You thought the leaden winter
Would bring you down forever
But you rode upon a steamer
To the violence of the sun.

And the colors of the sea
blind your eyes with trembling mermaids
and you touch the distant beaches
with tales of brave Ulysses:
how his naked ears were tortured
by the sirens sweetly singing,

for the sparkling waves are calling you
to kiss their white laced lips.


And you see a girl's brown body
dancing through the turquoise
and her footprints make you follow
where the sky loves the sea.
And when your fingers find her
she drowns you in her body,
carving deep blue ripples
in the tissues of your mind.


The tiny purple fishes
Run laughing through your fingers,
And you want to take her with you
To the hard land of the winter.


Her name is Aphrodite
and she rides a crimson shell,
and you know you cannot leave her
for you touched the distant sands
with tales of brave Ulysses;
how his naked ears were tortured
by the sirens sweetly singing...


The tiny purple fishes
Run laughing through your fingers
And you want to take her with you
To the hard land of the winter.


Tales of Brave Ulysses was part of the Summer of Love in London. About the same time, the Jimi Hendrix Experience released Burning the Midnight Lamp, which peaked in the UK at number 18 in August 1967. The two songs have in common that they introduced the British audience to the wah-wah pedal lead guitar. In the U.S., the first we heard recorded wah-wah was on Tales of Brave Ulysses through the album Disraeli Gears in November 1967. Burning the Midnight Lamp wasn't released in the U.S. until October 1968. Our first hearing of Jimi Hendrix on wah-wah was through the release of his album Axis Bold As Love in January 1968.

There has been a YouTube interview posted in which Martin Sharp says his lyrics were inspired both by personal experience and the song Suzanne by Leonard Cohen. In the same YouTube clip, Eric Clapton admits that he lifted the chord progression of the song from Summer in the City by John Sebastian. He also used the same chord progression for another of Cream's famous wah-wah lead guitar pieces, the single White Room.

The lyric, with its classical literary allusions reminds me of Whiter Shade of Pale, a big international hit in the Summer of Love, about the same time as Tales of Brave Ulysses was charting in the UK. However, the story it tells is clearer. The supposed "you" is from the northern climes and vacationing in the south to get away from Winter. The "you" in the song seems to experience a trance or hallucination from the sun glistening on the southern sea. Aphrodite appears, riding a crimson shell, recalling Botticelli's depiction of Venus. The vision calls for faith of "walking on the waters" (where the sky loves the sea), just as Jesus had challenged Peter to walk out to him over water in the Gospels. "You" drown "in her body", but the apparent drowning doesn't stop the narrative. It has been but a symbolic death. Yet, the vision "carves" itself into memory, into the DNA, making for a changed man. Lit by Baker's glistening cymbals, the sharpest image (tiny purple fishes run laughing through your fingers) in the poem is chosen as an emblem of this underwater experience, a seeming failure of faith that is forgiven without offense. "Your" response is to want to take this moment, and your vision of Aphrodite back with you into your gray everyday Winter of a world. It is the common complaint of the visionary, by now frequently mentioned by in LSD inspired lyrics. "You" are torn with love, wanting never to leave her. But of course, "you" must come back from your vision, go about the ordinary business of living. However, the vision remains etched in "you" forever.

Matthew Greenwald in allmusic wrote that "taking a classic tale like [Ulysses] to the psychedelic audience was a stroke of genius". I agree; it suits the literary leanings of the psychedelic movement. Already Dylan's Desolation Row, Lennon's Tomorrow Never Knows, Grace Slick's White Rabbit, and Syd Barrett's Chapter 24 had brought literary allusions to psychedelic pop lyrics. Still this was the first Greek classical reference, not nearly as hip and underground as John Steinbeck, or Lewis Carroll, or I Ching. Cream risked seeming stuffy and academic rather than psychedelic, and it is to their credit that the music that they created pulled off the Homeric referent. The wah-wah proved ideal for suggesting the alluring but weird cry of the sirens.

The wah-wah was first used by Clapton to convey a watery world. Upon its introduction, it offers only an eerie suggestion, a whisper of itself. Though the wah-wah follows rather heavily on the downward chord structure of the verses in an identical pattern throughout the song, only varying in intensity, it provides the lead guitar and drums, the wailing voice, a steady framework to improvise against. Short verses are soft, but the double verses grow in volume until the wah-wah eventually thrusts the lead guitar forward on a wave of furious drumming. In the breaks the wah-wah shimmers and shocks like a school of minnows mimicking electric current while its tiny members twist and turn, changing patterns in the sea.