It seems somewhat fitting that in the wake of last year’s rediscovery of the likes of Sixto Rodriguez and Bill Faye that Blabber’n’Smoke was sent this album of songs recorded (and only briefly released) in the eighties by an unknown musician. Were Billy Marlowe still on this earth it’s a fair bet that there would be a demand to see and hear him play these songs and catch up on the acclaim that’s been missing for so long. Unfortunately, unlike Rodriguez, Marlowe is gone, dead at the age of 53 after what appears to have been a troubled life although his sister’s description of him as an eternal optimist seems apt given the life affirming sentiments contained in these astonishing songs.
Having left home in the sixties Marlowe lived an itinerant lifestyle eventually going to Canada to escape the Vietnam draft. However on returning to the States he was jailed for two years. In 1983 he pitched up in response to a small ad in the Village Voice placed by Steve Satterwhite who was looking for an artist to test run his new recording studio and over the space of a year this album was built, released briefly on vinyl it soon disappeared.
With a sound that recalls a soulful Dylan or a metropolitan Butch Hancock Marlowe recorded these songs with a select few NY musicians (who have gone on to work with numerous artists including Dylan, Rod Stewart, Leonard Cohen). They provide some superb backing with inspirational fiddle licks and gliding steel guitar decorating the songs. In addition a freshly arrived in New York Shawn Colvin sings on several of the cuts. At the heart of it all however is Marlowe himself. It’s as if having struggled for years he has been let off the leash and grasps the opportunity wholeheartedly. His songs are bittersweet poems and he delivers them in a voice that can resemble Dylan’s at times although he carries a truckload of emotion compared with Dylan. In addition several of the songs are so sure of themselves, so perfectly formed that it’s hard to believe that they emanate from a man who had spent most of his life stumbling from one obstacle to another. Born Again (take that, Dylan fans) is a major work, a song that is almost perfect with a stately arrangement as Marlowe sings of being “ragged, tattered and torn, wishin’ I was born again.” There are several other songs that approach this summit. Mama Was Right tugs at the heartstrings as the violin soars into the blue. You Got My Heart is a simply sung simple love song that should be ringing out from radio stations galore. Finally the vibrant and driving Salvation Railroad is four minutes of soar away bliss where the steel guitar shimmers, Marlowe sings with a magnificent wearied abandon and the female voices flutter around him.
All in all an astoundingly good album that’s been unfairly buried for so long and which captures a lost innocence that was buried under so many wasted lives in the seventies and eighties. Read more about Marlowe including a fine testimony from his sister here