All that we see or seem, is but a dream within a dream.
"A Dream Within A Dream" - Edgar Allan Poe
When Horses was released in 1975, it was a huge shock for me, as for many of my generation.
A specific composition, in this masterpiece record, had struck me in particular.
If Patti Smith’s music, voice and larger than life performance had immediately carried me in their flurry, however, the true meaning of Horses’ third track escaped me for many years. My English at that time was more faltering than it is now and the record’s sleeve did not contain any lyrics. The only clues to the composition’s meaning were its title, and Lenny Kaye’s haunting and magical guitar riffs -which evoked the shrill cawing of birds.
I had to content myself with that.
As she explained in the press about this title (The Observer, 2005): The song was inspired by « A Book of Dreams », the childhood memoir of Peter Reich, son of radical psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. 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.
In the past few months, when I began to work on Birdland, my research took me back to Patti Smith’s original poem obviously, but also led me to Peter Reich’s A Book Of Dreams, which I did not know and which I read carefully.
Everything then became clear for me, the once purely intuitive puzzle starting to gather concretely under my eyes, the correspondences between Birdland and The Birds finding support in many passages of Pattis Smith’s poem primarily, but also in some of Peter Reich’s strain-work, and of course that of Hitchcock’s film.
My intuitive original combination relied on three parameters: the birds’ supernatural violence, attributable, among other causes, to the mystery of their intervention, respectively in the film and in Patti Smith’s composition; then their multitude; and finally their appearance – that I interpreted as fascinating, as malevolent: a cloud of black bouquet, to quote Patti Smith’s wonderful and poetic metaphor in her text, some load of poisonous ebony flowers whose petals are invading the sky uncontrollably.
In Hitchcock’s opus, birds proved evil, threatening and deadly.
In the symbolism of the film, crows swoop down primarily on a symbol: that of Woman, and its multiple incarnations.
These different facets of Woman corresponded to the Tortured Woman whom Smith mentions in her poem.
First, through the character of Melanie Daniels (played by Tippi Hedren), the woman who first seeks love and eventually fulfills her ambition to become a wife (that of Mitch Brenner, played by Rod Taylor). Then the loving and devoted daughter (adopted by Lydia Brenner, mother of Mitch, starring Jessica Tandy), finally the sister (Cathy Brenner, Mitch’s younger sister, played by Veronica Cartwright), and whom Melanie Daniels protects and guides on the path of puberty. Cathy Brenner, the virgin adolescent awakening to the call of the senses as she fantasizes about the Love Birds that Melanie Daniels, the initiator, offers her.
Let us not forget, in these personifications of the one Tortured Woman evoked by Patti Smith, the abandoned mistress, brunette Annie Hayworth (played by Susan Pleshette), crucified by the abandonment of the man she loved –and who will pay at the cost of her life this rejected love.
The mother finally, Lydia Brenner, a key character like any mothers in Hitchcock’s films, here showing a neurotic behaviour with her inability to assume her motherly role, while taking refuge in the mental and emotional comfort of some incestuous replacement of her late husband by her son.
Therefore, in the years that followed, Patti Smith’s chanted poem kept its mystery.
I would have to wait until around the 2000s, nearly twenty-five years, to take full cognizance of Birdland’s lyrics with a mere click on the Internet.
However, and meanwhile, as time went on, I was more and more fascinated and intrigued by this composition.
Thus, I took the habit of asking here and there around me what exactly this composition was about.
Those who understood English much better than I did, revealed to me after listening to Birdland that it dealt with the story of a little boy in search of his dead father, aided in his quest by flocks of crows, all under the aegis of a mysterious alien spaceship black as ink, piloted by his progenitor, a kind of Deus in Machina pulling the strings of the plot, so to say.
This confirmation of the important role of the birds in Birdland made immediately in my mind the association between Patti Smith’s composition and Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds (which I knew by heart and which I have idolized unconditionally ever since), in a kind of definitive and indissoluble strike.
From that moment, I could never see The Birds without thinking of Birdland. And I could never listen to Birdland without thinking of Hitchcock’s black crows perched on their monkey bars, ready to cast a pall over the sky with their deadly vortex. The New York Punk Rock poetess’ black birds and those of the British Master of Suspense had mingled in a synergistic stormy wedding, as symbiotic and furious. At that time, no rational element came in to support this association.
Simply, I felt that these two worlds had hidden similarities, even if the majority of them still lurked away from my understanding. And I also knew that beyond the birds, the two works had anyway two blatant common denominators: the singularity specific to masterpieces only, and power.
Birdland came on my record player and later on my CD player back and back again, countless times, since 1975. When I was able to accede to the original text through this electronic Pythia of Modern Times that the Web is, the opacities of mystery surrounding Birdland finally clarified : Patti Smith’s story of the little boy in Birdland had been inspired by the story of Peter Reich and his father, the controversial psychoanalyst and still more controversial researcher and scientist Wilhelm Reich.
However, under this new light, the birds of Birdland did not replace those of the Hitchcock film in my mind, as an alternative soundtrack, because the world of two creations did not express violence and mystery similarly, and certainly not on the same purposes.
Hitchcock’s The Birds summarized in a parable for the comfortable complacency of the careless and selfish ones that human beings are, helpless when the storm comes to rage.
In Smith’s work, the theme is different.