(It wasn’t until after I met Tav Falco, and had been thoroughly terrified by his Little-Richard-esque stare, that I did some reading about this legend. Without giving you some convoluted amateur description of this music icon, here’s what the interweb says about him.)
Falco was raised in the country, between Whelen Springs and Gurdon, Arkansas, and moved to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1973. He started the nonprofit Televista “art-action” video group in Memphis to document local musicians and artists in the mid 1970s with fellow Arkansas poet, performance artist, and videographer Randall Lyon. Falco and Lyon were both heavily influenced by the work of their mentor and friend, noted Memphis color photographer William Eggleston. Alex Chilton was impressed by a 1978 performance of Falco’s at The Orpheum in Memphis that culminated in the chainsawing of a guitar. The two teamed up musically and evolved into the self-styled “art damage” band, Tav Falco’s Panther Burns. The group recorded a first album for Rough Trade at Ardent Studios in Memphis, after a previous 1980 session for the label at Phillips Recording was temporarily shelved (later rereleased on Marilyn Records as The Unreleased Sessions in 1992).
Just as he began his early career documenting other artists using video and photography, Falco devoted some of his musical career trying to bring attention to great traditional artists obscured from the media’s view. He introduced their work to his audiences and to writers following his work by performing Panther Burns shows on billings with these artists, recording interpretations of their songs, and occasionally collaborating with some of them on projects for small record labels he’s been associated with, like Au Go Go and New Rose. Among these artists were blueswoman Jessie Mae Hemphill and rockabilly pioneer Charlie Feathers. Falco and Lux Interior of The Cramps worked on the photography and liner notes, respectively, for the 1982 Honky Tonk Man album by Feathers, whose energetic, hiccup-styled vocals from the 1950s influenced both vocalists. Others of his area music heroes who have performed at Panther Burns events include Cordell Jackson, R. L. Burnside, Mose Vinson, and Van Zula Hunt. While releasing numerous Panther Burns albums on small international indie labels, Falco also has co-released some recordings by his band and other Memphis-area artists on his own Frenzi label.
Falco has appeared as an actor with small parts in films such as Great Balls of Fire! (1989 – USA), The Big Post Office Robbery (1992 – Hungary), Highway 61 (1991 – Canada), Downtown 81 (2001 – USA), and Wayne County Rambling (2002 – USA). Long a student of the tango under European and Argentine instructors, he also appeared in Dans Le Rouge du Couchant (2003 – France) as a tango dancer, choreographing his part in the film. He has appeared in several short films, most of which he also produced and in some cases served as the filmmaker, and which have been shown in underground arts venues like The Horse Hospital in London.
In 2003 six of Falco’s short films were accepted and archived into the permanent collection of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris. The short films archived are Love’s Last Warning (1996), Born Too Late (1993), Helene of Memphis (1991), Memphis Beat (1989), Shadetree Mechanic (1986), and 71 Salvage (1971). A selection of Falco’s short films were shown in a retrospective at the Cinémathèque Française in 2006. His first feature film, Urania Descending, was announced in 2014, having been completed the prior year.
Tav Falco has collaborated with the American underground author, rock writer and journalist Erik Morse on a dual, 450-page encyclopedic history and psychogeography of the city of Memphis, Tennessee. The two volumes together are entitled MONDO MEMPHIS. Falco’s book, Ghosts Behind The Sun/Mondo Memphis: Volume 1, is a study of Memphis beginning with the Civil War up to more recent autobiographical accounts in the city. Morse’s Bluff City Underground/Mondo Memphis: Volume 2 roman noir follows a West Coast graduate student and his encounters with a Memphis secret society. The volumes are published by Creation Books, and the paperback edition of Falco’s volume was published in November 2011.
Falco has said his main artistic purpose is “to stir up the dark waters of the unconscious.”
More than nine album recordings have been released on Falco’s music. Conjurations was the most recent studio album, released in 2010 on a German label, Stag-O-Lee, and a French label, Bang! Records, followed by an American CD release on the Cosmodelic label in October 2011. A live album, Live In London, was released on Stag-O-Lee in 2012.