Understanding the meteoric rise of Basquiat's art deepens when we discover that he crafted aesthetic stratagems in poetry and music, only to transfer them into painting.
During 1979-80 Basquiat played in what he called a "noise band." He named it Gray, possibly as in anatomy, although no one knows for sure. Basquiat performed on triangle, bell, "a badly played but beautifully abstract clarinet," synthesizer and, sometimes, guitar, struck with a metal file. His friends Nick Taylor, Wayne Clifford and Michael Holman played, respectively, on guitar, African drum, and percussion. They worked the Mudd Club, CBGB's, and Hurrah's in New York, where Blondie and The Talking Heads were at the time emerging. They performed, in other words, at the epicenter of New Wave. Here they contended for space and recognition with a style that, in Basquiat's own words, was "incomplete, abrasive, and oddly beautiful."
Not every visual event in Basquiat's painting traces to this music. But certain tendencies repeat, hold over, and reappear on canvas.
When, at the Mudd Club, Basquiat spoke the words --
Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa
Men have named you
a second-class citizen
tea-stained and brown
with missing pages
if shown the motor
each man would use
two hundred pounds of effort
denied the logic of a primitive cartoon
-- he was working out a bemused equation, fame, beauty and social abrasion, that later flowed through his painting (R. F. Thompson, "Royalty, Heroism, and the Streets: The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat," in Jean-Michel Basquiat, exh. cat., New York, 1992, p. 39).