Approaching the Unapproachable 

Memphis cult figure Tav Falco takes a break from self-imposed exile for a rare local performance.

Since the last time Tav Falco and his "unapproachable" Panther Burns played Memphis, in 2000, much has changed: Musical iconoclasts like Cordell Jackson, Sam Phillips, Otha Turner, Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, and Jessie Mae Hemphill -- all championed by Panther Burns -- are dead, while many of the group's hang-outs, like Pat's Pizza, the Beer Joint, and the Pop Tunes record store on Summer Avenue have bitten the dust as well.

From a telephone in a friend's Paris apartment, Falco sighs. "All that is inevitable," he declares, "but there's something eternal about the ethos and the spirit in Memphis that cannot be denied or extinguished. Even though some of the great artists and landmarks have vanished from the Memphis scene, the legacies live on."

Evoking a wise line uttered by his friend and co-conspirator, the late Randall Lyon, Falco says, "Let it go -- it all moves anyways.

"That's where Panther Burns come in," he continues. "We started performing with the notion that you can't look at the future without looking at the past. We always represented that missing link to more archaic forms of art, like rock-and-roll and tango music. We're interpreters of this exuberant, un-self-conscious musical form."

When he launched Panther Burns at the end of the '70s, Falco's single-minded inclination toward artifice, theatrics, and an honest-to-God appreciation for regional folk musicians like Burnside, Turner, Jackson, and Charlie Feathers, photographer William Eggleston, and painter Carroll Cloar, shocked and befuddled most Memphians -- most notably, WHBQ-TV morning host Marge Thrasher, who declared the group's appearance "an all-time low" for local television.

Nevertheless, Falco's infamous rendition of Leadbelly's "Bourgeois Blues" -- in which Falco, dressed as Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp, delivered an earsplitting guitar solo via an electric chainsaw -- amazed others, including Box Tops/Big Star frontman Alex Chilton and a cast of hundreds, including Doug Easley, Ron Easley, Eric Hill, Jim Duckworth, Ross Johnson, Jack Yarber, and Scott Bomar, all of whom have backed Falco at one time or another, and Lorette Velvette, Lisa McGaughran, Diane Greene, and Misty White, who operated as Panther Burns' all-female side group, the Hellcats.

To say that Panther Burns inspired an era of Memphis music would be an understatement: The oft-disparaged, loose-knit, seemingly a-step-away-from-utter-chaos band dominated and defined the Midtown scene for an entire decade.

Yet, Falco claims, "We were always on the outside in Memphis. We were never part of the establishment. We had a group of people who played with us or came to see us who were very eccentric in their own right.

This month, Falco -- who currently lives in Paris, on Rue des Solitaires ("I finally made it to the 'Street of the Lonelies'") -- is bringing his latest incarnation of Panther Burns to the U.S. for three gigs: in Los Angeles, in New York, and a Memphis appearance this week at the New Daisy Theatre.

"Once you're in Panther Burns, it's not so easy to get out," he says, noting that Ross Johnson, the band's beleaguered former drummer, will also perform at the Memphis show.

Asked about Johnson's legendary "Panther Burns Confessional," published by Shangri-La Records in the mid-'90s, Falco says, "I endorse the diatribes.

"There's an element of truth in it which makes it even more piquant and interesting," he says, obviously relishing remembrances of endless squabbles ("a band full of drama queens" is how Johnson described the group), critical commentary ("All the wasted effort and heartache, and still the records sounded like toilets flushing," Johnson wrote of albums produced by Chilton and Jim Dickinson), and touring with the Clash (in Johnson's words: "After the opening date in Nashville, a member of the road crew asked which one of us was Alex Chilton. The reply: the one eating ice off the stage").

Falco, who makes semi-annual pilgrimages to visit family in his tiny hometown of Whelan Springs, Arkansas, will have just 24 hours in Memphis this go-round.

"I really feel like a citizen of the world," he says. "Or maybe the cosmos. Sometimes I miss listening to Eggleston playing Chopin on his Steinway at 3 a.m., but other than that, I'm okay over here.

"I'm going back to Beale Street, which has been paved over and changed so much, but somehow, the blackness, the blues, are still around. Those street corners are really haunted -- in the middle of the night, you can still feel it, even though Uncle Ben [Perry, a street musician] is gone. While it's lost some of its indigenous qualities, the vibe, the Beale Street mambo, is still there, and I want to be connected to that."

Falco also plans to take a jaunt down to the riverfront, where, in his words, "the Mississippi, deep and wide, with Arkansas on the other side, is something to behold. I feel compelled to have a look at that once again.

"Then it's back to Europe," Falco says, "where the topic around Panther Hall is our ongoing struggle and the battle to place our next album, Wellfire: Séance for Deranged Lovers, with the proper record label."

Tav Falco's Unapproachable Panther Burns

New Daisy Theatre

Saturday, October 21st

Doors open at 7 p.m., tickets $10

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