Steely Dan: The Boston Rag
unk is a case of who gets away with more, and these guys obviously got away with a LOT…”
Joe S. Harrington
“The definitive party band of the 1970s, Steely Dan will leave guests nostalgic for the days when uninhibited drug use and casual sex were socially and medically acceptable.”
Tamar Love, Plan a Party in No Time
I can’t remember when it first was. Specifically. I know it was during my one year in the dorms, before the Carpool staff carried our suitemate Aubrey up four flights—pausing for him to vomit on two—but after I sat watching CNN with Mary and Ben on my bed, waiting for the other tower to collapse. That wasn’t the timbre of my year, of course; those were just apt bookends for my first extended stay in a new home. An eye-opener, they say. With a dedicated T1 line, my browser remained open, too. Ha ha!
Steely Dan was a mystery to me then, and while I know a bit more about them now, there are adherents much more devoted than I who would view Messrs. Becker and Fagen as enigmatic, yuppie shamans. It goes a long way toward explaining “The Boston Rag,” I suppose.
This is the beauty of the Dan. Famously named for a dildo in Burroughs’ glitch-pop masterpiece Naked Lunch, its two principals made a career out of arch portraiture, performed by the most technical, polished hired guns that money could buy (after the coke was procured, of course). At the heart of these gin-and-Lucite compositions were some of the fiercest, most damning words recorded that decade; anyone who rags on their slickness, quite simply, is missing the yacht.
Right. The song. Well, for onesies, this thing doesn’t have a clear narrative. It’s a shame, too, after all I just said. But as of freshman year, you must know that I had only heard “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “Do It Again,” and “Reelin’ in the Years,” at least two of which I had attributed to my mom’s beloved Doobie Brothers. “The Boston Rag” required a cognitive leap on my part. What would have been any other band’s instrumental break (provided they had the chops to hammer it out), the Dan ate for an appetizer. The tempo was stately, to be kind; all hi-hat, piano, and acoustic guitar. There was some sort of story at play, something about a kingpin named Lonnie. I think he overdosed in a rage, placing himself in a two-day coma. The chorus was harmonized, strident, and brimming with lost chances. “Bring back the Boston Rag,” they implore, “tell all your buddies that it ain’t no drag.” Newspaper? Walter Becker pleasantly communicated to a fanzine his delight that, despite its title, the song actually takes place in New York (a third character in the lyrics, Nabokovian in her stubborn shadiness, is referred to as “Lady Bayside,” a reference to Becker’s onetime Queens residence).
It soon became apparent to me that several more plays were necessary to dull the gloss; the effable had to be somewhere in this piece of pop noir. All I needed was the entry point. After weeks of periodic returns, I settled for a toehold, which was the next best thing anyway. Said hold comes around the 3:12 mark, after the chorus, as everything drops out save that hi-hat and Donald Fagen’s tango piano, smooth as Vaseline and twice as delicious. Soon, the proverbial still, small voice enters stage left in the form of Denny Dias’ guitar. One reedy, frail note calls across the void for his vanished mates. Then another. And another—this one vibrato’d, held like a weak searchlight over a harbor. You’re on your seat for each following note, but he parcels them out slow. Waiting-for-the-paramedics slow. B.B. King-rounding-third slow. Ten notes in half-a-minute slow.
But as near as I can figure, the key to the Rag is in there somewhere, linking that terrifying chorus to Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s much toothier solo (the feel of which, by the way, Tom Petty seems to have lifted wholesale for “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”—a good song, but still) and then an eternal iteration of that dread chorus. ‘Twas that thirty seconds of fragility – perhaps theatrical; if so, an affecting farce—that puts this song utterly out of reach, but never out of mind. No marital aid or mortal mind may ever truly penetrate this composition, but then again, I still haven’t wrapped my head around that first year in college, either.
“I'll tell you what I like about our group. What I like about us is that our music scares me more than anybody else's.”
By: Brad Shoup
Published on: 2005-12-07