Steely Dan Sunday, “The Boston Rag” (1973)

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There’s not a whole lot of lyrics to this song, but I’ve never been quite able to decipher them, and from what I gather from a quick scan on the internet, no one else seems to be teo sure what they mean, either. My best, uneducated guess is that Becker wrote the two verses—he all but admitted to such when he once stated in an interview that the song is about his native New York, not Boston—and Fagan penned the chorus. In any case, the verse and chorus don’t appear to match in meaning, so it’s pretty clear they represent two trains of thought. Fagen was probably referring to some old jazz tune, while Becker spins some drug-themed tale with some connection to his own life from a prior era. Not knowing what the words mean never stopped me from digging the line “Lonnie swept the playroom and he swallowed up all he found/It was forty-eight hours ’til Lonnie came around.” I know, it’s kind of morbid, but this is Steely Dan. Morbid thoughts are allowed, right?

From a melody standpoint, the intro is not too unlike like “Kings” with its medieval unison lines and a strident shuffle. And yet, it also calls to my mind Todd Rundgren, who was at the same time generating some piano-based pop hits that had these little jazzy riffs in them. Pedal steel from Jeff Baxter discreetly nudges its way into consciousness on the second verse, a minor assist that gives the song a big lift at the right time (who knows, maybe that’s why I like the “swept the playroom” line so much).

Like the intro, the blues-based instrumental break is completely apart from the main body of the song, too. Denny Dias ekes out these ominous sounding notes, and then Skunk drops yet another dirty, well-crafted solo on us and brings the tune back to the chorus one last time.

“The Boston Rag” is a solid deep cut that boasted a smart arrangement, hipster lyrics and complex song anatomy that in some aspects pointed the way toward that urbane, classic Steely Dan sound. It also has the footloose, most-anything-goes spirit of the early years. For those reasons, I like to spin up the Countdown To Ecstacy disc every so often to bring back “The Boston Rag.”

I’m telling you, buddy, it ain’t no drag.

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