Bands coming out during rock ’n’ roll’s infancy embraced the distortion, the low fidelity and the reverb that contributed to the frantic furnace and fury. Though they weren’t necessarily looking for it, they certainly found it. It has long been debated to try and clear up who is responsible, who is culpable in creating this sound we all love.
Was it the Phantom with his howling voice through the howling reverb on his cult classic, “Love me”? Or was it the time Johnny Brunette guitar player Paul Burlison’s handle on his amp broke as he was loading in gear for a TV appearance, resulting in the tubes getting jostled loose but still functional with a static, honeyed growl.
And, of course, there’s family man Ike Turner and the Kings of rhythm on the seminal hit, and arguably the first rock ’n’ roll record, 1951’s “Rocket 88.” And let’s not forget Link Wray, who cranked his Silverone amp up and put it in the window of a chicken coop, leaving a vapor trail of feathers and feedback behind him. “Rumble” was the result. The list goes on forever.
But enough palaver. This vintage take has been carried over and kept safe in the paws of this generation and their own distinct twist. The focus is on energy. There are too many to list: Sir Jeffery Evans, Southern Culture on the Skids, the Cramps, the Jon Spencer Blue Explosion, Black Keys, the White Stripes, Black Top, the Gories — et al. All violence, no silence.
One of these perps is Tav Falco, a suave sophisticat of wealth and taste, a slick and salacious mix of the King’s swagger tempered with some of Andy Warhol’s nervous energy. The Panther Burns are on the cutting edge with Falco, who founded the group with Alex Chilton (Box Tops, Big Star) as leader of the pack. He’s got his fingers in all sorts of pies: musician, performance artist, filmmaker. You’ve just gotta see him. You just gotta hear him. He’s breathtaking. And you stand to learn something, too.
But to hang on the man’s proclivities, his oddball passion, is to sell him short. He is more than just this curious, odd philosopher, a cat that goes with the flow, what makes with the flow.
On stage, he has a tango-’til-they’re-sore work ethic. Offstage, he raises more questions than answers, striking wonderment in the hearts of his followers. So, the man surrounds himself with a crowd that leaves the music open to anything. Everything is plausible. We shot a few q’s to Falco, who will appear with the Panther Burns at Photo City Music Hall on Sept. 13; he came back with a plethora of answers. Read on, you’ll see what I mean.
ROCHESTER BEACON: How are you preparing for this tour?
TAV FALCO: Every day I must train to be ready for the tour, the session, or the dance that may start at any moment. I am as weak and distracted as any man, but I do have a vision, and when vision eludes me, I rely on instinct. I follow an interior compass, though that doesn’t necessarily mean that I always know where I am going. In January, I moved from Vienna to Bangkok. I now have the ocean at my feet. I stay in the moment by tango dancing with a girl in my arms, doing push-ups, riding my motorbike. I watch the guitar looking back at me. Eventually, I pick it up.
ROCHESTER BEACON: How many dates do you perform annually?
FALCO: It depends. These will be my first Panther Burns shows since July 31, 2020, when we performed a socially-distanced concert in Italy at the height of the pandemic. This U.S. tour will be a run of 34 dates. When conditions are optimal, we do around three tours a year across three continents. I’ve started looking for a Hazmat suit to wear, but it’s likely too late since the tour begins in three days.
ROCHESTER BEACON: What is your earliest musical memory?
FALCO: My first interactive musical experience was playing 78 RPM records on the phonograph my father had brought home from his service in the U.S. Navy. I’d turn it up full blast out in the backwoods of Arkansas. Only my ears, and those of the denizens of the forest and the farm fields, would hear the sounds. My personal favorite was Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” Other than this, I heard music in the evenings on my family’s radio, and later the television.
ROCHESTER BEACON: When did you discover you were different musically?
FALCO: I always had an array of interests in music, film, theater, art, and print. I eventually began to realize I had something to offer unlike anyone else.
My awareness of this became apparent in 1979, not long after the formation of Panther Burns. My intention was not to compete for airplay or bookings. Yet, I soon had to deal with those realities. It became apparent that Panther Burns were on a different path. A path not without pitfalls, challenges, barriers and conflicts. We often have been greeted with howls of contempt from one side of the audience, and squeals of ecstasy from the other.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Who are your influences, musically, cinematically, philosophically?
FALCO: They’ve evolved over time. I grew up on rock ’n’ roll and rhythm and blues, R&R and R&B. My mother bought me Elvis singles at Stan’s Record Store in Shreveport when we drove down there from Arkansas. Later came the blues, and then jazz, followed by atonal free jazz. During my time in Paris in the 1990s, I discovered Gypsy Jazz. More recently, during my 20 years in Vienna, I developed an appreciation for classical, baroque, symphonic, and operetta. Also, the intriguing melodic rhythms of Italian movie themes. Hollywood films were my incubator growing up. In those early days of black and white television, the TV stations had a lot of programming time to fill from the crack of dawn until the channels signed off at midnight. Movies from the 1930s and 1940s were shown three times a day: mid-morning, mid-afternoon, and then the late movie, which ran after the 10 p.m. news. I watched them all. They were my window on the world along with the books I’d check out from the county library or off the bookmobile when it came to town. Later, when I’d migrated to Memphis, I attended foreign films at the Guild in Midtown. Experimental films and shorts were also shown in what was known as “underground cinema.” There was a circuit of these cinemas across the country. I soaked in films of the French nouvelle vague and was exposed to expressionistic works, which later overtook my imagination in the cinematheques of Paris and Vienna. Some examples are the early films of Roman Polanski; the early montage experiments of Sergei Eisenstein; the ecstatic silent films of Antonin Artaud; the elegant filmic grandeur of Marcel L’Herbier; the futuristic visions of Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’; and Louis Feuillade’s serials of the arch criminal, Fantomas.
Years later, my own short films were acquired and deposited in the permanent archive of the Cinémathèque Française, and my feature movie, Urania Descending, into the Film Archiv Austria. My films have been screened by the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, by Anthology Film Archives in New York, and in many other cinemas in the U.S. and abroad.
Philosophically, my stance is closest to that of Utopian Anarchy. There were worthy attempts in this direction in the 1930s, especially in Spain, where anarchist communities took root and flourished in benign, progressive, and morally advanced ways. The success and influence of these communities precipitated violent opposition until they were crushed by fearful fascists.
Personally, I am still learning. I now live in Bangkok, a Buddhist country of gentle, respectful people who live close to nature. It’s quite different from the West where, as Tennessee Williams wrote of himself, “I feel nothing, I believe in nothing, but I get down on my knees and pray.” I share that sentiment.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Of all your endeavors, which do you identify with the most?
FALCO: Whether in writing, or in film, or on stage, I feel no separation. I have but one song to sing, and I sing it over and over in different ways. I have only my persona to offer. That is all people are really interested in. It is the secret eye of the artist. What the artist sees, and how he looks at it, and with what and with whom he associates, is what fascinates people. Technique and virtuosity are what can be learned and cultivated, but the persona of the artist is inherent. It is a lens, and it is a subjective one.
ROCHESTER BEACON: What was it like working with luminaries like William Eggleston and Alex Chilton?
FALCO: I devoted a chapter each to these figures in my book, “Ghosts Behind the Sun: Splendor, Enigma & Death: Mondo Memphis Volume 1.” They are both talented musicians. Eggleston is a pianist who is known as a color photographer, and Chilton is known as a musician, but he was also a water colorist. Both are articulate, complicated, uncompromising, funny, ruthless, and utterly charming. I could listen all night to them playing their instruments and often did. Neither spoke about the nature of their work, only how to make it better and more interesting. There was little philosophizing in either while their understanding and perception couldn’t be second guessed.
ROCHESTER BEACON: What do you say to those who don’t understand what you are actually doing?
FALCO: All I can say is don’t worry about it because I, myself, don’t know what I am doing.
ROCHESTER BEACON: What are you actually doing?
FALCO: What I think I am doing differs little from what most artists do: stick a message in a bottle and throw it out to sea, sing a song, paint a picture, take a photo. It is just how I do it, and what the content is that is unique. The content comes from dark undercurrents in the unconscious. All that I do ultimately comes from there. A place inside where dreams grow and morph into other dreams. As Jean Genet noted, “dreams are nursed in darkness.” Then my dreams, epiphanies, ideas, vagaries, and even melodies are exposed to the light. Soon they develop into something—an image, a word, a song.
ROCHESTER BEACON: What can we expect?
FALCO:: On this upcoming Panther Burns tour—arm-in-arm with my comrades Mario Monterosso, our lead guitarist, record producer, and arranger; bassist Giuseppe Sangirardi; and drummer Walter Brunett —I’m going to sing, dance, and celebrate like an Aztec sunworshipper. For our 40th anniversary tour in 2019, we were concerned with incendiary political issues: the massacre in Gaza (“Doomsday Baby”); drone warfare (“Whistle Blower Blues”); lynching (“Strange Fruit”); and a foul, philistine presidency (“New World Order Blues).” Most of these issues have not gone away, but I have addressed them. No one who has heard or seen evidence of these songs of protest will ever forget. They were reminded, they were confronted, they were accused, and they were found guilty—none of us are innocent. Rather, we are all complicit to some degree, especially when we are silent in the face of travesty. As a former Panther Burns guitarist in Atlanta recently commented, “guns in America are more important than children.”
ROCHESTER BEACON: What is something you haven’t done yet?
FALCO: As a diversion, I’ve become interested in joining the windsurfers that I see from my balcony gliding over the sunny waves of the Gulf of Siam. They move quickly under colorful sails that sometimes lift them up high out of the water, as they sail over the waves in a graceful arc.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Would you say you’re transient?
FALCO: My tarot is the sign of the Wanderer. As mentioned, I grew up on a farm in the backwoods of Arkansas. I was an only child. After migrating to Memphis in the early 1970s, and picking up the devil’s six strings, doors opened upon the world by virtue of the music I was playing. Going from Arkansas to Memphis was like going to the moon. Then Memphis opened the door to New York. During the 1980s, the East Village art explosion was the threshold over which I was catapulted into the world at large. Now by association, rather than by design or intention, I have become a roamer. From New York, I migrated to Paris, where Panther Burns had released nine records on the New Rose label. Then it was back to America for a stint in New Orleans. A lust for tango drew me to Buenos Aires for some months of dancing and writing. From there, I returned to New York and put together a new band that I took back to Europe. Eventually, I settled in the theater district of Vienna, which inspired our 2018 album, “Cabaret Of Daggers.” In Vienna and at the Klimt Villa on Lake Atter, I filmed my feature movie, “The Urania Trilogy.”
ROCHESTER BEACON: Besides the Panther Burns, who is out there that you are currently blown away by?
FALCO: Tatiana Eva Marie & the Avalon Jazz Band (in Paris) are exceptional, jazzy, very zingaro, sexy, smart, and enthralling. In Rome, there is a new album out, “Panoramas,” by Sior Mirkaccio Dettori featuring Rose Selavy, Mdm. de Freitas, Sig. Frisco, and Simone Calomino.
I am captivated by these extraordinarily talented avant/retro artists. So much so that I adopted a dancing cane and matelote to appear as “L’Ultimo Gigolo” (The Last Gigolo) in their cabaret performance at La Conventicola Degli Ultramoderno. In the USA, the ironic lyrics and sexual innuendo of the Handcuffs out of Chicago have magnetized my electrodes toward their undulating bi-poles like the electrostatic, dark current return voltages of a theremin gone haywire. This attraction is reflected especially in their videos, which are funny, sexy, and bristling with underground argot. Their videos clearly illustrate how hip, riveting, and sensational films and videos can be without bankrolled budgets. Rather, they can be made on the living room sofa with a handheld camera and little else other than fertile ideas and creative gestures.
Ditto for Thee Minks in Philadelphia whose videos are hugely entertaining and made in their backyards. Both of these groups feature female front singers who challenge their audiences to step up to their level of mental contortion and grin-splitting delivery.
Dry Cleaning from the UK has one good video out now. Why I view film/video as a defining factor is that the group becomes more than itself as live performers and more than audio recording artists. The group is then hurled into collaboration with those who can create the visual/audial impression of their music or spoken word as projected on a screen, stored on a chip, or played back across your sunglasses. The artist then becomes far more dimensional in its filmic presence.
In the not-too-distant past there were the Elysian Fields in New York and Anthony & the Johnsons in the East Village who were hauntingly mesmerizing.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Do you speak Italian?
FALCO: Although I studied the language for a year at Société Dante Alighieri — including an additional month of intensive study at their institute in Venice — my speaking of la lingua Italiana is rudimentary. Yet, during my sojourns in Rome, my fluency improved dramatically. Today, my bandmates in Panther Burns are all Italian; naturally each one of them is fluent.
My ancestry is also Italian as my maternal and paternal grandparents immigrated to America over 100 years ago, and I have relatives in Italy. The name “Falco” in Italian translates to “Falcon.”
Tav Falco and the Panther Burns perform with guest Anonymous Willpower, Tuesday, Sept. 13. Photo City Music Hall. Doors at 8 p.m. $15