Filmmaker-Musician Tav Falco Adds Author to Resume


Tav Falco's story begins the night he left the hills of Arkansas for good, straddled himself and his belongings across an old Norton motorcycle and headed to Memphis.

"Having crossed the Mississippi River Bridge, I was stopped by the police," says Falco. "Someone had jumped off the bridge that night; they'd jumped into the dark waters of the Mississippi."

For Falco -- a musician, filmmaker and now author -- the moment would stay with him, and provide a doorway into his latest effort, a book he describes as a "psychogeographical history" of Memphis.

On Saturday, the Arkansas native and longtime local resident, now based in Vienna, Austria, will perform at the Hi-Tone Cafe, with his band, Panther Burns.

Falco is best known for leading the long-running group and as the spiritual godfather to Memphis' underground music scene.

"But I don't claim to be a musician. I'm a performer. An artist," says Falco. "Art is a product of association. An artist starts working with what's around him, with what's at hand. And in Memphis that was music."

Although he's been living in Europe for the better part of a decade, Falco's mind has been focused on the Bluff City as he's spent the past few years working on the book, a two-volume project called "Mondo Memphis." Journalist Erik Morse penned the second part, a roman noir called "Bluff City Underground," which will be published in March.

Released this month, Falco's portion -- titled "Ghosts Behind the Sun: Splendor, Enigma & Death" -- is a fascinating literary experiment: its 300-plus pages are a work of creative nonfiction that traces Memphis' popular lore and underground history, from the Civil War massacre at Fort Pillow to the yellow fever epidemic of 1878, from Reconstruction-era skullduggery to the cultural, criminal and political developments of the 20th century.

"Had I been in my right mind perhaps I would not have done it," says Falco. "It turned out to be more work than I had ever conceived of, and probably more than I have ever done on anything."

"The problem was, I didn't know how to begin; that was the most difficult part -- until I thought of my arrival in Memphis that night in 1973 and of the person who jumped into the water. I thought well, I'm going to look into those dark waters, look into the mists overhanging the bluff of the Chickasaw, and I went through each epoch of Memphis history, but in a quasi-fictive way."

There is, naturally, an exploration of the city's artistic giants: from icons like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis to more underground figures, musicians that Falco would come to know well, like Charlie Feathers and Jessie Mae Hemphill, as well as an exploration of the vivid landscape of Beale Street.

"The first times I visited Memphis in the 1960s, I'd walk down Beale Street, and black music and black culture was in full plumage," says Falco. "The people were elegant; they were talking a hip language. They were speaking in poetic terms. These were things that drew me to Memphis in the first place."

Falco ostensibly came to the city to be a photographer and filmmaker. He quickly became entrenched in a world populated by the likes of fringe and outlaw artists like Randall Lyon, John McIntire and William Eggleston.

Soon he was helping make films of the "lost" musicians of the era, such as Furry Lewis and R.L. Burnside. "I would sit and film and watch R.L. Burnside for hours. I could groove on that," he says. "Pretty soon I was learning to play guitar. There became no separation between what was in front of the camera and what was behind it."

During the famed 1978 "Tennessee Waltz" concert event at the Orpheum, Falco was responsible for a fairly infamous "art action," where he capped a performance of Leadbelly's "Bourgeois Blues" by running a chainsaw through an old Silvertone guitar.

Shortly after that, he was approached by Box Tops/Big Star leader Alex Chilton -- then in the throes of his deconstructionist phase -- about starting a band, which would eventually be dubbed Panther Burns.

"I'd been trying to make it as a film and video maker, and it wasn't working," says Falco. "My camera had even been repossessed. Rock and roll seemed like a perfect alternative. I'll start a rock and roll band out of spite."

"Plus, all this new music was happening: punk rock, the Sex Pistols, the Cramps. It was an era where visual artists were picking up guitars. I got drawn into it. Alex got drawn into it. And the group came together."

Thirty-plus years and 15 albums later, the Panther Burns are still going strong. The group's latest record, Conjurations, was inspired by Falco's sojourn to Buenos Aries to study music and dance.

"This record is a product of my experience there," he says. "I wrote a number of poems in Buenos Aries and later translated them into the songs."

Falco is bringing the Panther Burns on the road this month for a coast-to-coast U.S. tour that will find him playing concerts and doing readings. On Dec. 1, Falco will appear at Cooper-Young's Burke's Books; later that night the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art will screen a series of his short films.

After that, Falco will return home to Vienna, where he's found a perfect analogue to Memphis.

"Like Memphis, Vienna is a great music town," he says. "Another town standing between the east and the west, located on a great river. In the case of Memphis it's the Mississippi; in the case of Vienna it's the Blue Danube. As with Memphis, the great music has come not only from the city itself, but from the neighboring lands, from Hungary, from Bratislava."

It sounds as though Hungary and Bratislava are Vienna's version of Arkansas and Mississippi?

"Yes," says Falco, laughing, "Exactly."

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