Recently, Phil Gammage sat down with himself and wrote a few thoughts about the songs and recording process for his album Used Man For Sale. Read on…
1. Arms of a Kind Woman.
This song was inspired by the minor key blues of the 20s and 30s. It’s not a straight 12-bar form but it’s close to it. My home demo for Arms was at a slower tempo… once I began to play it with other musicians it began to speed up and started to swing a bit. I’m glad it did and I wasn’t so locked into the version on my demo — I think it’s a better recording as a result. Here’s a tip for songwriters when it’s time to record songs you wrote — stay open minded and never fall in love with your demos.
Lyrically I’m conjuring images of pre-war America (with some vague biblical references thrown in). The idea that women being our saviors for the troubles of the world is something you may have heard about before ha ha.
2. Maybe Tomorrow.
This song went through several transformations and really grew. It began with me fumbling around on the acoustic guitar trying to write something with a Lightnin’ Hopkins feel. That didn’t work out so well, so then I tried a Lou Reed slow ballad thing — kind of like his “Pale Blue Eyes.” Slower with some Sterling Morrison type guitar work (a little of that survives during the song’s outro). That never quite jelled either but I kept the song on my list of tunes to be recorded, feeling it had potential. The demo version of the song is part of the album’s download at Bandcamp. You can hear it as a work in progress.
During the sessions, we put an acoustic rhythm guitar track on it and the song went from being my least favorite to one that I really liked. Johnny’s piano brought the tune even further into focus… the clouds parted and the song shown through…
The lyrics are positive. I wanted to write a few optimistic songs for this album and here is one of them.
3. I Beg of You.
A minor key bluesy song with a rat pack “fake jazz” vibe. It’s almost a torch song and with the right singer it probably could be. It’s got a lounge vibe to it which I love. Much of that has to do with the rhythm section using a stand-up bass and snare brushes.
I love this song’s drama. The lyrics, while dark, have some humor (my kind of humor) in them.
4. Used Man For Sale.
I recorded four of five different demo versions of “Used Man”. Usually, I never do that but I felt I never had it right with this song. I loved the lyrics I’d written but either it was too slow or fast, or the vocal melody seemed wrong. Something about it never worked for me. I even tried writting totally new music in a different key but I eventually I came back to the original chords and that’s what you hear now. Because I liked the lyrics so much, so I never gave up on this one.
For the hell of it, I gave this song a test drive and played it at a solo acoustic show. It went over so well with the audience that it became a keeper and now it’s the title track of this album. I’m glad I didn’t give up on this one, it had a long journey!
5. Ride With Railroad Bill.
I love slow blues. I repeat, I love slow blues. Not as played by the latest “blues guitar god” wanker but the old time, dark, creepy slow blues as played by the delta or Chicago blues greats.
“Railroad Bill” is a very old American folk song. Probably a hundred years old. As the lyrics go, the central character Bill is a down on his luck ne’er-do-well, a lovable loser that’s essentially harmless. In my song about Bill he’s an out of control psychopath who is a known murderer. A hobo serial killer. This song is dangerous and perhaps even scary.
My music is very simple — it’s a one chord slow groove in E with a Robert Johnson-style turnaround. We came up with Michele’s haunting vocal harmony part on the last chorus in the studio and in the moment. It’s probably my favorite vocal part of hers on the album. It takes the song to new and wonderful places.
6. Feeling the Hurt.
This one always had a country vibe. When Frank started to play stand up on it, it began to REALLY have a country vibe. While recording, Kevin (producer) and I discussed putting a lap steel on this one and a few other songs but ultimately the decision was made to go with piano instead.
Johnny’s piano part it gives the song a 1960s-era Nashville “countrypolitan” element. His piano playing on this song reminds me so much of the great country pianist Floyd Cramer. Interestingly when I mentioned this to him, Johnny did not know who Cramer was but I’m thinking he must have heard him somewhere before because the influence is so strong in Johnny’s playing on this album. I wasn’t expecting him to play like that but I’m very happy about it.
7. Before I Leave.
“Before I Leave” started out as a one chord song that evolved into something more. The rhythm is a standard blues groove that Kevin (drums) and Frank (bass) do a great job with… they make it interesting and hypnotic.
The lyrics are somewhere between being existentialist and creepy.
I find the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco a very fascinating and unique place. To my knowledge, there is no longer any other place like it in the United States, what with so much of our old cities being gentrified. Lower income and skid row neighborhoods like the Tenderloin get razed for new expensive luxury rental high-rises — that is what has happened in New York.
This song is a favorite of mine to play at my solo acoustic shows. It’s simple and uses a lot of dynamics. Not built around any particular melody or riff, just moving with the chord changes.
9. Lost in Loserville.
This song title popped into my head during a conversation when I was describing someone else to a family member. I describe this person as being “lost in loserville” (and it wasn’t a compliment either). I wrote the lyrics around the song title. The line about the “silver spoon” is an homage to songs from the 70s which refer to cocaine use — often glamorizing it. I’m always amazed when I hear those 70s songs on the oldies radio station referring in this way to cocaine… it goes over most people’s heads and they don’t know what the hell the silver spoon is that they’re singing about in the song.
I’m playing the harp through my 1983 Fender SuperChamp guitar amplifier.
10. Staring Out Our Window.
A 12-bar blues to thend the album. Some great playing by everyone on this track — the energy is loose and fun. The lyrics are minimal… a scenario out of a film noir plot.