputation, addicted to heroine, and dead of an overdose in his late twenties.
Young riffs on Basquiat's paintings and sayings, on the music the artist loved and collected on vinyl, and on the black folk heroes (Grace Jones, Charlie Parker, Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis) who inspired him, and who provide a foil to his own bout with fame. It is a tale of the eighties, a time when, Young writes in “Negative,” we “Wake to find everything black/ what was white, all the vice/ versa,” and “Only money keeps/ green,”when the culture was rife with excesses and contradictions, particularly in the art world. In these poems we bump into such figures as Bill T Jones and the omnipresent Andy Warhol (who took Basquiat under his wing); we attend a birthday party for Roy Cohn, and watch Keith Haring excavate a section of the back wall of his building when he moves out because Basquiat has painted on it.
WINNER 2006 - New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age
Kevin Young is the author of three previous collections of poetry and the editor of Library of America’s John Berryman: Selected Poems, Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets anthology Blues Poems, and Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Writers. His most recent book, Jelly Roll: A Blues, was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and won the Paterson Poetry Prize. A recent Guggenheim Foundation Fellow, Young is currently Ruth Lilly Professor of Poetry at Indiana University.
Kevin Young’s Jelly Roll is available in Knopf paperback.