I wrote this at the 16th St. apartment. The lady across the hall was a little bit wacky and said, "I hear you're playing blues in there. Do you know Big Joe Turner used to live in your apartment?" I was like, "Are you shitting me?" So it was kind of appropriate that we did "Sam Hell." In the studio I played it on a Deering six-string electric banjo.
As for the lyrics, I used to be a bartender at this place on 1st Ave. that eventually burned down. I had a lot of regulars, and one of them was this really sweet, well-read guy who just happened to be an alcoholic. He had a friend and they'd come into the bar sometimes at three in the morning. I really liked having the company, and I liked that they were just interesting New York characters that I had the privilege of spending time with. So I wanted to write a song about them.
There's also that line about cat-eating ["She's known for making good gravy and cat"]. When I first moved to New York I lived in an SRO, a welfare hotel, for two years because I had no money. And there was a woman there who, legend had it, had eaten her cat. And she was always looking for that cat. She'd come downstairs to get her government checks and look for the cat. And it was just like, "Jesus Christ, man." All kinds of interesting events happen in the middle of the night in a place like that.