Albums of Our Lives: Gillian Welch’s Time (The Revelator)

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My first revelation was in a car, a rusted but strong 1985 Toyota Camry I bought from a friend’s older brother for 500 bucks. One hot summer morning in 2002 in Portland, Oregon, I packed it to the windows with everything I owned and pointed it south.

I popped a CD into the Diskman I’d rigged up to play through the car’s cassette player. It was a recent country album, a gift I’d been hesitant to listen to because I was 26 and still thought that rock ‘n’ roll was the only music for me. But I liked the title: Time (The Revelator). A revelator is one that reveals. Messy truths and all.

At the first crest of green pines in the mountains near Grant’s Pass, the opening notes struck: quiet and simple. Almost homemade. The guitar strings resonated in my body like they were actual tendons connecting the broken parts of me. And her voice, just a voice, cautioning:

Darling remember / from when you come to me / I’m the pretender / I’m not what I’m supposed to be.

I knew I was a pretender, too, knew it in all the ways a 26-year-old can believe that she is broken and that nobody else can see how badly.

I was supposed to be on my way somewhere, to at least have planted starter roots by now. I’d abandoned my coastal California hometown at 16 and somehow shuffled through an entire decade. I’d lived in New York, Paris, Portland and other random towns. I’d found communities and educations and professions. Then I’d left them, one by one. I’d moved lives like apartments, carrying the same giant duffle bag and retaining my dearest friends but never settling in to any one existence. I’d been in this situation a lot: I had 74 dollars and I knew I needed to go, and that was where my knowledge stopped.

There is a feeling you have at a pivotal moment — a big, almost spiritual, tilt-a-whirl feeling — that your next phase is lying in wait close by. Whether it pounces isn’t up to you; you’ve put something in motion and now you’ll reap whatever time chooses to do with it. I heard this song and I swore right there, on I-5, in the old car with the bad radiator smoking its way over the mountains that connects California to its greenest of neighbors:

I’ll go back to Cali / Where I can sleep out every night / Watch the waves and move the fader / Time’s the revelator.

I floored the Camry to its maximum 37-mph uphill threshold and I let time revelate my wandering ass right back home.

***

Gillian Welch is an American singer and songwriter who collaborates with guitarist David Rawlings, but they just call the whole outfit “Gillian Welch.” Their genre might be labeled “Americana” – elements of country, bluegrass and folk with minimalist arrangements.

Welch’s voice is old-timey and without adornment. Her hints of sexiness, when they happen, are courtesy of transparency rather than artifice. The duo’s harmonies are ghostly – quiet but ever-present. I hear them even when they’re not singing.

Although they both play guitar, it’s Rawlings who often takes a solo multiple times during a song, mostly up front. He climbs frets like staircases, building up phrases and then skipping over them to rise to a place that can only be called flight. This flying is grounded in roots, of course, and in the historical musical presence of all that means “guitar” and “country” and “America.” But it’s also tinged with rock ‘n’ roll. You can slap your knees to this stuff whether your knees rest on a porch swing or a fire escape.

Time (The Revelator), Welch’s third album, is marinated in layers of memory: first loves, hard times and self-critical internal monologues are intoned against a backdrop of history. Each song is a short story, usually in first-person, all interconnected.

The old-timiness of Welch’s music doesn’t always rely on the usual boys-with-beards and-moonshine-plinking-banjos-at-us-from-bygone-days formula. She recognizes that the stories of regular people struggling to just get by are not unique to a particular era or musical sensibility. This allows her to connect the personal, emotional introspection of her songs with historical traces of American life. She can touch on the sinking of the Titanic, the assassination of Lincoln, the legend of railroad worker Casey Jones and the forces that push working people around the map — all in a two-part folk ballad about a rock band on tour.

Welch isn’t from the South in the 1930s. She’s from here, now.

***

I grew up in Santa Cruz, California, where Gillian Welch went to college. (She later wrote about Santa Cruz in “Wrecking Ball,” from the album Soul Journey.) When Welch’s music drove me back there, my hometown wasn’t what I’d remembered.

The version of home I’d stored away was a bastion of post-’60s eccentricity populated by aging hippies and academics. Now I saw clean people in shiny cars trailing dot-com money everywhere they went. Instead of surfers, those raggedy quiet boys sitting in the fog contemplating the tides, I now saw loud jocks with fancy equipment who felt they owned the beach. What was once a funky main downtown drag packed with musicians, oddball shops and shadowy brick buildings was transformed to a strip of crisp chain stores occupying tan stucco storefronts topped off with faux Spanish tile. Gone were my dirty sidewalks, our secret beaches and the town’s blind adherence to all things unconventional. People here were just the same as people anywhere.

The change I perceived as radical shouldn’t have been news to me; it was simply the onward progression of time and economics and culture that happens most anywhere these days, whether you pause a place forever in your childhood mind or not. In Santa Cruz’s case, change was jump-started by a natural disaster: the massive 7.1 earthquake that leveled most of the downtown area on October 17, 1989.

I wasn’t downtown when it hit. I was in a place you never want to be at a moment you’ll be asked to re-tell for the rest of your life: the mall. I was 13 years old.

I remember the earthquake as an infinite minute. After it stopped, the customary buzz of everyday electricities halted entirely: the lights were out and dusk came on blue and uninterrupted in the hot October evening. Everything else was silent as the sound of car alarms blasted a chorus of warning from the bounced-together parking lots surrounding the building.

I stood outside and I didn’t tremble. My adolescent body in all its everyday confusion and fear and passion digested the heightened scenes around me. I listened to the robotic song of the cars: Danger, Will Robinson, they said. Pay attention. Things are about to change.

At some point in the post-shock milling around, a UC Santa Cruz student, a thin woman with strawberry-blond hair, offered to drive me home. I thought she seemed so much older – like 20 – and so much cooler than me, with her beat-up red Toyota hatchback and her flowered and faded 1940s-housewife dress worn above ratty sneakers. Her car smelled of smoke, maybe from an old joint in the ashtray and maybe from an earthquake-started fire burning somewhere nearby. I said yes.

We snaked through oddly empty streets to my mom’s house. I noticed in slow motion out the dusty window the pieces of glass on every sidewalk below every storefront window and the tidy-looking piles of fallen chimney bricks next to every home, and those were things I’d never seen before, not in a lifetime of California earthquakes. I had that revelator feeling then, too, perhaps for the first time: I thought, the world has tilted. We are changed now. What will we do?

***

I wasn’t pleased with my new old town, but there I was. I moved in with my uncle, who lived alone in my grandmother’s old house, a faded one-story homestead by the beach out towards Watsonville packed with the junk of six grown children and their subsequent offspring, decades of crap piled in every closet and corner. My room, the guest room of my childhood, had a large hole in the hardwood floor the cat would occasionally stand over and explore with his paw.

I tried to let change pounce. I got a job back at the used bookstore, the first place I’d ever worked, and spent shifts in a basement closet posting rare books for sale on the Internet. I struggled with whether I should find publishing work in the city two hours away or keep punching cash registers in retail, which I didn’t actually hate. (I still struggle with this.) I wanted to be able to make art, free of responsibility, but also not be so tired at the end of the day. I missed the attitude and culture of a big city.

I was lonely.

Most nights after work I’d just drive around: up and down the main avenue of the downtown, where my grandmother used to run her home goods store, and back and forth on the slow curves of West Cliff Drive, where I’d eventually park and watch the moon rise over the black night waves. I’d smoke cigarettes out the window and wonder how a place and a person can both be the same as they’ve always been, and yet never the same again.

And I’d listen to The Revelator and sense the layers of memory beneath me.

I thought about Santa Cruz and what it meant to me both before and after the earthquake, about how my grandmother’s house used to feel full and whole. I felt like I was 13 again and I knew everything was about to change, and then it did. I felt the ground shake. All the post-disaster stucco booms and post-millennial confusions of my transitory life couldn’t erase the song of car alarms in the silent dark dusk or the quiet steadiness of the woman in the driver’s seat who smelled of smoke and maturity and who, I knew, was transporting me to my next phase.

I remembered hearing that Gillian Welch was a student in Santa Cruz in 1989.

So I decided it was Gillian Welch. It must have been her who gave me a ride home from the earthquake. Who else could once again spirit me home in such an artful manner? Who else could understand how the tiny personal disasters of time and experience can feel so much bigger than disasters that destroy cities.

Whenever and wherever I hear The Revelator I will always be home, driving around watching my memories change. I will be history connecting with love stories through lyrics and guitar solos; I will be rock ’n’ roll and country and everything old and new about them. And I will always be trying to get to the roots, back to something that may or may not exist, looking for freedom to throw in history’s face.

I’ll be sitting in an old car with Gillian, smelling like smoke and fog, staring at the rough dark ocean and the broken world around me and listening to Time roll by.


Manjula Martin lives in San Francisco, where she makes fiction, criticism, and poetry for journals like Post Road, Deep Oakland, and Fugue and works as a nonprofit communications type. She writes about music at The Record Daily. More from this author →