In the mid-1990s, author Robert Gordon included a sizeable segment about Tav Falco and the beginnings of his group Panther Burns in his acclaimed book on Memphis music, It Came From Memphis. Falco has formed a legendary reputation nationally and internationally over the past 27 years since the formation of Tav Falco's Panther Burns, releasing dozens of recordings, produced by the likes of Alex Chilton, Jim Dickinson, and Perry Michael Allen of Hi Records. He has also released or participated in numerous videos and films, some of which he produced himself.
Tav Falco first felt the twinges of musical inspiration growing up in rural Arkansas, where he was drawn to the rustic blues and jazz forms that abounded in the Arkansas/Mississippi/Memphis area. While working as a brakeman on the Missouri Pacific railroad, Falco would hop rides into Memphis -- where "music was just in the air," He remembers hearing legendary country blues men like Sleepy John Estes, Bukka White, Furry Lewis, Fred McDowell and Houston Stackhouse.
Falco later moved to Memphis from Arkansas, where he crafted avant-garde video documentaries of local musicians for the experimental Televista network which he co-initiated. Around that time, he joined Jim Dickinson's offbeat band, Mud Boy & The Neutrons, as a performance artist. "We would do these alternative theatrical art actions within the context of rock'n'roll shows," he recalls. "We were being hoisted up in harnesses and slung out over the audience and re-enacting scenes from William Burroughs involving shipwrecks, finger amputations and onstage explosions."
Mud Boy eventually disbanded for a time, but their free-for-all "Last Waltz" event at Memphis' Orpheum Theater would be Falco's dramatic entry into the world of music making. Falco arrived with a battered Silvertone guitar (purchased from a neighbor for $5) on which he'd learned an odd, driving deep blues from then obscure honky-tonk bluesman R.L. Burnside, and between sets, he took the stage. "I was in evening clothes -- frock coat and tails, white tie and gloves -- and I had a chainsaw and an electric Skilsaw set up on two tables," he remembers. He emerged alone, plugged in his guitar and launched into a dissonant read of the old Leadbelly tune "Bourgeois Blues."
At the song's frenzied climax, "I put the guitar down between the two tables, took the Skilsaw and ripped through it with that saw. People started screaming because it sounded like this industrial metal clanging-smashing- ripping sound, like that of a derailed freight train … and it was driving them crazy. Then I took out the chainsaw and finished the guitar off. The sound was horrendous and people were going completely hysterical in the audience. Then I passed out onstage and they had to drag me off. That was my first performance."
Alex Chilton witnessed the mayhem and having been moved by Falco's performance, he encouraged the artist-provocateur to start his own band, and offered to become a founding member. Taking the band's name from a legend concerning the brutal slaying by fire of a panther that had terrorized a Mississippi plantation around the turn of the century, Falco found in Panther Burns aura an ideal conduit for "stirring up the dark waters of the unconscious and getting away from the sort of bourgeois realism that we all know and eschew."
Playing in the Memphis cotton lofts -- wood-lined structures Falco likens to a guitar sounding box -- Panther Burns developed their own tone science and intuitive approach to fusing seemingly disparate musical forms. The unbridled, irruptive nature of Panther Burns shows, which often featured guests like rockabilly legend Charlie Feathers, became monumental, legendary events. Ever-committed to preserving indigenous music and furthering new and daring expression, in 1985 Falco and the Panther Burns founded Counter Fest, an annual festival showcasing the best and the worst of the Memphis arts underground. The band had also quickly become a favorite in New York City, as well, where No Wave was emerging at the time. "All these bands were into this ultra-cool bag and Panther Burns came in from Memphis with this really hot, incendiary music and we were accepted right away," Falco remembers. "People were drawn to us because we represented that little pocket of antithesis - a kind of anti-environment." Rough Trade Records enthused over the band, too, and released debut album Behind The Magnolia Curtain in 1981.
Twelve LP/EP releases and countless globe-trotting tours later, Falco moved to Europe, where he has found his most embracing audiences over the years, settling for a time in Vienna, and then in Paris. Though he sees some parallels between the river cities of Memphis and Vienna and Paris, he says, "I found it refreshing to be able to get a perspective on the country that I came from. I find it even more rewarding artistically to maintain a relative isolation from the rock'n'roll scene. I've entered into an anomalous environment -- but one that is very developed, very cultivated, and one where I can study and ponder the cinema." The dramatic flair of his music, in fact, has transmuted easily to film, landing Falco in movies. In addition to his own expressionistic music films, Falco appeared with Winona Ryder in the dubious 1989 Jerry Lee Lewis bio-flick Great Balls Of Fire, and in 1993 he portrayed the leader of a biker gang in the award-winning rock'n'roll road movie Highway 61, riding his own vintage Norton motorcycle.
While living in Vienna, Falco absorbed the varied customs and languages of the culturally diverse city, which is a virtual gateway between Eastern and Western frontiers. In Europe his interest in Latin sounds has evolved into a fervor for tango music. Falco has become a tango dancer himself, regularly gliding in baroque ballrooms of Vienna's many palaces and in the milongas of Paris and Buenos Aires. Falco describes tango's allure: "Only with blues from the American South, a form with which tango shares certain thematic and tonal parallels, have I seen people moved with such dark power. The lyricist Discepelo once said, 'Tango is a sad thought that can be danced.'"
Tango's profound influence, both philosophical and musical, is evident in Falco's albums, as woven through the Shadow Dancer record's songs of unrequited love, betrayal, and lost causes. "It's impossible to have any understanding of the future -- or to be in touch with the immediate present -- without having firsthand knowledge of the early musical forms and myths," Falco says. "With Panther Burns, we call up the early myths and reach people on an orphic level." As The New York Times has declared of unorthodox preservationist Falco, "(He is) a singer, guitarist and researcher of musical arcane who hasn't let his increasingly technical expertise and idiomatic mastery compromise the clarity of his vision."
Based now in Europe, Falco continues to perform with Panther Burns, appearing in 2005 as a headliner at events like the Nuggets Festival in Dortmund, Germany, and the Orange Evolution Festival in Newcastle, England. He then appeared in the It Came From Memphis series at The Barbican Centre in London. In the same year Falco's films were showcased in a "concert & flicks" event at Couvent des Ursulines. He recently appeared in By the Ways, a documentary film about color photographer William Eggleston, screened at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, and a retrospective of his films was shown at the La Cinémathèque Française on April 21, 2006. Afterward, Falco and his group were invited to appear on the ARTHUR Magazine festival held at the historic Palace Theatre in Los Angeles. The event led to a mini-tour of the US including the New Daisy Theatre in Memphis and Joe's Pub in the Public Theatre in New York. On June 28, 2007, the prestigious Fondation Cartier in Paris produced a special performance with Tav Falco and Panther Burns.