Tav Falco was born on a farm in rural Arkansas and today lives in Vienna, where he writes books, directs films and records music with the cult art-rock band Panther Burns, whose most recent album, “Command Performance,” was released in March. For many years, Falco lived in Memphis, where he befriended and collaborated with a cast of now-iconic characters that included the producer Jim Dickinson, the photographer William Eggleston and Big Star front man Alex Chilton. Ahead of two upcoming Arkansas concerts — he’ll be at Maxine’s in Hot Springs on Oct. 16 and at Stickyz on Oct. 19, along with bassist Mike Watt — we spoke about his early years, his preoccupation with history and his photography.
You grew up on a farm near Gurdon. What do you remember most about it?
It was rather remote, in the yellow pine forest country between Little Rock and Texarkana. A few steps from the complete backwoods — one step farther back and we were in total backwoods. We went barefoot a lot, all of us young people. A lot of us went to school barefoot. Being in the country, growing up out there, it took a long time to walk to anyone else’s house. Consequently, you didn’t have many visitors in terms of playmates. So I would create my own playmates in my mind. I created a number of them, and I would tell my mother I was going to bring them home to meet her. I remember a little brook out on the farm, and I hung out there a lot with these imaginary, fictitious individuals. We’d play games and make little theater pieces.
I read that you went to high school with the artist Buz Blurr?
Oh yes. In fact, he came to our school from Earle [Crittenden County] when I was a sophomore in high school. He’s from a railroad family, and Gurdon is a railroad terminal, where the Louisiana division meets the Arkansas division. When Buz graduated he went to work as a brakeman on Missouri Pacific, and I did the same when I got out of school. Buz came to our town and was one of the Gurdon Go-Devils, a football player, as I was. He was already a developed artist at 17 years old. Very knowledgeable and well read, socially aware. He turned me onto a lot that was going on and opened a lot of doors for me, aesthetically and also informationally. We’ve been friends and collaborators ever since. I really endorse everything Buz touches, because he is a hugely talented artist. Not only conceptually; he’s also an incredible renderer and painter, in the traditional sense. You don’t see that a lot from him, but you should ask him to draw you a picture sometime. Everything about him, too, he’s like the shadow of a Greek sculpture. He turned me onto all the Beat Generation writers — Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, William Burroughs. It really launched me into a realm that was a little extraordinary for Clark County in 1959.
Didn’t you later study with the Beat writer John Clellon Holmes?
I did. No one has asked me about him in a long time. And I’m glad you did, because he also became a mentor and a huge influence on my formation. I was at the University of Arkansas, and I enrolled in his literature course the first time he came to teach. I was really surprised and stunned when I saw he was coming to Fayetteville. This was the writer of “The Horn,” a very important Beat jazz novel, maybe the most important. He was a marvelous writer and individual, who was not only a novelist and an essayist but who was very much on the jazz scene, and very knowledgeable and integrated into that scene in the 1950s. He had small classes. In fact, the creative writing department really was not so aware of who Holmes was. I also took a writing course with Miller Williams, and I thought Miller was very aloof and conceited. I provisionally got along with him, but I felt very close to John Holmes.
Were you in Fayetteville at the same time as the poet Frank Stanford?
Our times there were overlapping. I didn’t know him, to my knowledge, though I could have met him. I’ve been looking at his pictures — I got this new Third Man Books anthology [“Hidden Water: From the Frank Stanford Archives”]. I knew that Frank had made some allusions in his poetry to Panther Burn, the plantation. And before I left the university — I finally graduated after nine years — James Whitehead said to me, “There’s this guy here, Frank Stanford, he’s the most important poet that I know of working right now.” Since I’ve received the book I’ve had a chance to read into his poems, and I’m really moved by his work. The reach of it all, it’s so broad and so expressionist. There’s a picture in the book of him hanging out at Sherman’s, in Fayetteville, a honky-tonk run by Sherman Morgan. I knew Sherman — shortly after I left Fayetteville, he was indicted for murder. But anyway, it was a very fertile time in Fayetteville. I left in ’73 and Frank Stanford enrolled around that same time. Then, of course, he lost his life in ’78.
Did you meet Randall Lyon in Fayetteville as well?
Yes, I was a freshman in the university, and Randall was a junior. A few floors up from me a guy I knew in the literature department introduced me to his friend, who was the weirdest looking guy I’d ever seen. He was tall and pear-shaped and looked like a big baby. Like a pear-shaped infant. It was Randall, and he was the editor of the university’s literary magazine. That was 1963, and he and I got to be friends. He was living in a boarding house across the street from the dorm. He slept in a hammock in the attic. He was kind of an Oscar Wilde figure, and every bit as brilliant. He was from Pine Bluff originally. Then his folks moved to Little Rock while he was at the university. He came to Fayetteville on the G.I. Bill — he’d been in Army Intelligence in Vietnam. It was such an intense experience, they had to debrief him, and he was all mixed up about that. Apparently it was kind of like Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American,” very disillusioning and dangerous. He really didn’t talk about it too much, and when he did talk about it, it was very bizarre.
Then he got psychedelicized, started having a lot of altered states experiences as a lot of us did. [Longtime New York Times pop critic and Little Rock native] Bob Palmer was also a friend of Randall’s, and became a friend of mine. We shared some of these transcendent psychedelic experiences together. I guess Randall was as close to genius as anyone I’ve ever known. And John Clellon Holmes recognized that in him, as did Allen Ginsberg, who called Randall’s poetry “modern freak brain original.” Randall could have been published more than he was, could have achieved a great legacy of work in visual art and writing, it’s just that he talked away his ideas and his thoughts. He was also a performance artist; we had an art-action group together in Memphis called the Big Dixie Brick Company.
I always see that phrase “art-action” used to describe your early work. What does that mean?
I adopted that phrase from the artist Red Grooms. It refers to happenings, these spontaneous art events that occurred, in which artists would create experiential events. Maybe in a gallery, but also out in the street, off the stage. I still engage in art-actions. Randall and I collaborated on a lot of happenings together.
We also did a number of experiments with video, with our art-action group TeleVista, like our performance on the ABC affiliate in Memphis, on the “Marge Thrasher Show.” Half of that program is still floating around the Internet, but there’s another half I have on videotape in my archive. The half on YouTube is the Panther Burns performance. We appeared on the show as the musical wing of a TeleVista art-action. We really disturbed Marge Thrasher, a talk show host who was very much in the vein of Margaret Thatcher in appearance and outlook. On the second song Panther Burns played, I had the king and queen of the local cotton carnival beating a tambourine with us. Thrasher said, “Oh my god, this is the worst thing I’ve ever heard.” She signed off saying, “I really need a bath after that.”
Didn’t you once interview Orval Faubus together?
Yes, I remember it quite well. Randall did the interview, and I operated the camera. A very eloquent and articulate figure, extremely intelligent. He was a strategist, but also endowed with an enormous degree of rhetoric. He did a lot for Arkansas. And he did a lot to set us back in the imagination and consciousness of the world. He could have handled things, in my opinion, a little differently. In his opinion, he was representing his constituency. When I went to interview him with Randall, there was a rock ’n’ roll band set up in the house, his son’s rock band. He had a marvelous modern house. He was a man riddled with inconsistencies.
Your music and writing is steeped in the past — vanished music cultures and arcana. How do you approach your work as a historian and researcher?
I can’t know anything of what’s happening right now or in the future unless I know something of the past. What’s gone down beforehand. I don’t even know myself, who I am, without having some perspective. In my book [“Ghosts Behind the Sun: Splendor, Enigma & Death”], I wanted to tell the whole story. To understand Memphis and Arkansas — the artists who worked there, the people who lived and died there, the people who suffered and were lynched there — it all has to come out. You can’t understand rock ’n’ roll music without understanding the social and political forces around it. You have to talk about the Civil War, and what happened before the Civil War. You have to talk about so much to even give an outline of what has gone on here. It’s a long book, but it’s what I lived through.
In the book you inhabit these past periods in the first person, which reminded me of your music — the way you revive old styles.
It’s something apart from sheer revivalism. Some people say it’s a deconstruction. And there is that gradient in what I do. But it’s more a matter of living and breathing those earlier forms in today’s world, and then expressing something. If I sit in the cinematheque in Paris or Vienna, as I have done, for months and months, pretty soon that experience is part of the fabric of my thinking. When you hang out at Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis for years, when you see Albert King or Howlin’ Wolf or Jerry Lee Lewis over and over again, it makes an impression. It’s not that I want to revive these people — there are revivalists in Memphis just as there are in Vegas. I don’t do that. It’s not an imitation or a re-enactment. I’m going to live through it again. You might see some of the same notes or moves, but I use that stuff. Jerry Lee Lewis is a part of me.
And now the Memphis scene you participated in is itself becoming romanticized and memorialized in books and documentaries. What does that feel like?
I’ve made certain gestures in my life, and have produced a modest oeuvre. You make something public and people come across it and react to it, and it’s all part of the ongoing process of things. I’m aware of legacies, and I try to leave a trail of what I’m doing to see that it’s preserved in some fashion. Legend becomes vital over time. Legend overtakes the so-called rational conscious existence. That phenomenon we call legend and myth, here is where dwells that which we cannot touch: the realm of literature and imagination. You can make paintings about it, but you can’t photograph it; you can write about it, but you can’t really touch it.
That’s why, in large part, my band is called Panther Burns, named after the legend of the burning panther on Panther Burn plantation, which still exists. They corralled a panther that had been displaced — it became a symbol, though this was an actual event. The panther howled all night and raided the chicken coops; the planters formed a posse to track the animal down. They tried to shoot him, but he was cunning and eluded their shots. They set traps for him, but he eluded their traps. They ran him into the canebrake one night, set it on fire, and the place became known as Panther Burn. One night Alex Chilton told me we should form a band, and that I should come up with the name. I said, well, Panther Burns. The Arkansas painter Carroll Cloar created a painting called “Panther Bourne” about the same legend. It’s a marvelous painting of five panthers lounging in a field together.
Myths become vital. What about the myth of the Old South? The men and women and slaves who laid down their lives in the War of Rebellion? How complex. That is what the Panther Burns are made of: brother against brother, burning mansions, lost causes.
In another interview, you said that many parts of rural Arkansas have become ghost towns, that the small communities are drying up.
I go back to Arkansas every year. Maybe one day I’ll come back to Arkansas to live, but I’m afraid to. I’d like to come back. My mother lives there, in Hot Springs. But places like Gurdon and Whelan Springs have almost vanished — they are forlorn, grown up with weeds. Gurdon was a thriving railroad town when I was growing up. Mailmen out on the street every day, cars up and down the roads, six passenger trains a day coming through town, hotels and movie houses. All that’s gone. They don’t even have a grocery store. There’s one gas station and a BBQ joint. I don’t trust it anymore, I don’t trust that kind of neglect. And I look at Arkansas politics today: absolutely appalling. The people in the governor’s mansion, our representatives in Washington. They’re ignorant. People who should have been flunked out of Harvard, political opportunists. I don’t trust them. What happened to the statesmen of Arkansas like William J. Fulbright? A real scholar, a man the entire world respected.
I’ve written letters to our congressmen, and I get these articulate answers stating really technical positions. I say, “Can’t you think about it in another way?” We’re selling ourselves out. This is the reason I cannot go home.
Yes, we’re in touch. In fact, in the past few months I’ve reached out to Bill and talked to him about the book. He’s seen all the pictures and knows I’m doing it. He’s doing as well as ever. He’s staying there at the Parkview Hotel in Overton Park [in Memphis]. His wife, Rosa, recently passed away. The Bill that you read about in my book is the same Bill right there in the Parkview Hotel. Bill is a nocturnal creature, fascinating individual. He seems to be doing fine — he has the constitution of a racehorse. We don’t talk about pictures too much, because he doesn’t like to talk about photographs. He likes to look at them and react to them, but not to analyze them or talk about their merits or conceptualize about them. It’s, “This is interesting.” He never takes more than two pictures of anything, and even that’s rare. He mainly takes one shot. He rarely looks through the lens anymore, he just holds the camera. And it’s always film, he doesn’t do any digital work. We talk about people and cities and social events. Comrades and other things unspeakable.
Though he's most often associated with Memphis, Panther Burns frontman Tav Falco grew up in rural Arkansas, out in the country between Gurdon and Whelen Springs. Falco has announced that he'll be releasing a new album, "Command Performance," in February, and a photography book, "Tav Falco's Wild & Exotic World Of Musical Obscurities," as well, but he's also just premiered his new feature film /more/
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