In a bit of fortuitous timing, I finished Patti Smith’s Just Kids the same day that Girls, a new comedy from Lena Dunham/Judd Apatow, premiered on HBO.
Now, these two things aren’t directly related. In fact, they’re not really related at all. Rather, one just made me think of the other, and since the critical reception of Just Kids ran the gamut from appreciative to absolutely glowing—while Girls received less favorable treatment from the likes of Gawker and, you know, viewers—I thought it perhaps an apt time to share the comparison.
For the unfamiliar, Just Kids is a memoir written by artist/poet/musician Patti Smith, about her long relationship-turned-friendship with fellow artist Robert Mapplethorpe, he of controversial photography fame. Smith, now married with children, wrote the book in 2010, nearly 20 years after Robert’s death, and more than forty years after the pair first met in Brooklyn as 20-year-old aspiring artists. Smith’s is a memoir about love, but also about a time and a place—New York in the 1970s—and about coming into one’s own as an artist and an adult. Although we as readers know how the story ends—with success for both subjects and Mapplethorpe’s ultimate death from AIDS—Just Kids isn’t so much focused on the tangible progression of the pair’s respective careers. It’s a glimpse behind the scenes, into the development and maturation of two people who at first glance really are just young and clueless, aspirational and broke, hopeful and driven.
A very large part of me found Just Kids as beautiful and poignant as so many critics did; it really is a lovely story, simply told, that simultaneously elevates and humanizes its subjects. By which I mean this: Is it awe-inspiring to hear how Smith and Mapplethorpe developed their art, to see from the perspective of their closest friend how each came to be the legend we know? Of course. But it’s also almost pleasantly anti-climactic to realize (or remember, I suppose) that in the late 1960s, there was no difference between Smith, Mapplethorpe and any other 20-something, that they starved and hustled and struggled like every other would-be artist, and that what ultimately separated them from those who never made it was not simply talent, but also chance: chance encounters, chance acquaintances and chance opportunities. Neither Robert Mapplethorpe nor Patti Smith was/is without skill, but both were equally benefited by being in the right place at the right time.
Which brings me to Girls, a show that follows protagonist Hannah (Lena Dunham) and her closest friends as they navigate the 20-something life in 2012 New York City. Hannah, for her part, is an aspiring writer, having compiled a quarter of a memoir. While she hones her craft, she relies (like some of her friends and much of our generation) on the financial generosity of her parents, who at the beginning of the first episode tell her that henceforth she shall be cut off, forced to give up her unpaid internship for an actual, you know, paying job.
Much fuss has been made over Dunham’s own wealth (her parents, and the parents of most of the show’s cast, are actual rich/mildly famous people) but I think to dwell on that factor kind of misses the point of the show. After all, aren’t many actors the sons and daughters of famous people? Do we really begrudge Kate Hudson her relationship to Goldie Hawn, or Angelina Jolie hers to Jon Voight? Money and notoriety aren’t family-agnostic, and Girls isn’t exactly the first television show that wouldn’t exist if not for some writer/director/producer’s measure of unearned opportunity.
As much as I wanted to dislike Girls—and there are parts of its extremely awkward humor that I found cringe-worthy—I found the show pretty on point with a generation that’s almost as obsessed with criticizing its sense of entitlement as it is with acting entitled. As a protagonist, Hannah is obnoxious and whiny, and at the end of the day I’m pretty sure that’s the whole point. She’s not the first 24-year-old to think writing an irreverent memoir should excuse her from the burden of droll hourly employment; she’s the six millionth.
Although neither Patti Smith or Robert Mapplethorpe relied on their parents the way that Hannah does, I couldn’t help but see a parallel between their respective stories (of course, two actual and one fictional.) Smith and Mapplethorpe also struggled with the confines of mundane work, and longed for the freedom to devote their full attention to creating art. Was their talent greater than Hannah’s? Probably. But was their sense of self-worth, or the worth of their art, just as pragmatically ridiculous as hers? Absolutely. In reading Just Kids, whose praises I’ve heard sung from nearly everyone over age 40, I couldn’t help but feel like this romantic bohemian attitude that surrounds Smith and Mapplethorpe is in short supply when it comes to their contemporary equivalents. After all, what do we think of comparable young artists today? Eighteen-year-olds sitting on sidewalks asking for food, 20-somethings who shoplift their dinner, hipsters with zero qualms about calling themselves future icons. As I was reading the earlier chapters of Just Kids, I kept thinking that the very conviction so inspiring in Smith and Mapplethorpe would in all likelihood be the subject of some ridicule were they a pair of of young adults today. And from the same not-so-young adults who read Smith’s memoir and loved it.
This isn’t to say that Just Kids isn’t inspirational (or that I think it’s legitimately fair to compare an intentional parody with people like Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.) The book made me want to explore New York, to really take in and appreciate the cultural atmosphere that I too often take for granted. It made me want to read books, listen to music, think deep thoughts and have provocative conversations. It made me want to paint and write and create things that exist outside the regimented world of paychecks and 401(k)s and taxable income. But it also made me thankful for my gainful employment, and my relatively lacking sense of my own self-importance (…says the girl who blogs.)
Just Kids is elegant, even if you aren’t overly familiar with its subjects, or particularly nostalgic for the New York City of forty years ago (during which time it seems like literally every single resident was or would become famous.) The book is a reflection on how much changes between age 25 and age 45, externally and more importantly, internally. Me, I’ve never been much for spontaneity, would never have moved here jobless, homeless and with one suitcase to my name. I don’t know that I could have cut it as a Patti Smith or Robert Mapplethorpe, don’t know that I would have had the fortitude to survive so much uncertainty, or the faith in myself to push forward in pursuit of such improbable dreams. But I can appreciate their willingness to hope, and take from their success an admonition to never be afraid of failing.
TITLE: Just Kids
AUTHOR: Patti Smith
PAGES: 288 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Auguries of Innocence, The Coral Sea
SORTA LIKE: Life meets Cherry
FIRST LINE: “I was asleep when he died.”