How do I love this song? Let me count the ways....
It opens with the narrator driving along a sunny road, maybe even in Greece ("this peaceful shore," where Homer wrote The Odyssey), and having a sudden deja-vu of a time long past.... He is now Odysseus, on his way home to Ithaca after ten years of warring and wenching. As he approaches the island of the Sirens, he decides that he wants to hear the song that no human ears have ever heard and survived. Circe (the one who did that thing with the pigs) warned him that "whoever draws too close,/ off guard, and catches the Sirens' voices in the air--/ no sailing home for him.... The high thrilling song of the Sirens will transfix him" and make him wreck his ship. She recommends that he have his men plug their ears with beeswax and tie him, open-eared, to the mast so that he may listen safely. He does, and is driven nearly wild by their seductive song.
This scenario has been noted by many Steely fans, including Seigfredx in the Steely Mailroom (2/22/98). But I think that's not all there is to it, and the authors warn us of an impending Steely twist--"You think you've heard this one before." The narrator/ Odysseus successfully navigates this hazard, but decides that he kind of likes being lashed to the mast, and indeed may be "home at last" there. Too much pressure, responsibility, nonstop adventure--it's a lot easier just to chill and let someone else give the orders for a change. To let go of ambition and drivenness. Our hero finds freedom in bondage--a lovely Steely paradox.
Even a pleasant dalliance, say with Calypso--"She serves the smooth retsina/ She keeps me safe and warm"--is likely to hide another approaching disaster: "It's just the calm before the storm." (In Calypso's case, she refused to let Odysseus go because she loved him so much. More storm, i.e., sturm und drang, ensued.) Retsina is a Greek alcoholic drink.
Perhaps the Siren song is the call of musical perfection, which seduced the Dan. ("The work seduces us with light....") Or is it Success, the bitch-goddess? Or drugs? Or bucks? And does the image of the artist bound eerily presage the long and painful Steely dry spell?
In The Metamorphoses, Ovid described Odysseus as a man more suited to dead-of-night intrigue (e.g., the Trojan Horse) than open conflict on the battlefield, a smooth talker who was not above dissembling or reframing his hijinks as heroic deeds. A crafty, subversive poet--very Dannish, indeed.
OMIO (Old Man In Oregon) (GB,
HAL is... a great Vet [as in veteran] song....
Almost every vet that knows the song agrees about the uncanny similarity to Vet Reality.. From the tempo (slow, but
relentless), the little minor tricks in the chord structures, and especially the words.. Look at the song through a vets
We "Returned".. We did not "Come Home".. Leaving millions of men & women wandering an Alien Nation which blames
the failings of a political policy on those who were forced into putting that policy into action.. Because America has to
believe it is Powerful, yet Innocent.. and has to blame somebody for it's own lies & self-deceptions. So we get The
Cross to bear.. Which is good because we can handle it, while Bill & Hillary & Newt & Rush & Oprah & Rikki &
Montel & Dan Blather & all those Innocent Americans cannot.
So, the sense of that Quite Familiar Superhighway is somewhat Estranged.. On This Peaceful Shore.. You think you've
been there once before..
The Danger of our Rocks has surly passed, yet we remain tied to the mast.. ("Why Can't You Just Get Over It"?)..
I guess that I'm the Lucky One.. Because so many really good people weren't that lucky.. ("Survivor Guilt")
She keeps me Safe & Warm.. It's just the calm before The Storm..
No matter how much they try to love you, your own personal set of Demons will eventually pop up to fuck with you..
I guess I'll try my luck again.. (Just keep living...)
It's a song of Survival.. Trying to overcome what can never be finally put to rest.. You just learn how to wage war
against the Demons that wage a war against you.. Of Grit & Guts in the face of Soul-Destroying forces that you never
called up in the first place.. But somehow, you keep going.. And wonder at the bottomless pit of Stupidity that is the
Can It Be That I Have Found My Home At Last?
If ya gotta ask, then Probably Not...
There was a fevered exchange in the "Digest" over what "the smooth retsina" is. Herewith (edited only for redundancy):
Norvis Pidner (Digest,
3/10/99): Back in '76/77, the Certs company made an effort at using
its firmly established brand identity to broaden its share of the discretionary
semi-digestibles market. The new product that resulted was "Retsina
- Premium Ice Cream With The Fresh, Sexy Mint Flavor of Certs". The
name Retsina actually derived from Retsin, the famously secret ingredient
in Certs. (Actually, if you read the small print on a Certs wrapper,
you learn that
Retsin is simply Certs's trademarked name for its mixture of chlorophyll and cement, percentage undisclosed.)
After bombing famously (there's that word again!) in several California test-markets, Retsina quickly disappeared from the grocer's freezer, but not,
apparently, before making a distinct impression on our oft-dynamic duo. And so, ensconsed in the timeless lyrics of the Aja album, the Retsina name lives
on, receiving a renewed minty-freshness with each re-mastered re-release/re-issue.
Andrew Hopkins (Digest,
3/14/99): Dear Hoops,
For anyone who does not quite inhabit Norvis Pidner's parallel universe, retsina is actually a Greek wine flavoured with pine resin (Norvis fails
to explain why "she" would be drinking an obscure Californian ice cream, whatever its ingredients). The fact that no-one who has drunk retsina would ever use the adjective "smooth" is presumably another example of our heroes' famed irony. (Incidentally, have you noticed how many alcoholic beverages there are in SD songs?).
Jess Gulbranson (Digest, 3/13/99): Sorry to burst your bubble, Answer Man, but retsina is a greek wine, and seeing as how the song is based on the Odyssey, that seems a more likely word choice than the name of a failed minty ice cream. Of course, this is Steely Dan and the Dandom Digest we're talking about here, so I won't discount the possiblity of sarcasm and puns on either the part of Becker and Fagen or on yours. :) Just keepin the kiddies straight on that point.
Paul (Digest, 3/14/99): Retsina is a type of wine which is made in Greece. they utilize a native type of pine resin which gives it a distinctive ( no doubt ) flavor. It is actually quite good once you become accustomed to it, but perhaps that is just due to the fact that when you are in Greece everything tastes great. I highly recommend the Metaxa buzz with the local fishermen, just be careful when you stand up!
JB (Digest, 3/13/99):
From the American Heritage Dictionary: ret0si0na (rRt2sæ-n·,
rRt-sT2n·) n. A Greek wine flavored with pine resin. [Modern
Greek, probably from Italian resina, resin, from Latin rTshna. See RESIN.]
The other explanation was a lot more fun, however.
Brian Caterino (Digest, 3/14/99): I found a brief description of retsina at a mining company site.
Chris Schmidt (Digest, 3/14/99): The Certs explantion is plausible I guess, but I don't buy it. When I purchased my home 10 years ago there was quite a stash of wine in the celler. The former owners were Swiss Italians and had been in the restaurant biz. I noticed that some of the bottles were labeled "Retsina". I was a little shy in trying it until some visiting German friends told me that they drank this "all the time at home". I can't tell you what it was made from but it tasted like tree bark (good tree bark that is).I'm sure someone more well versed in alcoholic libations can shed more light on this.
Tomas Broberg (Digest, 3/14/99): I always thought that the reference where to Retsina, a greek wine, mostly white, that during the fermentation is flavoured with a resin from a specific pine cone that I don't know the english word for. (I think it's named Aleppo.)
Craig Morley (Digest,
3/15/99): Unless I'm missing an obvious and enjoyably creative joke
(it wouldn't be the first time) being played by Norvis, let me venture
forth another, and I trust more accurate, answer (at least as regards the
specific use of the word by the well-traveled and well-read Donald and
Retsina is a type of very strong wine (either red or white) commonly found in Greece (and Cyprus). Since "Home At Last", with its numerous lyric references to events in Homer's "Odyssey" - the "danger on the rocks", the lure of sea sirens, "still I remain tied to the mast", a long and troubled voyage coming to an end, etc. - it seems logical that the retsina they're referring to is this wine (taking its honored place alongside the other names of various librations the boys have injected into their lyrics through the years), and not the misguided attempt at ice cream flavoring by Certs.
A friend of mine, while on vacation in Greece, tried a taste of retsina specifically because of the reference to it in "Home At Last." Not wishing to diss differing cultural sensibilities, but he found it nearly undrinkable (which is saying something for this friend). A very, very strong and bitter taste.
RMoss (Digest, 3/15/99): ... It has a very distinctive (some say bitter) taste that derives from the pine resin used to seal the casks in which it is stored.... Homer's poem contains no references to the Greek wine, but as usual, our men did their lyrical homework.
Mark Glinsky (Digest,
3/15/99): Actually, I think the more likely explanation is the Greek
wine Retsina, as described below in some information on Grecian gourmet
fare and regions:
ATTICA: This exciting region is home to the city of Athens, the cradle of democracy. Attica exhibits a harmonious mingling of the ancient and the modern, simultaneously harboring temple ruins and ancient Byzantine mosaics with the bustling, modern Athens, which features The Plaka, the oldest quarter in Athens and the city's designated "nightspot."
The Attican coastal districts take great pride in their seafood. The main Athenian port of Piraeus is on the Apollo Coast, and dishes such as skillet-cooked shrimp in feta cheese sauce serve as examples of local fare. Villages located on the inland plain, such as Koropi, Markopoulo, Peania and Spata, are noted for the exceptional vineyards that produce amber-hued Retsina wine. Barbecued or spit-roasted cuisine is also popular in these towns.
Mel (Digest, 3/19/99):
As far as Retsina, well, I hate to say it, but you're all wrong, yet right
as well. Back in the early 70's, the often debt-plauged motor company
AMC introduced a hatch back: the Retsina. How they found the
name is beyond me, but the car itself was close to the desciption of the
wine- very bitter and uncontrollably bad, though the car could not be a
taste you would grow accustomed to. After only 6 short months of
production, AMC pulled the
Retsina from the market, looking to devote thier funds to the better selling Rambler. This short production run, coupled with the numerous flaws in the
cars make-up made it quite a novelty car. Small groups, some might say cults, have formed in utter devotion to the lil behemoth. After all, it's possible to include this shady ride in a greek tradjedy, it would've fit in perfectly as the mode of transportation through the various levels of hell.
How Donald and Walter would've learned of the cars existance even, is beyond me. I've tried as hard as I can to find records of it, though it's tough. Other than a few books that detail very obscure cars, this is a very forgotten car, made by an almost forgotten obscure company. Does it fit, though? Well, in the irony of thier style, I think so. After all, they were writing a song based around the odessy. Throw in a random non-sensical line about a totally obscure car. Could be they knew that someday there would be people like us who would over analyze all of thier lyrics, and they just couldn't resist throwing one in to get us off the track. lol
Hoops! McKay (Digest, 3/19/99): I have to back up Mel on this one. For a brief period, I actually *owned* a 1972 AMC Retsina GT. It was not entirely designed in bad taste; from the rear it looked like a Certs. I think it then evolved into a Pacer.
Norvis replies (9/3/99):
Ed. Note: The fact-checking wing here at Fevered Dreams reports that the Retsina in Certs is actually made up of partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, artificial and natural flavoring, and copper gluconate.
By the way, Lulu, the next time you take off for the gas station to do this kind of so-called "fact-checking", could you please at least fill up the sedan, do you think?
Odyssey, by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles (Viking, 1996)
William James, letters
The Metamorphoses, by Ovid, translated by David Slavitt (Johns Hopkins, 1994)
"Down In The Bottom," on "11 Tracks of Whack," for another Homeric reference
"Snowbound," on "Kamakiriad"
Vietnam films recommended by OMIO: "The Stunt Man," 1980, Richard Rush, with Peter O'Toole; and "Jacob's Ladder," 1990, Adrian
Lyne, with the ever-amazing Tim Robbins and the swoony Elizabeth Pena.
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