The lyrics for this 9-minute jazzy tune are based upon A Book of Dreams a 1973 childhood memoir of radical Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich by his son Peter. Kate Bush's 1985 hit song "Cloudbusting" was inspired by the same book.
Patti Smith explained to The Observer: "There's a section in it where Peter describes a birthday party not long after his father died. He wandered outside and became convinced his father was coming down to get him and take him off in a spaceship.' But what he thought was a squadron of UFOs revealed itself to be a flock of blackbirds.
This story haunted me, and when we recorded 'Birdland,' which was totally improvised, that's where the track went to."
A motif runs through the song: "You are not human," which becomes "I am not human" and then "We are not human." Smith explained: "That's really talking about myself. From very early on in my childhood - four, five years old - I felt alien to the human race. I felt very comfortable with thinking I was from another planet, because I felt disconnected - I was very tall and skinny, and I didn't look like anybody else, I didn't even look like any member of my family."
Birdland was a popular jazz club that started in New York City on December 15, 1949. Located at 1678 Broadway, just north of West 52nd Street in Manhattan, it was popular with many of the writers of the Beat generation. The name was adopted to capitalize on the popularity of their regular headliner Charlie "Bird" Parker. Smith closes this song by saying "We like Birdland."
George Harrison's 1971 song "Bangla Desh" was the first major charity single. It was part of a concert held to bring relief to the people of Bangladesh, who were fighting for independence and suffering from a famine.