Lyric Essay, Eva Lynch
Jean-Michel Basquiat suffered with addiction throughout his life. He once told a friend, “They tell me the drugs are killing me, but when I stop using, they say my art is dead.”
It takes four years for me to stop spending my birthdays thinking about how each year I get closer to growing older than my eldest cousin.
How will people capitalize on your death, when your story is no longer your own?
Distance never helps dysfunction and keeping in touch quickly becomes an international game of broken telephone. When I learn my cousin has relapsed, it’s eighteen months after it happened.
If an elephant were to drink 27 litres of any given cocktail, it would be able to mirror the human experience of feeling drunk. In the wild, a 6,600 lb elephant would have to continuously eat the fermented fruits off the marula tree at four times their regular pace, which falls just short of impossible.
But who knows what an elephant would do if 27 litres of their favourite cocktail was suddenly available to them on a whim or found on every corner. A small herd in East India once found a collection of large clay pots filled with mahua spirits, and the villagers woke up to a field of smashed pots and passed out elephants. They found elephants are drawn to the sweet smell of the fermented flowers, as they are the marula fruit, and if given the chance, will drink it all.
“Did you know,” my uncle asks between sips of his diet Snapple, “that the dinosaurs went extinct because they didn’t get on Noah’s Arc?”
It's unclear why Jean-Michel left home at fifteen, but most accounts suggest his father Gérard Basquiat threw him out when he caught Jean-Michel smoking pot in his room. After his untimely passing, Gérard would manage Jean-Michel’s entire inherited estate, despite having never supported Jean-Michel’s decision to pursue art.
People talk about the culture of drug use in kitchens as a wide-spread, minimum-wage fact of life, but I still didn't realize how casually people would do drugs until I started working at a chain restaurant.
My newly eighteen-year-old coworker kept his locker filled with pre-rolled joints and different pills he’d give away for free, the only ‘apparent risk’ of which being that if it was a bad cut, you might not sleep for days. He called it kindness, but always looked both ways before stepping out to go home.
Most people have no memories from before the age of three. My cousin’s daughter was almost four when he passed away and his son was barely six months old. I often wonder if they remember him. Basquiat’s earliest memory was as late as seven or eight, when he was hit by a car while playing in the street.
Rockdale County Chief Superior Court Judge Sidney Nation developed a local reputation in Georgia for his unconventional sentences. One man was instructed to dig a six-foot grave to bury his crack pipe, while another was required to display the car he wrecked under the influence on his front lawn. He banished people from the county and sentenced teenagers to almost ten years in prison for vandalism of their school property. Nation sentenced my cousin to six months in prison and six and a half years with a coffin in his bedroom.
KING ZULU, 1986
Basquiat places Louis Armstrong among three other jazz players in the center of the bright blue painting, as an homage to Armstrong as the ‘King of the Zulu.’ The work references his performance at New Orleans’ 1949 Mardi Gras celebrations, where the streets swarmed with people trying to get a mere glance at the ‘king.’ Basquiat was consumed by jazz and bebop music and the culture it created; he filled canvases with paintings of musicians and their instruments as he was lost in the fast tempos and rapid chord changes which make your heart beat quicken. Jazz has the addictive quality of being erratic and unpredictable but somehow contained, and makes madness into something beautiful.
Lorazepam makes my grandmother break out in hives. Tricyclic antidepressants make her lose consciousness almost immediately, and Lyrica makes her see memories from her life as if displayed on an old film projector. Tylenol only adds to the deliriousness and empties her stomach.
Scientists say genetic markers for addiction have as much to do with your metabolism as with your dopamine receptors, how fast a drug can break down in your system, similar to food. Perhaps it’s more of a genetic appetite. Something innate which determines if you like the taste of a substance and how it likes you.
I’m nineteen when I get my first hangover and can’t imagine feeling this way everyday. I wake up to the room spinning and eat a bowl of peppermint ice cream and marmite on toast for breakfast. I wonder if hangover cravings are also genetic.
The obituary for my cousin describes him as a faithful Son of God but cause of death is nowhere to be found.
When I answer the early morning call from my coworker asking me to cover his shift, he tells me between labored breaths and incoherent French murmurs, that the sleeping pill he took to try and counteract whatever substance entered his system first was making his tongue feel heavy and eyelids flutter shut. His heart thrashing so fast, he’s afraid that if he falls asleep, he won’t wake up. I breathe in time with him, in and out, in and out, in and out; thinking about what my aunt would have done.
At the funeral, I remember feeling stuck as I watched my cousin be turned into a stop on my uncle’s campaign trail. The politics seemed to never end, where months after his passing my uncle shared how the loss had helped him ‘weather the difficult election season,’ as if death was a mere distraction.
When interviewed, he said “I think the challenges you go through in life, you know, they can make you bitter, they can make you better.”
My dad stops drinking for six months when the pandemic hits.
REACTION BY JEAN MICHEL BASQUIAT
-- ‘ MIX WELL
First featured in the New Wave Cookbook
SAME OLD SHIT
Jean-Michel Basquiat started his career at seventeen when he dropped out of school to pursue art, collaborating with his friend Al Diaz, under the pseudonym SAMO. Often sleeping in Washington Square Park, he supported himself selling 1$ postcards and t-shirts. He spent the rest of his time tagging streetcars and the sides of buildings with his name, accompanied by short poems and cryptic critiques that suited whatever area he was in.
SAMO© SAVES IDIOTS AND GONZOIDS...
SAMO©...4 MASS MEDIA MINDWASH
SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO GOD
SAMO©...4 THE SO-CALLED AVANT-GARDE
After a falling out with Diaz in 1979, he wrote “SAMO© IS DEAD” on the side of a building in the East Village, and embraced the canvas as Basquiat. He quickly became the youngest artist to show work at the Kassel and Whitney Biennial, as the art world devoured his neo-expressionist style and reaction to the world around him.
Nine years later, after Basquiat’s girlfriend found him in his studio with heroin in his blood. The city mourned and this time, his name spread beyond the East Village to every neighborhood and city block, through the newspapers which shared the news Jean-Michel was dead.
The last time I saw my cousin was with his newborn daughter at The High, walking through their show on Basquiat’s unknown notebooks. He was intimidating from a distance: over six feet tall, with a wide frame and exaggerated muscles from years of weightlifting; he could fit his daughter in one hand as he loomed above her stroller. Up close, it was easier to notice how he dressed her
in a little jean jacket and Converse which matched his own, and how he made sure to point out different artwork he loved, even if she was too young to understand.
He’s busy the following day, but I see his daughter again with her mother and my aunt. We take her to the aquarium and spend an hour in the glass tunnel watching the fish swim overhead. From her stroller she’d move her head in motion with the schools swimming back and forth, unable to look away.
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
Birds are so often intoxicated, the resulting altered state has been labeled ‘drunken bird syndrome.’ Take the Cedar Waxwing, which feeds on over-ripe fruit whose fermented sugars produce a substance similar to alcohol. Once accustomed to being drunk off their food, they begin to seek out the fix and thrill. Many have flown into walls, windows and windshields from
their lack of control while flying under the influence. They have been known to ignore their own needs for other food and water chasing the feeling. I wonder if the fruits taste just as sweet when they’re drunk.
Were Basquiat a bird, people might have better understood why he became so hooked. No one requires an explanation from Waxwings, they understand the desire of dissociation and freedom in losing control. Many of Basquiat’s peers saw his drug use as his way of coping with the pressure; the more Basquiat came into fame, the more his work became exploited by the white-dominated art world he sought to critique; every social commentary became seen as cash, with Basquiat as the drug-driven producer of their fortunes and futures.
In 1971 Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs, covertly introducing drugs into specific communities and then enforcing policies which targeted and decimated Black Americans and the anti-war left, skyrocketing prison populations as a new source of income for America, regardless of how many lives it cost. If the Hell my uncle speaks about does exist, I hope Nixon is there, stuck in a loop of his own creation assembling school desks for 13 cents an hour.
I came home from my wisdom tooth extraction when I was sixteen with a little orange bottle of hydrocodone my dad placed at the back of our cupboard where it gathered dust for a month before being flushed.
Christmases have become much more subdued since my grandmother was prescribed Morphine. The five round pills help mask the day’s emotions and somehow relieve the ache in her head enough to take the edge off, but they can’t prescribe anything for her scratching. Itching, itching, itching her scalp until it bleeds, as if trying to claw at the urge itself or getting at the last layer of a tightly wrapped present.
Nixon -- who was notorious for his drinking, use of prescription drugs, and fits of rage which on many occasions led him to drunkenly ordering the bombing of different countries -- said that addiction, “comes quietly into homes and destroys children, it moves into neighborhoods and breaks the fiber of community which makes neighbors,” as if he wasn’t the one who put them in danger to begin with.
In high school, I used to watch people sell Xanax and Oxycontin in Spanish class, exchanging pills for small handfuls of cash beneath their desks. The boy who sat in front of me used to brag about how he was sneaking pills from his dad’s old prescription bottles to sell at school.
My cousin was around fifteen when he first went to rehab. When I was fifteen, a girl in our grade was sent to a wilderness camp in Utah; a type of rural rehabilitation facility where teens scrounge for their own food and seek to escape their assigned ‘family’ houses, which were somehow harsher and more violent than the family who had her picked up in the middle of the night to be sent there. In the end, she stole a car to try and escape yet all she gained were charges for attempted grand theft auto. When she eventually came back to school, she had stopped smoking but she barely spoke. I try to not let myself wonder if the reason my uncle never considered something similar was out of care for my cousin or concern for his image.
Scientists at the University of Utah discovered that zebrafish and humans share over 25,000 genes, and along with them, human problems. Researchers had never been able to look at how withdrawal could be done without introducing a different opiate to depend on, until they came into possession of a few thousand zebrafish. Once introduced, zebrafish would continue to seek out the drug no matter the punishment, and were stressed and anxious when it was taken away. To a fish, there is little distinction between their understanding of what it means to be an addict and what it means to be human.
Eva Lynch is a writer and multi-media artist based out of Montreal. She is currently in university for anthropology and enjoys drawing inspiration from the world around her for her writing, ceramics and photography. She was the 2023 recipient of the Mona Adilman Poetry Prize and has been a part of several independent poetry publications. Find her on Instagram @evadoesomething