Tav Falco is a musician, photographer, filmmaker, and writer, who has led the psychedelic rock group Panther Burns since 1979. Todd McGovern talks to Tav about his new album Cabaret Of Daggers, growing up in rural Arkansas, Memphis’ cultural underground, his work in film, and much more.
Tav Falco is not of this world. He is not easily explained to the uninitiated. A musician, filmmaker, and writer, it’s hard to delineate where his persona begins and where it ends. He is both a man out of time and a man with his finger on the pulse. He’s from the sticks, but he’s a man of the world, internationally regarded. He’s well-dressed and well-groomed, a great dancer, and musical raconteur. His is not easy music. It is by turns, greasy rock-n-roll with roots in Southern swamps and bayous and elegant waltzes and tangos. His new album, Cabaret Of Daggers, with longtime band Panther Burns, is a carefully curated collection of original songs, as well as selections from the Great American Songbook.
For the past two decades, Tav Falco has lived in Europe and currently calls Vienna home. He spoke to this writer via email on the eve of his new album’s release.
PKM: You grew up in a remote, rural area of Arkansas. What were the advantages and disadvantages of that?
Tav Falco: I lived with my parents on a 52-acre farm in Clark County, Arkansas, between Gurdon and Whelen Springs. As I had no friends other than a pet deer, I created imaginary ones. They were a merry bunch, and we had good times laughing and cavorting in the tall grass by the running water. It is always an advantage having friends. On the occasions when actual visitors came by – mostly unannounced – it was very special and those friendships were valued and cultivated.
Disadvantages of living in the backwoods were having to drive some distance to a cinema or to a library, even further to see a stage play, and further than that to find an airport. With the abundance of publications and the advent of electronic media in the late 1950s, those disadvantages became less significant. Eventually, I was hired as a brakeman on the Missouri Pacific Lines working out of Little Rock, Memphis, and Poplar Bluff.
PKM: Can you describe the role television had in your creative development?
Tav Falco: After the electrification of the rural South, broadcast television had an enormous impact. Prior to that, home entertainment consisted mainly of sitting around the radio on Saturday nights listening to programs such as “The Shadow.” A creaking door was heard opening, then “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” Those words were accompanied by an ominous laugh and a musical theme, Camille Saint-Saëns’ Le Rouet d’Omphale (“Omphale’s Spinning Wheel”, composed in 1872).
“…, the Panther Burn beat that was dredged from primal swamps around Memphis has carried me around the world and opened many doors onto creative and cultural landscapes.”
Growing up, the only telephone was located in the post office/grocery store beside the railroad track in Whelen Springs. It was a wall phone, and you had to crank it to get an operator. My stepfather brought home our first TV set when I was around 7 years of age. By comparison with radio, the tube made quite an impression. Although my mother would drive me to see the Saturday double feature matinee at the Hoo Hoo Theater (Hoo Hoo is the name of a concatenated order of lumbermen founded 1892 in Gurdon), my total immersion in cinema came about because the network television channels we received seemed to be short on programming. As a result, feature movies were broadcast three times a day, every day. This created an enduring fascination with cinema. It was a black & white realm of the imagination while – like the many books around me – it was an open door onto the world in all of its sophistication and in its entirety. A commonplace, comedic, tragic, hollow, tantalizing, mysterious carnival of dreams.
When my cousin visited in the summer, she and I played roles outside on a two-wheel farm trailer that had a flat bed and was tilted up into the air with its long tongue pointing upward to the heavens. She and I became buccaneers on this mighty makeshift ship, and we sailed the seven seas in a frenzy of adventures. Dressed in remnants of my father’s Navy uniforms and scraps of my mother’s old clothes, she and I were the Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Merle Oberon of the piney woods.
PKM: What are some of the earliest memories you had of music and what do you think prompted your passion in it?
Tav Falco: My earliest experience with music was a shellac that I found in a closet, and spinning it on my father’s battleship gray, Navy issue phonograph. The record was “Ride Of The Valkyries,” the fourth opera from Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. I blasted it full volume out over the fields and heard it reverberate off of the lofty pines that surrounded us. Later, the music which really caught my attention was released by Sun Records out of Memphis. I would ask my mother to buy me 45s on Sun when we visited Stan’s Record Shop in Shreveport. I also grooved to The Platters, Jimmy Reed, Patsy Cline, Wilbert Harrison, and Bo Diddley. All of these artists were on the radio most every day.
PKM: It seems that a lot of your early work came after you arrived in Memphis. Can you describe the scene at the time and how it influenced your work?
Tav Falco: To answer that question in depth, I might refer you to my book on the topic, Ghosts Behind The Sun: Splendour, Enigma, and Death, Mondo Memphis Vol. I (Creation Books, 2011). It is 450-page encyclopedic history and psychogeography of Memphis’ cultural underground and its demimonde. The book is an intertext of the urban legends, rural fables and literary clichés that have made the Bluff City simultaneously a metropolis of dreams and a necropolis of terrors. Also refer to my second book, An Iconography Of Chance: 99 Photographs Of The Evanescent South, published by Elsinore Press (2015).
My time in Memphis was a creative one. It was where I joined forces with working artists and learned my trade. I had migrated from a cabin in the hills of Arkansas to Memphis with all of my junk stuffed into a 1950 green Ford with a ’48 Mercury v8 under the hood. If you wanted to go to the big city from Arkansas, the options were either Dallas or Memphis. I tried Dallas on a return trip south from the Haight-Ashbury, but became involved on the periphery of a satanic, Anton LaVey type cult and barely got out of there alive with the shirt on my back.
Then I had the intention to further myself as a photographer and a filmmaker in Memphis. In large part, I did that, but in a decidedly non-commercial way. I assisted William J. Eggleston on a number of ventures. He taught me how to use the camera and how to take and print pictures. Then I worked in a motion picture laboratory for a couple years making titles for films. Yet, out of frustration, I formed a rock ‘n’ roll band as Alex Chilton had urged me to do. My one and only band, Panther Burns, is named after a legendary plantation in Mississippi. Over a dozen albums later and after countless tours, the Panther Burn beat that was dredged from primal swamps around Memphis has carried me around the world and opened many doors onto creative and cultural landscapes.
With few exceptions, everything that was happening in Memphis when I arrived in 1973 was coming from the underground – at least anything that interested me. I was drawn to country blues, free jazz, free verse, and especially, experimental film. For me, experimental film was a dream carnival of the mind, a montage of delirium, emerging from a clandestine incubator of phenomenal fires. My experiences in Memphis placed me on the path to how I view myself now, as a Utopian Anarchist. Panther Burns is a band that always holds out a hand to the enemy.
PKM: You cite the myth of Orpheus in other interviews. What is it about that myth in particular that you find so interesting and inspirational?
Tav Falco: The Orphic vision looks not to the mystical heavens, but rather into the dark fertile waters of the unconscious. That’s where my creative impulse originates, from stirring up those dark waters. In music, particularly, and in cinema, which in its purest forms is visual music – this impulse is symbolized in Orpheus’ descent into the underground to charm the wood nymph Eurydice. With his lyre, Orpheus lures Eurydice to follow him up into the conscious, rational world of light, lakes, and meadows. But as they crossed the portal of Hades, Orpheus looked back on his bride and saw that she had turned to stone. I have looked back on more than a few blocks of stone in my life. Although infused with metaphor, signs, and symbols, in my music — like in Voodoo music — the lyrical content may sometimes be seemingly superfluous, but the undercurrent is trance inducing, joyous, and revelatory.
PKM: What do you think is the role of an entertainer and what isn’t that role?
Tav Falco: The entertainer has a job. He is an artisan. At best, he enthralls, diverts, cajoles, humors, inspires, and celebrates his audience. The artist does all of the entertainer’s job, yet he must do more. As Picasso noted, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” That is certainly part of it, but in using the instruments of the entertainer, the height of the artist’s expression connects us in the most thoughtful, meaningful, and sublime way to ourselves and to those around us. Elvis was an entertainer; Jim Morrison was a poet.
PKM: What art inspires you most today?
Tav Falco: There are many inspirations — from clever new pop music channeling rock ‘n’ roll to Childish Gambino to Antony & The Johnsons (now on hiatus). The stylings of singer/pianist Paolo Conte. The film oeuvre of comrade F.J. Ossang in Paris and his new award-winning Expressionist film 9 Doigts. The funny and charming Wes Anderson movie, The Grand Budapest Hôtel. The revival of my favorite operetta, Die Herzogin von Chicago (The Duchess From Chicago) by Emmerich Kalman.
Yes, there are new films screened at Locarno and The Venice International Film Fest, but the better ones bring to the screen destruction, dissociation, and human violation that, although important to present, are too disturbing, numbing, and dismal for me to endure. I often attend the Vienna English Theater around the corner from where I live in Vienna, but I only go to see comedies. Similarly, Alida Valli remarked, “Now I only play in comedies” in her scenes as stage actress Anna Schmidt in The Third Man (filmed at Theater In Der Josefstadt, also around the corner). Comedy can be a low art or a very high art. At this point, I favor high comedy, not as an escape from the misery I see in this world, but as a relief in that there remains a shred of amusement and humanity in our existence.
PKM: Can you tell me about your film work?
Tav Falco: My short films (courts métrages) are in the permanent collection of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, and I was invited there for a retrospective in 2006. One of them, “Masque Of Hôtel Orient,” features the magician and underground film pioneer Kenneth Anger, transforming Tav Falco into Fantômas. Presently, I am wrapping up filming Part III of my Urania Trilogy series of intrigue films in Venice. Inspired by Urania, the muse of the heavens, her avatar descends from the Bardo plane to Earth but in a most unlikely form — that of a disaffected young woman on the Arkansas River in Little Rock. Yet, this is more to this story of an American girl with a one-way ticket to merry/sinister old Vienna who becomes embroiled in a plot to uncover buried Nazi plunder. Rather, this film advances the shadowy Expressionism of my earlier oeuvre. It is a filmic poem infused with metaphor, mood and Stimmung, where the past overtakes the present, and the present overtakes the past. The film flickers with the fateful caprice of tarot cards fingered in a Viennese bordello. These films emerge as corporeal fables and offer cabalistic hygiene for a vital elegance.
Part I of the trilogy was screened at Silencio in Paris, The Metro Kino/ Austrian Film Archiv in Vienna, Anthology Film Archives in New York, The Oxford Film Festival in Mississippi, The American Cinémathèque in Hollywood, and The Roxie Theater in San Francisco as part of the 100th Anniversary celebration of DaDa hosted by City Lights Bookstore. Learn more: http://www.uraniadescending-themovie.com/
PKM: Your new album, Cabaret of Daggers, which will be released in limited edition yellow vinyl on Record Store Day – November 23 – and on black vinyl, CD and digital formats on November 30, is a mix of cover songs and original work. Do you see it as a collection of songs or as a piece of work with an overall theme and songs that reflect that theme?
Tav Falco: The assemblage of songs on Cabaret Of Daggers reflects a state of mind. There are thematic parallels in the songs reflecting gender-inflected issues, political subterfuge, narcotic dirge, lynching balladry, unrequited love, and identity loss. The lyrical thrust of the originals is reaffirmed by the content and stylistic gradients of the compositions we cover.
As for the “Daggers” in the title, that was an idea I picked up in Buenos Aires. Juan Carlos Copes and Maria Nieves were an eminent tango couple. Late in her career, Maria Nieves was asked what she thought about the younger tango dancers. She commented that there were many nice couples dancing intricate new figures, but where, she asked, were the daggers? These are the daggers — lost & found that I bring to our new album. The kind of dagger that hangs in a sheath from a silver chain around the waist of Hamlet, the gloomy Dane.
PKM: Your new song, “New World Order Blues” with lyrics like, “America and Korea just itchin’ to light the fuse/ The fuse our degenerate-in-chief, clown prince, god emperor/ Has already lit and there’s not a thing you can do/ About his fascination with nuclear annihilation”’ make your political position pretty obvious. What is your feeling about the United States in 2018, given that you’ve lived in Vienna for almost two decades?
Tav Falco: The fascist swagger of the imperialist dogs running the show in Washington is unmistakable. The whole world recognizes it for what it is. Independent, critical thinking, liberal minds contributed to gains in the recent elections, but we have a long, long way to go in reversing the damage.
In the 1960s, we did not cut Nixon any slack and we brought him down. I am a product of those turbulent times. I painted a psychedelic mandala and turned it in with my resignation from the railroad because I refused to work on train after train delivering military tanks, rockets, and weapons to fight a dirty war in Vietnam. I marched in Place de la Republic in Paris when Li’l Bush was elected to a second term. I raised my arms in Zuccotti Park and danced with the Occupy protesters. OK, I did not do much, but I did what I thought might be most effective coming from me.
For my 2010 album, Conjurations: Séance for Deranged Lovers, I wrote “Administrator Blues” about the last financial meltdown, which caused my parents to lose a sizable chunk of their savings due to exploitive and reckless market practices and speculation on Wall Street. For my last album, Command Performance, I wrote “Whistle Blower Blues” about the plight of the working man, and also “Doomsday Baby” against the ongoing massacres of Palestinians in Gaza. And now there’s “New World Order Blues” for the new album. I may be a little voice, but I say it loud. The artist can no longer remain silent; otherwise, he remains complicit. Where are the protest songs from my brethren? Where are the radicals? I do not care about Republicans or Democrats, but I vote against the unbridled EVIL propagated by the current iteration of the GOP. Yes, Senator Sanders comes closest to representing the true, authentic interests of the American people. Every attempt is made by the GOP to dumb down, confound, and to exploit the American people. What happened to our great statesmen such as Sen. William J. Fullbright of Arkansas? Now we have total sycophantic Harvard flunkies like Tom Cotton representing us in the Senate of the United States. Graft and white nationalist bigotry run rampant through Washington like an open sewer, which leads to politicians with Alt-Right platforms once again rising to power in Europe. In Brazil, there is the tragic election of criminal fascist Jair Bolsonaro.
My two decades living abroad have afforded me a perspective onto my American origins and my stateside trajectory, and they’ve revealed how other parts of the world view my home country. I shall always be an American living in Europe, or South America, or wherever. I cannot change that, nor am I inclined to. I am what I am. Essentially, I feel I know more of myself living abroad, rather than when I lived exclusively in America, where much of my surroundings had become invisible to me because they were built into my existence.
PKM: The song “Red Vienna” from your new album is a kind of homage to your adopted home. It also seems to serve as a warning of the recent rise of nationalism and neo-fascism around the world. Can you talk about this song?
Tav Falco: Earlier this year, I wrote this song with Mario Monterosso on a cold winter’s night in Memphis. Mario is the gifted producer of our last three albums. The contours and beauty of this anthem to a grand city are due to his remarkable aesthetic, harmonic understanding, and extraordinary musicianship. Cabaret of Daggers was recorded in Rome, and Mario had an intrinsic understanding of how to create the musical ambiance most suited to “Red Vienna.” He even located and brought in the American opera singer Kallen Esperion to sing the closing aria.
In composing “Red Vienna,” I thought not only of the historical and cultural events that have transpired over its long and magnificent — yet at times dismal —tenure as a grand capitol standing on the threshold between the East and the West. I also thought of the nature of revolution itself, whether openly declared or covertly incipient. I thought of how much we sacrifice in a revolution. There are gains, but also irretrievable losses. How the social fabric becomes strained and separates, only to come back in a rougher and coarser weave. I thought of how style, eloquence, and cordiality can deteriorate when striving toward notions of progress, liberation, and often, false modernity. Austria enjoyed a provisionally enlightened monarchy for a thousand years, yet there were also grim social problems and rampant inequality.
After the industrialization, the electrification, and the digitalization of Austria we have come to the post-post-post-modern pinpoint upon which we now stand firmly, yet vulnerably as the future looms ahead. The notion of romance is mostly forlorn; we now have sensation in its place. Rather than a benign monarch, we have representative parliaments and judiciaries. But we must be careful of manipulation and machinations. We have instant travel, instant news, instant gratification, but we lose sense of the moment and become numbed.
“The assemblage of songs on Cabaret Of Daggers reflects a state of mind. There are thematic parallels in the songs reflecting gender-inflected issues, political subterfuge, narcotic dirge, lynching balladry, unrequited love, and identity loss.”
PKM: A friend of mine who saw you recently remarked to me that it was interesting to see an American performing using European musicians to perform uniquely American music. What’s your reaction to that?
Tav Falco: The fact that my band started as a Memphis combo and is still playing as such, but has matured and embraced other forms and genres, is much like the jazz musician who might have joined forces with Machito onstage to wail Cuban tonalities. Cabaret Of Daggers was recorded in Rome in April with Mario Monterosso playing guitar, Francesco D’Agnolo at the keyboards, Riccardo Colasante on drums, and Giuseppe Sangirardi on bass. This is the formation I have been playing with continuously since 2014. The world is no stranger to American music. Yet when I want to step outside the box and deconstruct a song, or transform it into something unpredictable, I can rely on my band to go along right behind me.
When I was invited to the home of Chilean film director Alejandro Jodorowsky in Paris, he confided that he always uses Italian crews, because he said, “nothing is impossible in the minds of Italian film makers.” Let’s look at it another way. The Beat poets and writers were writing out of an American context – certainly at the beginning. However, many of them spent a greater part of their creative life outside U.S. borders. When Allen Ginsberg and I shared the bill at an anti-nuclear rally at the new Peppermint Lounge in New York City in 1982, he had two Parisian street musicians playing behind him while he played the harmonium. By the way, that night I gave Allen my first album, Behind The Magnolia Curtain, and dedicated it to him. A few years later I happened by his pad in the East Village. I literally threw a pebble up from the street toward a window that I thought might be his. He stuck his head out and invited the band and I up. I did ask him whether he had ever listened to the album that I’d given him, but he gave a vague reply. Some minutes later, I noticed that Behind The Magnolia Curtain was on his turntable! Ha! You know, on that album I interjected lines from his poem “HOWL” into our electric rendition of “Bourgeois Blues”:
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night….”
Another example of a Beat writer who devoted a significant slice of his creative life outside the U.S. border is, of course, William S. Burroughs. Giorno Poetry Systems devoted considerable attention to its enterprises in Europe. When The New York Times devoted a full page to my early appearance at the Mudd Club on a split bill show with John Giorno, this event and another like it at Danceteria, resulted in Geoff Travis signing Panther Burns to Rough Trade Records in London. That was followed by an EP (Blow Your Top) on Chris Stein’s Animal label with Iggy, James Chance, and The Gun Club. Eventually, Patrick Mathé went to London, pulled our masters out of Rough Trade and took them over to his label New Rose in Paris, where we went on to record and release nine albums and assorted singles. All this went down unsolicited. So in a sense, Europe found me.
PKM: Will you and the rest of Panther Burns be touring in support of the album?
Tav Falco: Definitely. Across three continents in all of the usual unreliable places.