Most of the pictures we took last summer when the Taxpayers played here at Hymie’s turned out like this. We turned the lights down, and we don’t have a very good camera to begin with. I’ve never been the person to bring a camera to special events, anyway, because I’m more comfortable with the way my brain nestles memories into little cozy little neuronic nests than the way photographs define extraordinary events with a mere fraction of a second.
Last summer the Taxpayers were touring on their album, To Risk so Much for One Damn Meal (I call it the “rabbit album” because – as I have often mentioned – I forget the name of albums and give them my own titles based on what’s on the jacket). They had slowly grown from a traditional punk rock trio to an eight or eleven piece band incorporating folk melodies, ska, and shades of jazz. Although they seemed to have tapped a deep reservoir of riffs and hooks from the Operation Ivy cache, the memorable thing about the album was Rob Taxpayer’s gift for intense, challenging narratives. “Everybody Just Stood There” lamented indifference and “My Brother Isn’t Dying” celebrated empathy with distinctive look-you-in-the-eye intensity.
And tomorrow the Taxpayers will return to Hymie’s Records. They’re halfway through what has got to be the least successful tour since Buddy Holly left Mason City in a 1937 Beechcraft Bonanza 35, but there’s nowhere to go but, um, up. This year they’re touring to support a new album, God Forgive These Bastards: Songs from the Forgotten Life of Henry Turner, which is complimented by a 125 page book by Rob Morton (ie, Rob Taxpayer) of the same name. Each was inspired by Rob’s relationship with a homeless man he met at a bus stop – The album’s liner notes describe it as “an amalgamation of the stories Henry told”.
The band’s sound is hardly changed so much as it’s evolved. I found the addition of horns on the “rabbit album” entirely unappealing (my favorite track was the good old fashioned “Geodesic Prison Song”) and longed for the grittier sound of A Rattling in the Cages. With their new record the Taxpayers’ arrangements and use of horns are closer to 70s “new thing” jazz than 90s ska punk, a welcome change. They’ve also retained their distinctive traditional folk base by shifting between loud, fast arrangements and stripped down, sometimes simple acoustic numbers. The new album continues to use innovative instrumentation – tasteful accordion, subdued and oftentimes hidden banjo, and robust, low register horn arrangements.
(Instead of streaming a few tracks from the album I have added the player above, which allows you to play the entire record if you’d like – clicking on it will take you to the Taxpayers’ bandcamp page where you can purchase God Forgive these Bastards along with their other albums. In the couple weeks we’ve had a copy of it in the shop, I have found I enjoy listening to it most all the way through, rather than skipping around which is what I often do.)
Like the blurred photograph above, the image of Henry Turner on the cover of God Forgive these Bastards doesn’t present a clear picture but a simulacrum of something lost to the ages. Yep, simulacrum. People die everyday forgotten leaving behind little evidence beyond the movement of a few grains of sand. There’s nothing I can add to the memory of Henry Turner because I only know him through Rob’s retelling of his rehearsed stories, but I can recognize the horrible anonymity of death. Just a few days ago I posted a Bill Cosby record and a story about my brother, who is (in a roundabout way) the reason you’re seeing these words at all. There is not a scale large enough to measure what my brother did for me in his life and in his death, and I think about it every day.
But he was not an important man, in spite of the amazing things he did here on this Earth and in the lives of the people who loved him. I struggle to stifle my desire to tell his story because I know what we really want here – you and I – is super weird songs and super weird records.
My brother lived a far better life than Henry Turner, even if it was half as long. He was insightful and soft-spoken, an extraordinary combination, and to the very last day of his life generous to a fault. Still, I empathize with Rob’s “utter entrancement” with Henry Turner and the stories he told of his life.
My first impression of God Forgive These Bastards was repulsion. The last thing I needed was to have some middle class punk tell me about their awesome homeless friend – I’ve been down that road and everybody ends up looking like an ass except the homeless man.
But God Forgive These Bastards doesn’t lionize or canonize Henry Turner – In fact it does the opposite. If the sanctimonious biopics about Johnny Cash and Ray Charles presented their subject as candidly as Rob Taxpayer did they would have been box office bombs, even as they may have been great art. Our personal failings and weaknesses are at the core of all great art “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone when we’re uncool,” says the fictional and awesome Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. Another quote, simple as it may be, comes to mind – It’s the last verses of my favorite Tom T. Hall song:
The miles were good but the mileage is turning my hair gray
I’ve met some people that knew me and called me friend
Ain’t no sense in wanting my life to live over
I’d find different ways to make those same mistakes again
So let me say this, I never tried to hurt anybody
Though I guess there’s a few that I still couldn’t look in the eye
If I’ve got one wish I hope it rains at my funeral
For once I’d like to be the only one dry.
Was there even a Henry Turner? At times – for instance “God Damn these Hands of Mine” – it’s hard separate Rob Taxpayer from Henry Turner. If you’ve been listening to the Taxpayers for a while you know Rob has a knack for autobiographical storytelling and the forgotten theatrics of the classic rock era. His knack for autobiographical storytelling was especially evident on the last album, To Risk So Much for One Damn Meal, and it is much stronger here.
In the liner notes to God Forgive These Bastards Rob writes that he met Henry Turner in 2007, around the time the Taxpayers started recording. God Forgive These Bastards collects his interpretation of stories told by Turner, but carries themes threaded throughout the band’s five year run. The album’s gem, “Hungry Dog in the Street”, recalls their shout-along anthem “No Lodging for the Mad” (from 2009’s A Rattling in the Cages) while much of the album focuses on the ambiguous relationship between compassion and complacency.
But was there really a Henry Turner? Despite Rob’s claims there’s not a lot of evidence out there (you know, on the internet). I figure there’s a couple explanations:
– There’s no Henry Turner. Rob found inspiration in a character from some dusty corner of his brain. Or he’s so batshit crazy that there’s a homeless man nobody else sees who tells him stories. That would explain the dozens of songs he wrote on the albums that precede God Forgive These Bastards.
– Henry Turner was so fucking awesome he didn’t need Facebook or the internet. He was a real man and this is a weird, sad tribute to his awful life.
Either one of these is inconsequential because in either scenario God Forgive these Bastards is the very best concept album in decades. It’s an eerie celebration of fallibility, miles from Phil Ochs’ “There but for Fortune” and hopelessly, achingly removed from even the ethereal – “No religion can save me,” laments Rob’s Henry Turner, only moments after telling us he’s been “praying nightly every single week”. I defy you to find any reference to the Lord in this album that isn’t uttered in anger or abandonment.
The lazy listener might take from God Forgive these Bastards a simple lesson of forgiveness and understanding. I suppose that can’t be a bad thing, but the fact is that nobody forgave or understood Henry Turner. The Taxpayers made the unusual choice of including two interviews (set to music) which provide us with a passing glimpse of Henry Turner. One casually captures his absolute wretchedness while the second – “Let the Seconds Do Their Work”, the last track on the album – goes beyond anything I’m prepared to write about.
Over the past couple of years I have had my dreams come true but also experienced losses I don’t think I could have ever prepared for – I have buried friends and family without the opportunity to say goodbye and I have held my wife as my two beautiful children came into the world. I have also been fortunate enough to meet a personal hero (Mick Jones), but been vilified for the way I choose to run this record store – Nothing in my thirty-four years gives me any hope of explaining what God Forgive these Bastards means in the long haul. I don’t think Rob Taxpayer could explain it, but he had the capacity – and, yes, the compassion – to put it together, to collect Henry Turner’s stories into a book and a record so that when we’re all older it might make a little bit of sense.