Nick Power chats to Panther Burns frontman and filmmaker Tav Falco about Memphis, the resurgence of rockabilly, William Eggleston, and much in between.
Right this way, Ladies and gentlemen, right this way…
In the song ‘Oh How She Dances’, Tav Falco talks us through a sideshow of circus curiosities. It begins with ‘The Indian Rubber Boy’ and ends with ‘Billy Joe Winghead the Geek’, who ‘eats rats, mice and chickens alive.’ Behind him, the band chugs a slow railroad, a lo-fi rockabilly rhythm that’s skewed somehow, not quite sober. Bo Diddley on diazepam.
They perform it on live TV, a regional cable channel that beams out of hidden America somewhere in the early evening. Falco is every bit the ringmaster. It’s his world completely.
Give me a seat down front, far as I’m allowed…
Fresh out of Memphis in 1981 with punk-rockabilly LP Behind The Magnolia Curtain, Tav Falco’s Panther Burns ripped through the Memphis underground with a crew of film makers, photographers and artists in tow, and emerged as its spearhead.
Like a lot of artists I admire, Falco mapped his own terrain and stuck to it, repelling the tide of trends and breathing new life into the art scene of America’s Deep South. From the shadow of Elvis, Sun Studios and Stax, in the 70’s a strange new Memphis began to appear.
I’ve never seen such movement in my life…
Another clip, from the Marge Thrasher Show in 1979, captures Panther Burns rattling through the Burnette Brothers’ Train Kept a Rollin’ on morning TV. Falco explains to the horrified host that what he’s doing is called ‘art damage’.
Alex Chilton plays guitar in that incarnation of the band. I connected the dots soon after watching. It linked together a deep-rooted love of The Box Tops and Big Star, and of photography heavyweight William Eggleston. It led me back in time to Charlie Feathers and Jim Dickinson. A new world opened up.
Lit by myriad rays of thousands of tiny electric light bulbs…
Now with, 14 albums, countless short movies, a book of photography, a couple of non-fiction books and a film to his name, he’s in the process of raising the funds to produce his second feature-length, called Urania Descending pt ll. In his own words, Tav Falco’s artistic aim is to ‘stir up the dirty waters of the subconscious’.
Yes friends, he eats them alive…
People might know you primarily for your music and not that you’re more inclined toward film making. You’re currently trying to raise the funds for the sequel to your first feature-length film, Urania Descending…
Yes, Mr. Jet, I came from the backwoods of Arkansas to Memphis in 1973 to pursue my interest in film. I did that, but not without considerable frustration because my compulsion with film had little to do with anything commercial or bourgeois. Out of spite I formed my band, Panther Burns, there in 1979.
Presently I am fully engaged not only with the new PB album to be recorded in Rome beginning March 26th, but also with my Urania Trilogy of feature length films. Actually Part I, Urania Descending, is completed and has been shown at the Horse Hospital in London, Silencio in Paris, Anthology Film Archives in New York, and presented by The American Cinematheque at The Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Blvd. For Part II, Urania Unbound, we have raised 9000 € in crowd funding and from the Vienna Film Förderung. (Watch the trailer here). Still, funds are needed to purchase 16mm film stock and Telecine costs. There are DVD/Blu-rays of Part I also available to raise funds. PayPal contributions & orders can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
You’ve described your movies as being ‘out of time’ and ‘off the grid’. They almost seem like strange dreams of themselves. Dubbed voices don’t always correspond with what’s happening on the screen. Scenes disappear or linger for much longer than they would in a ‘conventional’ film. There is an uneasy sense of discord running through everything…
The Urania Trilogy is composed of filmic poems where the past overtakes the present and the present overtakes the past.
You produced The Cramps on tracks that would appear on Songs The Lord Taught Us and Gravest Hits. Did you ever feel fully part of the resurgent rockabilly ‘scene’?Alex Chilton produced that Cramps album in Memphis. I was simply the gopher. I have never felt fully a part of any scene – although No Wave in New York claimed me.
Some of your heroes, artistic or otherwise?
Antonin Artaud, Charlie Feathers, F.W. Murnau, Josef von Sternberg.
One of my favourite photographs is William Eggleston’s ‘Memphis (Green Bathroom)’. When I first saw it I wasn’t sure if what I was seeing was a still from a horror movie, or a crime scene photograph. It’s a cryptic vision of nothing and everything all at once. A sense that something has happened, or is about to happen. It evokes something that captures the language of memories, or dreams. The whole thing is terrifyingly blank. And then I thought maybe I was filling in the blanks in with my own imagination. I get the same feeling from what you do on the screen…
“Terrifyingly blank.” is an accurate descriptive. Your impressions of Egg’s iconic picture has never been satisfactorily ascribed until now, nor my own films. There is a chapter devoted to Egg in my book, Ghosts Behind The Sun, Mondo Memphis (Book 1).
Is it important to you to maintain a sense of humour in your work?
An undercurrent of humour and irony runs through all that I do in music, in film, in writing. I appreciate a sense of droll wit for which the British, for example, are known.
There are definitely a host of new bands like the Black Lips, King Khan and Thee Oh Sees who have been influenced by you. Do you listen to much new music?
Right now I am listening to Jail Weddings in LA. Gabriel Hart is a gifted singer. Also have an ear open to Kristi & The Kracks in Europe.
You wrote an artistic history of Memphis called Ghosts Behind The Sun. It’s historical in a sense, but the dots are kind of disparate, as if they’re drawn and connected by you. A map of the city as it exists both in reality and in your memory/ imagination…
Yes, as mentioned that book not only features a chapter on Eggleston, but through the device of the time traveller a portrait of Memphis is rendered through the eyes of Eugene Baffle. It is a psycho-geography that begins at the dawn of written history surrounding the Bluff City perched above the Mississippi River and reflects a chronology of epochs up to present times as perceived by Eugene Baffle.
Do you feel like a survivor of that wild Memphis era?
Yes, a survivor. Nothing more.
The Coral listened to the 2015 album Command Performance on a lengthy European tour last year. 30-odd years down the line and the quality is still there. Do you have a favourite Panther Burns album?
It is reaffirming to know people are listening to our records. My favourite Panther Burns album will be the next one for which recording sessions begin March 26th, 2018, in Rome.
You divide your time between Memphis, Paris and Vienna. Where do you call home?Memphis is my spiritual sanctuary, Vienna is my artistic haven, while all of Paris is my stage.
What do you think about the state of Hollywood at the moment?
Hollywood is whetting its political whistle. I want to hear it blowing loud & clear. As for its scandals, they can be tempered now that they are out in open.
Now you’re back at the mercy of film-making, are there any plans to come to the U.K. and perform music again?
Anytime the phone rings with an offer, I am ready to come to the UK and hit the stage. Born ready.