- Lucia Rossi
- Though more refined than he used to be, Tav Falco hasn’t lost his edge.
Tav Falco’s motto, the filmmaker Robert Gordon once noted, is “you compose ’em, we decompose ’em.” It’s a modus operandi that was especially evident back in the early ’80s, when Falco’s swampy, art-damaged, psychobilly band Panther Burns featured Alex Chilton of Big Star and Box Tops fame on guitar. The two musicians first met in Memphis at an “art-action happening,” where Falco took a chainsaw to his amplified guitar while playing Leadbelly’s anti-racist anthem “Bourgeois Blues.”
They revisited the song on Panther Burns’ debut album Behind the Magnolia Curtain, which was recorded in six hours at the famed Ardent Studios. There was no chainsaw this time, but midway through, we do hear Falco launch into a recitation of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” he preachifies over Chilton’s nearly atonal guitar. “Starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the Negro streets at dawn, looking for an angry fix.”
Raised in Whelen Springs — an Arkansas sawmill town whose population has since dwindled to 92 people — Gustavo Antonio “Tav” Falco moved to Memphis in his late 20s. It was there that he and his band helped create the template for a Southern Gothic rock sound that was simultaneously being explored by his like-minded friends in The Cramps and The Gun Club. Over the course of the next four decades and more than a dozen albums, Panther Burns has cycled through more than a hundred musicians, either as bandmembers or guest performers, including the Minutemen’s Mike Watt, The Posies’ Ken Stringfellow, Al Green guitarist and co-writer Teenie Hodges, and Mississippi hill country blueswoman Jessie Mae Hemphill.
Meanwhile, Falco’s offstage persona is as articulate and erudite as rock ’n’ roll gets. With his genteel Southern accent and demeanor, the former railroad brakeman deftly segues from the finer points of Austrian cultural history — he’s lived in Vienna for the past 20 years — to the political persecution of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, to which his 2015 Command Performance album and subsequent “Whistle Blower Tour” were both thematically linked.
Falco has also ventured into literary non-fiction, exploring arcane aspects of Memphis history in his 2011 book Ghosts Behind the Sun: Splendor, Enigma & Death. In the visual realm, he spent a decade filming and photographing that city’s musicians, artists and politicians, which led to an exhibition at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art entitled 50 Photographs: An Iconography of Chance.
“I do have people listening to some of my music,” he says, “and watching some of my films, and looking at some of my photographs, and reading some of my writing. Not a lot of people, but there are some. And most of them have a conscience and most of them engage in critical thinking. So I want to say something to those people in the best way I can. And so I use rock and roll music, and sometimes rockabilly music, sometimes a samba, sometimes a waltz, sometimes jazz. I use the music to entertain, but I also use it because there’s some residual meaning in what I do.”
On his most recent album, 2018’s Cabaret of Daggers, Falco primarily focuses on covers of vintage material, including a rendition of “Strange Fruit,” the grim Billie Holiday song that serves as an extended metaphor for Southern lynchings.
“I had the utmost trepidation taking that song on,” says Falco. “Billie Holiday was the most masterful female vocalist, perhaps in all of American history, and that song almost wrecked her career. She drew a lot of heat doing ‘Strange Fruit,’ and she knew she was gonna draw a lot of heat. It was a huge challenge, but at this point in my life, I knew I had to do it.”
Elsewhere on the album, the songwriter offers up his own less-than-subtle take on America’s renewed racism with “New World Order Blues,” a bluesy polemic that strays into Allen Ginsberg territory with its allusions to our Oval Office’s “god emperor wearing the perfect puppet head orangutan diaper of malignant rage.”
Another original track, “Red Vienna,” finds Falco in a more reflective mode, contemplating his adopted city’s past with an elegant arrangement that includes an aria from opera singer Kallen Esperian.
All of which is not to imply that Tav Falco has abandoned the signature vocal style that he and artists ranging from Elvis Presley to Cramps frontman Lux Interior borrowed from rockabilly pioneer Charlie Feathers.
“Charlie was the unequivocal master of the rockabilly hiccup,” says Falco. “Lux adopted it into his vocal style early on, and I wished he hadn’t given it up, because he was really excellent at it. Me, I’m not too bad. If I have enough echo on my voice, I’m pretty good with it. And now I can sing a little bit. It didn’t happen overnight. I got a late start in life, you know?”
Of course, refinement only goes so far, and Falco is enough of an entertainer to know that his raucous rockabilly wild side is still a major selling point. It’s also ingrained in his personality, both musically and otherwise, as he proved during Panther Burns’ first and last appearance at a gala ballroom in Vienna’s City Hall.
“It’s a neo-Gothic structure from the early 19th century, a marvelous place,” he says approvingly. “Panther Burns went on at 3 in the morning, and I had just come off a long European tour, so I was a little edgy. And the show kind of ended up in a fist fight between me and the bouncers.”
Long story short, a British emcee came out to cut the band’s set short, Falco refused, told him to get his ass back to London, and things escalated from there. “The bouncers came over and held me down, and he socked me right in the face. Of course, I got a couple swings at him before they took me down.”
So is Falco more well-behaved these day?
“Well, generally,” he says. “You know, I have a pretty mild-mannered personality, but nobody messes with the show. It’s all about the show.”