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 Mississippi Delta area. While working as a brakeman on the Missouri Pacific railroad, Falco would hop rides into Memphis- where ?music was just in the air,? Falco remembers-to hear legendary country blues men like Sleepy John Estes, Bukka White, Furry Lewis, Fred McDowell and Houstan Stackhouse.
Falco later moved to Memphis, where he crafted avant-garde video documentaries of local musicians-like Alex Chilton- for the experimental Televista network. 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, but their free-for-all at Memphis? Orpheum Theater would be Falco?s dramatic entry into the world of professional music making. Falco arrived with his battered Silvertone guitar (purchased from a neighbor for five dollars) on which he?d learned an odd, shuffling blues style from obscure honky-tonk bluesman R.L. Burnside, and, between sets, took the stage. ?I was in evening clothes- from 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 gratingly distorted 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 and it was driving them crazy. Then I took out the chainsaw and finished the guitar off. The sound was absolutely horrendous and people were going completely hysterical in the audience. Then I passed out onstage and they had to drag me off. And that was my first performance.?
Alex Chilton witnessed the mayhem, tracked Falco down and told him that a spiritual feeling had overtaken him during Falco?s performance. He encouraged Falco to start his own band, of which he would become a founding member and eventually produce. Taking the band?s name from a bit of local legend- the brutal slaying by fire of a panther that had terrorized a Mississippi plantation around the turnoff the century- Falco found in Panther Burns an ideal conduit for ?dealing with the unconscious and getting away from this sort of television realism that we all know.?
Playing in the Memphis cotton lofts- wood-lined structures Falco likens to a guitar sounding box- Panther Burns developed their own tone science and gut-bucket approach to fusing seemingly disparate musical forms. The untamed Panther Burns shows, which often featured guests like rockabilly legend Charlie Feathers, became monumentally attended events. Ever-committed to preserving indigenous musics 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 quickly became a favorite in New York City, as well, where the arty No Wave was de rigeur. ?All these bands were into this very 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 really liked us because we represented that little pocket of antithesis.? Rough Trade Records admired 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 was found his most embracing audiences over the years, settling in Vienna. Though he sees many similarities between the river cities of Memphis and Vienna, ?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 be isolated from the Memphis rock?n?roll scene, to get outside of everything. I?ve been accustomed to and go into an alien environment- but one that is very developed, very cultivated, one also 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 Dennis Quaid and Winona Ryder in the 1989 Jerry Lee Lewis bio-flick Great Balls Of Fire and in 1993 portrayed the leader of a biker gang in the award-winning rock?n?roll road movie Highway 61, riding his own vintage Norton motorcycle.
Living in Vienna, Falco has absorbed the varied customs and languages of the culturally diverse city, which is a virtual gateway between Eastern and Western Europe. His interest in Latin sounds has evolved into a full-fledged devotion to tango-music, dance and lore-which enjoys great popularity in Europe. Falco has become a tango dancer himself, regularly gliding in baroque ballrooms of Vienna?s many palaces and even performing on occasion. Falco describes tango?s intense 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 on Falco?s latest album, woven through Shadow Dancer?s songs of unrequited love, lost causes and betrayal. ?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.?