The Meaning of ‘In Praise of Bacchus’ by Type O Negative
When we listened to Type O Negative’s October Rust album again for our attic finds section, we realised that attempts to understand the meaning of ‘In Praise of Bacchus’, including a translation of the Latin chant, have so far been incorrect.
After Peter Steele’s death in 2010, there is a chance we’ll never know the absolute answer, but I’m going to put a case forward for the meaning behind this track. I’m also going to apply my GCSE-level Latin skills to decipher the meaning of the Latin chant, which is commonly a fan-favourite passage of music with its intense religious feeling.
The Meaning of the Song
The lyrics of the song are rather beautiful; a vivid scene with great daubs of texture and colour as Steele describes scenes from Brooklyn.
The street lamps light a wet old Red Hook road
A furry vino-tinted slave
Molten oil painted Brooklyn Bridge
This is not the first literary inspiration for Red Hook in Brooklyn. Lovecraft wrote ‘The Horror at Red Hook’, Thomas Wolfe’s ‘Only the Dead Know Brooklyn’ sees the narrator warn of the dangers of walking around Red Hook, and Harlan Ellison’s ‘Memos from Purgatory’ takes place there, too. Red Hook sits in Brooklyn, separated by 500 feet of water from Governors Island in New York. It’s 19th century industrial waterside once connected multiple commercial waterways. In the 90s, it was named one of the worst neighbourhoods in the United States due to drug-related issues.
It’s safe to say, a song set in Red Hook in the 1990s is not a happy song. However, it should also be noted that Peter Steele was born in Red Hook on January 4th, 1962. He was 23 and a half inches long (“my mother said it was like giving birth to a pumpkin” he once said in an unpublished interview with Metal Hammer).
The “furry vino-tinted slave” refers to being drunk on wine. Steele once described intoxication as feeling like he had kittens inside him.
The “cobblestone grave” will need a circle-back. Essentially, there are cobbled streets in Brooklyn (though many have been re-surfaced, so lay beneath a skin of tarmac). This line forms part of the theory that’s coming up shortly.
A lonely blue girl guards the river bed
She shakes her brown torch at the tide
On Pier 6 we’d creep around the cracks
Side by side, side by side, see we’re counting cracks
We now have a poetic reference to The Statue of Liberty (lonely blue girl) and perhaps a euphemistic reference about waving torches. Steele did insert a few throughout his songwriting career, just like I did in this sentence.
We then experience an encounter between the protagonist and the girlfriend’s mother.
Your mom was out wearing herself inside
I’ll stop the train to say hello,
“A used boyfriend’s just bought her this new car.”
(I said “I know”)
It feels like the train reference here might refer to the train of thought, the narrator is clearly kicking their heels through the streets at this stage. They have a chance encounter with the mom, who inadvertently discloses that the girl doesn’t care much for her boyfriend, not realising that she’s speaking to him, perhaps because there are multiple boyfriends and mom doesn’t know he’s one of them.
After this, we hit the chorus line:
She said burn
We’ll burn together
A few people have thrown interpretations here. It could be the girlfriend saying this, or perhaps Bacchus has come in female form, or maybe it’s lady liberty herself (she has the tools!) It feels like the girlfriend is the candidate that fits best, with this being a reference to how they are bad for each other and will end up destroying themselves.
Now I don’t believe she’ll never leave again
I can’t forget the words she said way back when
This is where things get super-atomospheric, so let’s unpack that Latin chant.
The Latin Translation
If you look up the lyrics for the song, you’ll either find the Latin part is omitted, or you’ll find this:
Dirai Di, Sincto Sin, Dominai, Requiem
This phrase doesn’t really make sense and has stumped translators for two decades. To really solve this cryptic problem we need to go back to the source and listen to the last 40 seconds, really loud, several times.
Having put in the hours to find possible working phrases, I have come up with the following Latin lyrics for the change section:
Dira di sit crucem dominae requiem.Steve Fenton’s studied version of Type O Negative’s ‘In Praise of Bacchus’
This would translate to something along the lines of:
Awful gods, let the cross be my mistress’ rest!
With Latin, there is a lot of imprecision. You have to make some judgments where multiple alternatives exist. If you take into account Steele’s back story, the other lyrics in this song, and the general themes Type O Negative used, this can be massaged to be more thematic. You have to allow some artistic license for Peter Steele, and keep some artistic license for yourself, but you could end up with something more like…
I want the vengeful furies to impale her on a spike.
The Furies (or Erinyes / Eumenides in Greek literature) are deities of vengeance. In the Ilyad you’ll find “the Erinyes, that under earth take vengeance on men, whosoever hath sworn a false oath.” It fits rather well.
Peter Steele was able to write lyrics that were poetic, brutal, and full of wit. ‘In Praise of Bacchus’ is an enigmatic song that is open to interpretation (like much of the material). We can let our imagination run wild and this only enhances the amazing music of Type O Negative.
It’s impossible to analyse a song like this without taking Steele’s personal life into account. Steele had a troubled relationship with drink and drugs. He attempted suicide in 1989 (“…all I can say is that I fell in love with the wrong person…”) and was briefly jailed in 2005 when he attacked a love rival. On his release, his family staged an intervention that resulted in Steele entering the psychology ward at Kings County Hospital.
The drink, drugs, and relationship issues feel manifested in ‘In Praise of Bacchus’, a solitary Bacchanalia, with Steele deliberately walking dangerous streets perhaps hoping for trouble to exorcise the emotional demons spawned from a bad relationship.
Peter Steele was a kind and friendly gentle giant. In Type O Negative, he not only created incredible atmospheric doom metal / goth anthems, he also showed his unique humour and lyrical dexterity. We don’t expect to find anything like it any time soon.
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