In the mid-'70s, as Elvis Presley drew his last breath, a friendship revolutionized and revitalized Memphis music. It started when former Box Tops and Big Star frontman Alex Chilton saw a young art freak named Tav Falco take a chain saw to a guitar onstage at the Orpheum Theatre.
"We started hanging out together and playing," says Falco, now living in Europe but back in town this week for a rare local show. "And Alex said, 'Let's start a band. I got a drummer, Ross Johnson, a renegade librarian. All we need is a name.'" Falco had heard about the legend of Panther Burn, Mississippi (a plantation named for an incident when an escaped circus panther was burned alive in a canebrake) which was a hotbed of country blues, and it stuck as the name for the rotating cast of bohemians who, led by Falco and Chilton, became the center of a bacchanalian Midtown scene.
"Alex was a towering artist and a complicated man," Falco says. "He was not only one of the great guitar players of the 20th century — he kind of poo-pooed his guitar playing, but I think he was one of the best, and I have seen a lot of them — but as singer, there was none better. He could sing with a thousand different voices. He opened doors for me as an artist. He convinced me to play rock-and-roll, which was something I never really thought about doing. I never thought I could do it. When I met him, I was listening to country blues on the one hand and Karlheinz Stockhausen on the other. It was the end of the psychedelic period, and I wasn't interested in rock-and-roll any more. But it became more than just rock-and-roll with Alex. He could play anything he wanted to play, from classical to rock to Latin. After a while, I wanted to treat other kinds of music with the Panther Burns beat, like samba and tango. Alex jumped on that with ease. Anything I would bring to the table, he would say okay, and we did it our way."
Panther Burns shows of the late '70s and early '80s featured not only guitars, drums, and bass but also insane synthesizer racket, trumpets, and whatever else was handy.
"The president of Rough Trade Records saw us at Danceteria in New York," Falco recalls. "We went on at about 4 o'clock in the morning — bands those days went on rather late. It was kind of a nutty scene. Robert Palmer from Little Rock, the music writer, played clarinet with us on that show. It was a completely wild clarinet. After the gig, Jim Fouratt, a famous alternative band booker in New York, who was managing Danceteria at the time, came backstage and said, 'That was the worst-sounding, noisiest, most hideous thing I have ever heard at this club. But there's a guy name Geoff Travis from a record label in London who wants to come backstage to talk to you. Should I let him in?'"
The resulting album, 1981's Behind the Magnolia Curtain, which was recently reissued by Fat Possum records as a double album with 1983's Blow Your Top, is one of the defining documents of the rockabilly-infused strain of garage punk that would eventually lead to such acts as the Oblivians and the White Stripes.
After a decade of relentless touring and groundbreaking recording, Falco moved to Europe in the early 1990s, settling in Paris and eventually Vienna. Only recently, after the death of Chilton and some of his other early collaborators, has he broken his self-imposed continental exile.
"Cordell Jackson wanted me to come back to Memphis and perform with her at her last show, but I didn't know it was going to be her last show. I had vowed I would never come back to Memphis until I had a new album. Well, finally I did it, after nine years — all original songs, no compromise. We recorded that album, Conjurations: Séance for Deranged Lovers, in 2010 at a secret studio in Paris. Through my obstinacy and stubbornness, I didn't come back and perform with Cordell. And then all of a sudden she was gone."
Tav Falco's Panther Burns will perform at Minglewood Hall's 1884 Lounge on Sunday, October 14th. The show will also serve as a fund-raiser "orientation" for the upcoming documentary Meanwhile in Memphis: The Sound of a Revolution by director Richard Allen Parker, which traces the wild, DIY strain of Memphis music that can be traced in part back to Panther Burns and includes footage of Falco's infamous Orpheum chain-saw incident.
Falco remains a Memphis original.
"There is a persona in our work that pervades everything we do," he says. "Sure, we reinvent ourselves, and we embrace different styles of music, but it's all infused with the persona of the Panther Burns."
Tav Falco's Panther Burns
With Jack O & the Tennessee Tearjerkers and
Michael Hurtt and his Haunted Hearts
1884 Lounge at Minglewood Hall
Sunday, October 14th
8 p.m., $10