I don’t remember much about writing Bolted Down, a song that would become one of my “hits.” It was when I was living in New York in the late 1990s, obviously, but it might have been during the Alphabet City, Gramercy Park, or Park Slope periods. I’m sure I presented it for the first time at Jack Hardy’s long-running songwriter’s gathering near Houston St. and 6th Ave. in the West Village, but I can’t say who was there or how they reacted. I rummaged around for the original, handwritten lyrics, but didn’t find them though I found a bunch of other lyrics from that era.
I do remember rehearsing it with David Hamburger on Dobro for a gig opening for Dan Bern at Rutgers University. That was my first “out of town” gig, and the first of many times I opened for Bernstein. I didn’t meet the headliner that night, and I doubt I made much of an impression on the audience, but it was an exciting new experience for me. David and I hurried home to a late-night meal at the Ear Inn, which I remember only because that sort of thing was common for me but rare for Mr. Hamburger, a morning person if there ever was one.
I also remember performing it at the 1999 Fast Folk Musical Review at The Bottom Line, which was the last-ever of these shows and one of only three times I made it onto the stage at a venue I may have visited fifty times as a fan. Bolted Down came either at the end of the first set or the beginning of the second; the other song I sang was Long Live the Revolution, which eventually appeared on If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home. Look closely at the Village Voice ad for The Bottom Line, and you’ll see my name. I must have been important, or I would have been relegated to the “and others” section!
Bolted Down was the 12th song on Welcome To My Century, which came out in 2001. I don’t know why we left it for the end. Maybe we wanted to get the serious business out of the way first? That doesn’t explain the presence of Greenland at #4, although Greenland isn’t built so conspicuously around a joke. My only other thought is that Bolted Down has that end-of-the-album feel. You know: that upbeat, fun number that rewards the listener for making it all the way through.
I made WTMC with Tommy West—who was Jim Croce’s great friend, played piano behind him, produced his albums, etc.—in his studio, Somewhere in New Jersey. Tommy is a great producer slash father figure who LOVED songs like Bolted Down and constructed a musical setting that serves its spirit. Sal Maida played bass, Dan Vonnegut played drums, and Brian Mitchell played organ. David Hamburger transcribed his jangly Dobro part for electric guitar in such a way that no musician has been able to replicate it precisely since. I doubt David himself could figure it out!
One thing I know for sure is that I played Bolted Down every night on tour for what feels like a very, very long time. It was the beginning of the end of my 45-minute opening set on Suzanne Vega’s Songs in Red and Gray tour, the crowd-pleaser that set up Las Vegas (“the ballad”) and Valentine’s Day (“the closer”). It went over like gangbusters in the U.S., where everyone got the joke including Cleveland, which takes a hit in the third verse. Interestingly, audiences also seemed to get the joke in Europe, even in countries with fewer English speakers.
I have a vivid memory of performing Bolted Down at Newport in 2002, the first year Bob Dylan played the folk festival since he went electric in 1965. That’s right, I did a gig with Bob Dylan! OK, it’s not quite like that: he headlined the main stage as the sun went down, and I played a five-artist “in the round” on the second stage in the mid-afternoon. Be that as it may, I sang Bolted Down that day, and had the crowd singing along to the “I don’t care how you’re doing out there” refrain. Somehow, it didn’t come off as cynical as it sounds.
I wish I could say something more definitive about this song, which has been a crowd favorite if ever there was one. Perhaps some of you longtime listeners can contribute memories of your own?
While you’re ruminating, you might like to spend three minutes with this new version of the old chestnut. Does the world really need another Bolted Down? Perhaps not, but it might help extend the song’s life. And, more importantly, I like hanging out/playing music with Jules Ryan (cello) and Misisipi Mike Wolf (guitar). Special thanks to those guys, and to my brother-in-law, Thomas Rogers, who supplied the wide-angle lens, positioned the camera, and offered aesthetic input of various kinds.