People who wear earbuds while studying confuse me. How can one listen to notes and take them at the same time? While this is a mystery to me, it’s a whole other story for Rob Morton. He’s not only a musical man with his band, The Taxpayers, but he’s also a budding novelist who has bitten off more than even I could handle. With graduate school in his future, Rob has taken it upon himself to not only record a Taxpayers album, which would be the norm, but he will be embarking on writing a novel to go along with said album.
The closest I’ve ever gotten to fusing music and the written word is Disney movie books on tape, so you can imagine how much I wanted to get inside the mind of a the man who thought this was a task that had to be done. And that’s just what I did, from kids in boxcars to America’s favorite past time to the reason behind his literary melodies.
Kendra Beltran: Were you that little kid who spent his summers indoors, glued to a book? Or were you more of a writer than a reader?
Rob Morton: First off, thanks for the interest, Kendra! You know, I think it’s tough for anyone to quantify the type of kid that they were, especially when it’s such a distant memory. I grew up an only child, and was therefore alone a great deal of the time, which certainly led to a whole bunch of reading. I don’t think that turned me into an “indoors” kid, though – in fact, I remember reading this ghost story involving voodoo when I was maybe 8 or 9 years old and then immediately going outside to look for the dead bird I’d seen in the backyard the day before. When I found it, I buried it. I was worried that it might come back to life through the use of voodoo, like some kind of zombie bird! I spent the next three days burying every dead squirrel, mouse, and spider I found out of that same fear. Weird, I know, but it’s proof of the fire that reading can light inside a kid’s imagination, right? Not sure if that answers your question…
Kendra: We’ll just go with reading led to an outdoor, adventurous/worrisome spirit. Can you recall the first book you fell in love with and why you fell head over spine for it?
Rob: My grandmother gave me a signed copy of Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls when I was 6; I still have it. That book made me obsessed with wanting a hunting dog for years. But the books that really got me going when I was a kid were the Boxcar Children series, though. Anyone that grew up in the early 80’s is probably with me on this one. It’s about these kids who runaway and live in an abandoned boxcar for years, cooking for themselves, building things themselves, etc. It was really empowering and really exciting.
Kendra: How does that book compare to the first song you were infatuated with? Similarities, differences?
Rob: Well, it’s all about finding meaning in life, right? Those Boxcar Children books gave me a sense of independence in the same way that the Beach Boys’ “Catch a Wave” sent a chill down my spine the first time I heard it. I still get that chill when they sing, “They’ll eat their words with a fork and spoon.” The difference is that a novel allows the author to expound upon the intricacies of the subject, whereas a song just gives you an inkling. Both require a “leap of faith” of the imagination, but a song is usually more easily digestible and therefore more typically universal, while the novel requires a greater investment from the reader, but can often yield more complex results.
Kendra: I ask because you’ve given yourself a task I’ve never heard of. You’re embarking on not only recording a new album with your band, but writing a book to go along with it. The most obvious thing I can ask here is, why put yourself through that?
Rob: Ha, right?! It’s been hell. I’ve re-written the damn thing three times now. But you know, I’m surprised that it’s not done more often. What I just described about the positives and negatives of the novel versus the song played pretty big into the idea – you can paint a much broader picture with both tools. If I were to write a song about a rotten peach lying on the ground, it’d be one thing…some people might take it as a metaphor for the transient nature of life, others would probably just call it another Taxpayers song with nonsensical lyrics concerning a banal subject. But if I were to write a short story to accompany that song in which a Czech man goes to a fruit stand in New York City, buys a peach, which makes him remember the peach tree on his family farm that no longer exists because when the Russians invaded in the late 60’s they turned it into a communist work farm, which in turn makes him have a nervous breakdown in Central Park while eating the peach, which makes him drop the peach and run home, and the peach would sit there slowly decomposing and getting picked at by pigeons and flies, until finally a 16 year old performing community service in Central Park for a crime he didn’t commit picks it up and puts it in the trash…well, you get the idea.
Kendra: What can we expect from that book? Will each chapter be a song…
Rob: Both the book and the album are about the life of a man named Henry Turner. Turner was the star pitcher for Georgia Tech’s baseball team in the late 70’s. He later became an abusive husband, a speed junkie, and worse, before losing his mind and becoming an affable, well-loved storyteller. Each song is based upon a point in his life. The songs are drawn from various chapters.
Kendra: Will it be something along the lines of Green Day’s American Idiot because I noticed you guys had a play of your own recently?
Rob: Ha, you’re referring to “Rise of Future Dogs”, a play the Taxpayers wrote and performed recently. Anyone that saw it will tell you that it wasn’t a “play” necessarily, and more just us crawling around and acting like dogs and cats. We try to keep ourselves amused. We decided to do something ridiculous and fun just for the hell of it, since we’ll be taking a year-long hiatus as a band while I attend graduate school in Louisiana. But no, the new album/book won’t be anything like American Idiot.
Kendra: Switching from the stage to the screen, are you the kind of person to read a book before or after a movie’s made from it?
Rob: You know, most people will tell you that the book is always better than the movie. I think the two can be separate, equally redeemable works if done well. Recently I watched the film adaptation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being which was filmed in the 80’s. Milan Kundera is one of my favorite authors, and that’s one of my favorite books, so I expected to hate the movie; I loved it though. Sure, the movie wasn’t able to encompass the philosophical elements of the book, but it’s a beautifully made movie. Interestingly, Kundera hated it, and has since refused to allow any of his works to be made into film.
Kendra: If your next album/book was made into a movie, which two actors would you have to cast in it and why?
Rob: God. If he were still alive, Paul Newman. Newman, during his late 70’s Slapshot era of acting had the wise, bitter humor and the toughness of Henry Turner. Same goes for the late Senator Ted Kennedy. He’s got the dark background (for Chistsakes, he arguably killed a woman and managed to keep his job for decades afterward). Politics, like acting, requires deft lying, so he’d be perfect.
Kendra: Almost at the end of our chapter together, so at the end of your time here on Earth, if a book and/or album was made that was inspired by your life…Who would you want to pen it? Dead or alive.
Rob: Shoot, I don’t know. It’d be pretty arrogant and shitty of me to assume that someone would want to write about my life. I’ll tell you what, though. If someone were going to write about my life, I’d like for it to be about a small, brave adventure…like the time my friends and I and a pit bull named Sasha paddled across the Columbia river on a 3 x 3 foot raft made of floating trash using wooden planks filled with rusty nails for paddles. Mark Twain would have to write that one, of course.
Kendra: Lastly, we usually ask for musical mixtapes around here, but since we’re focusing on the written word I’m going to ask you to suggest something along the lines of a summer reading list. Shoot me over your top 5 books that speak to the Punk mentality, go!
Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory by Mickey Hess. Long before Kindle existed, and long before punks got the idea to subvert capitalism by offering free music, Mickey Hess was offering free PDF downloads of his novels in the mid 90’s. All too often, “free” means “poorly made”, but this book is a masterpiece. It’s a hilarious memoir that describes the time Hess spent as a teacher at four different colleges while having to supplement his terrible income by being an ice-cream man, character at a haunted house, ball pit monitor at a children’s arcade, stand-up comedian, and Billy Graham Crusader. It asks that recurring question: can you maintain your dignity and still pay the bills?
Avow zine by Keith Rosson. Zines, of course, are a huge part of the punk subculture, but Avow is one of the best out there, and has been around for over 24 issues, which is an amazing accomplishment and a testament to how great it is; honest, brave, heart-wrenching, and funny.
Dishwasher by Pete Jordan. This is an obvious one, but for those unfamiliar, it’s about one man’s attempt to wash dishes in all 50 states. Jordan, rather than repulsed by the job, is enamored with the freedom that comes with washing dishes for a living, and this is a collection of all the amazing adventures he has along the way. It reads like the On the Road of our generation.
Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor. Though it doesn’t necessarily speak to “punks” in particular, O’Connor should be required reading for any human. This is a collection of her short stories, and while they’re often tragic, I’ve learned more about myself from reading her than most other fiction.
The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. One of those books that makes you so proud of the main character, and reminds you that people can persevere through almost any circumstance. If you need a reminder of how to maintain grace under pressure, do yourself a favor and pick this one up.
Originally published on Nov 1, 2011