“The Boston Rag”—third song, side one of Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)

It took me a long time to come around to this song, but now it's one of my favorites, just because it's got an austere beauty, both musically and lyrically. But for years I was just put off by the name, not knowing what a “Boston Rag” is—I kind of assumed some kind of jazz slang, though that would imply “ragtime”—which isn't evoked by this song, as far as I can tell. I always love the geographical references in Steely Dan songs, but Boston is one that throws me. I've come to love the city, just because I connect it to many fine people I know personally, but when I was younger I just hated the sports teams and stereotypical crime references in movies, and I'm not even that hot on the food connections. And if “rag” isn't referring to music, it's an unfortunate slang for a publication, or tampon, or just something you use to clean up shit. So it took me awhile, and for like the first 2000 listenings of this song I'd get up and go, “What's this song? Oh, wow.” I mean before the chorus, at which point there's no doubt. It starts with an intro that doesn't much resemble the rest of the song—and I love starting a song that way. Then there's this really strong electric guitar hook that you could sell hamburgers with, it's so catchy. And then it quiets down to a very steady, calm, invisible drum beat and acoustic guitar and bass, adding piano—which besides being, to me, purely compelling, really accentuates the lyrics. After the two verses and choruses, almost all the sound drops out—there's just a repetitive piano thing with some ghostly steel guitar. But that leads into the guitar solo, which sounds like it could come out of any rock band in the late Seventies—though remember, this was just 1973.

“Lonnie was the kingpin, back in 1965.” I love when they have character names in songs, because it puts you right into the noir fiction frame of mind. They probably don't know anyone named Lonnie. Or maybe they do—it's a biker name—but probably not. I've only met one Lonnie in my life, this old guy who ran a resort getaway lake in backwoods Michigan. At first you think, okay, Lonnie's someone to be reckoned with—but actually, not really. Maybe in 1965. But the lyrics are kind of in reverse order—so it's not until the second verse that you find out that “Lonnie swept the playroom, and he swallowed up all he found—it was 48 hours 'til Lonnie came around.” Now you know what “came alive” in the first verse means. “The playroom” not being somewhere toddlers are crawling around, I presume, but rather a party spot with enough loose drugs to create a mini-crisis. “I was out of my mind and you were on the phone.” Even more than Lonnie, I love “Lady Bayside.” She's involved somehow, though we get no more details, really. But just that name! I'm picturing her on a regular weekend night out at the Lobster Box on City Island. Anyway, the chorus then repeats: “Bring back the Boston Rag, tell all your buddies that it ain't no drag”—so many times that you think it must mean something—but I think the joke in this song is that it doesn't mean anything. Which is especially funny because the lyrics could be pointing to it: Lonnie sounds like a Boston guy; any news was good news; even a reference to cleaning (“swept”). Maybe there were funnier lyric writers out there—but no one this dry, and subtly funny.

—Randy Russell 12.23.18

Current Ranking: No. 10