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Patti Smith just reread 'Pinocchio'

August 4, 2009 |  5:18 am


"That's the mark of a great book," Patti Smith told me Saturday in West Hollywood, "that you want to read it again and again." She'd just finished rereading "Pinocchio"; she said she revisits it and "Peter Pan" and "Alice in Wonderland" about once a year.  But those are just the perennials; she also reads new books, like "Of Walking in Ice: Munich - Paris 23 November - 14 December 1974" by Werner Herzog and Roberto Bolaño's "The Skating Rink," both of which she purchased at Book Soup that day.

A short time earlier, she had signed copies of "Dream of Life" for fans with author Steven Sebring. The book is taken from Sebring's documentary of the same name, which won the cinematography award at Sundance and will broadcast on PBS's P.O.V. in December. Sebring and Smith were in town to talk to the Television Critics Association, and Smith also appeared before a sold-out crowd Saturday evening at the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

Smith, who started out as a poet, remains an iconoclastic rock star. "I really don't like being photographed," she told the paparazzi who crowded in with big cameras and a barrage of flashes. "Come on, fellas." She seemed tense, a little testy, keeping her sunglasses on and head mostly bent. She was there to sign books is all.

But once they'd gone, she slowly warmed, and cheerfully signed everything from old posters to new CDs. She signed an iPod and, on a T-shirt a fan was wearing, wrote: "The people have the power -- Patti Smith" in black felt-tip. When a father asked her to pose for a picture with his young daughter, Smith brushed her hair out of her face, put her arm around the little girl and smiled.

Being Patti Smith means hearing things like this over and over: "You saved my life when I was 15 years old. I don't know how I would have gotten through high school without you." And saying, again and again, "Thank you. That's so nice of you to say."

A young woman had her sign a few things, saying one wasn't for her, it was for her shy, quiet boyfriend. "Tell your shy, quiet boyfriend to come over here," Smith laughed. "I specialize in shy, quiet boyfriends."

At one point, a man with a strangely collapsed face handed her a note, which a bookstore staff member read aloud. The man's name was Paul; he had cancer of the tongue and couldn't speak. His note repeated much of what she'd heard for the past hour. "Nice to see you. Thank you," Smith said with a pause. "Take care of yourself."

One man handed her something she wasn't expecting. "This is my house," she said, looking at a handful of snapshots. They were Patti Smith's family's personal photos, obtained somehow by someone long ago, given to this fan in 1976. He'd held on to them ever since. And on Saturday he returned them to her. "They're hers," he said. "I thought she should have them."

It seems almost like something out of "Peter Pan," getting back that stack of long-missing, likely forgotten photographs, lost images from a childhood suddenly returned.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Patti Smith, center, with Steve Sebring, left, signing at Book Soup. Credit: paperhaus via Flickr