We don’t know who she is. We don’t know where she is, or why. We don’t know when, or if she’s coming back, and we don’t really know how the narrator truly feels about her. Thus, the enduring mystery of Josie, the title character of the final track of Steely Dan’s iconic album Aja. The album, which I’ve recently learned was composed as they returned to their native New York from the West Coast, is all about coming home, and returning to the familiar. How appropriate, then, that it ends with a song foretelling of the return of a mysterious heroine. Initially, it seems, her return will be a joyous occasion, but as is often the case with Steely Dan songs, a nagging sense of disquiet lurks beneath the surface.
The first verse speaks of her acclaim. “She’s the pride of the neighborhood,” we’re told, and the song, at this point, has definite messianic overtones. “She prays like a Roman with her eyes on fire.” The lyrics speak of celebrations, hats and hooters, rallying in the street, completely overturning the established order. “We’re going to park in the streets. Sleep on the beach and make it. Roll down the jam ’til the girls say when. Lay down the law and break it.” The lyrics imply she may have returned before for brief interludes, but the good times will really commence when she comes home to stay.
Other than this, we’re given few details about Josie, other than the implication that she’s the spark that will lift her companions from whatever sordid state they’ve been in. “The raw flame, the live wire.” One cannot tell if she’s been away of her own free will or not, but it is strongly suggested that the neighborhood hasn’t been the same without her. Then, in a telling divergence from the published lyrics, the Dans give us yet another clue to ponder. While the lyric sheet states, “When Josie comes home, so bad. She’s the best friend we ever had,” on the album, Fagen clearly sings, “She’s the best friend we never had.” This implies the person telling the story may not even know Josie, that she’s now the stuff of legend, and it gives her return an ironic sense of foreboding.
The song contains one of the most recognizable guitar riffs in music. At their show in Alpharetta in 2009, Becker segued into it from an improvised jam, and as soon as he hit the first cord, everyone knew what was coming. Here, again, Donald Fagen replaced “ever” with “never” though on live recordings, which may or may have featured Fagen on lead, I’ve heard it done as written. The music moves with a driving quality, which enhances the imagery of motor scooters, vandalism, and sexual impropriety. Once Josie returns, complacency will be a thing of the past. We’re going to take to the streets. Hosanna in the highest! She’ll lead us into a whole new era.
Without a doubt, Aja is my favorite album, quite possibly the greatest album ever recorded. Containing only seven songs, it proves that less is definitely more, and Josie is a fitting end, leaving the listener wondering what could possibly follow it. As it turned out, the follow-up would be the eclectic Gaucho, leading to a maddeningly long hiatus, broken only by the occasional solo album by Fagen or Becker. Still, Aja was the culmination of everything that had come before, pushing the boundaries of what could be accomplished when all the pieces fall into place. I can think of only a few other bands which could reach such heights. Steely Dan created what I consider to be the perfect musical experience. To this day, I rarely listen to individual songs from it, preferring instead to hear the album in its entirety from Black Cow all the way to Josie.
When Josie comes home, so good.