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The Unapproachable Panther Burns
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by Lisa McGaughran
(May 1984 article, originally published in a now-defunct Memphis music zine. Edited by author, 2005, for publication at limbos.org; original 1984 graphics by Tav Falco)

Author's Note

In 1984, I wrote a story about Panther Burns for the May MusicFest issue of a free Memphis music zine. Tav Falco graciously illustrated the article with a big montage of pasted-in stage-patter slogans like "T-99" and "IMPERIALIST RUNNING DOGS," burning panther head graphics, and concert photos of himself, Ross Johnson, Alex Chilton, and René Coman, who were at that time the band. By then they were at the top of their form, just about to record the mature Sugar Ditch Revisited with producer Jim Dickinson. The interview took place shortly after the nightmarish minitour opening for The Clash in Nashville and Knoxville at universities where they were booed. (Ross Johnson later wrote about this episode in 1996 in a humorous piece in The Memphis Flyer.) Some weeks after my May article hit the stands, Alex and René began to confine their work to Alex's new solo trio.

In the weeks and months to follow, Tav started developing a revolving troupe with which to replace them, working for a while with Lorette Velvette (then still known by her maiden name, Lori Godwin), Ross, my sister (very briefly for one show), and me as his backing band for live gigs in the South before later calling in native Memphian Ron Easley from his job in Texas to play lead guitar with the group for a few gigs. I had never touched a bass before; I had 10 years of experience playing guitar and had been recently practicing with a local rockabilly band on guitar and vocals. But I bought a pawnshop bass and an old Fender Bassman (an amp light enough for weakling me to tote) when invited to work with Tav. Not long after touring with Tav began, Lorette, Diane Green, I, and others formed an all-gal group inspired by Panther Burns that recorded and toured for several years, Memphis’ The Hellcats.

At any rate, I've submitted to Jes' archives some scans of Tav's original artwork, which is now divided into sections and provided the story's text as edited by me in 2005 with a few minor deletions and corrections; Tav also revised a redundant word in one quote. — L.M.


Rending the Veil — Dropping the Mask: The Unapproachable Panther Burns

Panther Burns, 1984, opening for The Clash at Vanderbilt University, Nashville

Opening for The Clash at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, 1984
(left to right Falco, Chilton, Johnson, Coman)

by Lisa McGaughran

Home of the brave! Land of the free!
Don’t wanna be mistreated by no bourgeoisie
I’m in a bourgeois town, I’m in a bourgeois town
It’s the bourgeois blues
Spread the news all around

— From Leadbelly’s "Bourgeois Blues"

The root force of Memphis' backwoods, mojo, soul despair splashes and shimmers on the Panther Burns' psychedelic canvas of modern life. There's an ugly, crooked, dirty-yellow moon on the horizon and odd things are occurring, like a chance broadcasting of R. L. Burnside's "Snake Drive" on your car radio. Such a strange event could signal something stirring downtown you'd best not miss.

It's a Panther Burns "happening," a frenzied Memphis party whose local variety is most often found at haunts like the Antenna Club, New Daisy Theatre, Highland Station, and even an obscure cotton loft on Front Street, where the band made its debut performances in 1979. The group Tav Falco's Panther Burns was named after the Panther Burn plantation in Mississippi, where years ago a large, prowling cat was hunted down and finally held at bay in a burning canebrake by the locals, after several failed attempts at killing it. The fiery panther sign Falco uses to represent the band has different levels of interpretation, some of which may mean release and freedom to those captive or perhaps hiding in repressed, lethargic colleges and towns.

Ross Johnson (1984, opening for The Clash at Vanderbilt University)

Ross Johnson on drums
(1984, opening for The Clash at Vanderbilt University)

The band's following are not drawn by the appeal of today's slick pop or M-TV pretty-boy bands. The Panther Burns exist on the outer fringes of music, playing more to the unconscious mind than to the tangible surface world visible physically. Visual art is sometimes employed by means of slides, but these too are geared toward atmosphere and imagination instead of the mundane commercial world.

Falco beckons his followers to dance and shout, exulting in the band's jungle-rock beat that punches through a swirling explosion of guitar feedback. The instrumental sound is stripped clean of the polish heard on commercial recordings today. Falco wears a thin, pencil moustache and a wavy pompadour in keeping with his '50s rock and roll persona. His gentle, soft-spoken Southern manner can switch from feline grace one moment to tigerish the next as he moves the band from a fluid, primitive Xavier Cugat tango like "Throw Your Mask Away" to a rave-up rocker like the old Moon Records single, "She's the One That's Got It," complete with authentic Allen Page whoops.

Mix of Musicians

While Falco grinds away on his Höfner electric, Alex Chilton plays searing licks on lead guitar. Ross Johnson, a third founder of the group, continues to serve as chief drum basher at most shows, whenever his day job permits. A fourth regular is New Orleans bassist René Coman, a jazz musician, one of the few in the group gifted at sight-reading music.

Problems for some members of the press and local music community in appreciating the dissonant Panther Burns style have resulted from the musicians' clash in backgrounds. Falco is a transplanted railway brakeman from Arkansas who grew up with no musical training, just a love for the blues, beat poetry, and visual art. His sense of timing is not a seasoned veteran's.

Chilton, on the other hand, is the same guy who as a sixteen year old led the Box Tops to international stardom with songs like "The Letter" and "Neon Rainbow" in the 1960s. In the 1970s he contributed to the world various guerilla projects popular in New York and London, such as his band Big Star. Highly skilled and talented as a musician, his professional background at times makes for a dynamic clash in the sound though his artistic inclinations meld well with the band's intent. The basic dissonance in sound is a combination of trained musicians (Chilton, Coman) mixing it up with untrained, intuitive artists (Falco and Johnson).

Alex Chilton and Rene Coman

Alex Chilton and Rene Coman

"In the early days of the band, Alex would sometimes ask Tav or me to play a song the way we had the first time we'd played it," says Johnson. "And I wouldn't be able to recall that exact performance the way a pro can. Even now, we hardly ever play a song the same way twice."

But the band's expressionistic style of remaking old, often obscure '50s pop songs into works that speak to today's mechanized culture found an audience in New York, London, and San Francisco. The band has received rave write-ups in popular magazines like The New York Times and Andy Warhol's Interview, as well as in underground papers like Red Skeleton (New York), Swill (San Francisco), Coolest Retard (Chicago), and Bullet (Kansas City).

Various incarnations of the band have included guitarist Jim Duckworth, bassist Ron Miller, pianist Jim Dickinson, guitarist Ron Easley, and New York no-wave drummer Jim Sclavunos. An early formation included Rick Ivy on trumpet and Eric Hill on synthesizer.

Recordings and Shows: Fear and Riot in Knoxville

The band has put out an LP called Behind the Magnolia Curtain, available nationally on Rough Trade, which includes songs written by various Southern blues and rock artists like R. L. Burnside, the Burnette Trio, Benny Joy, Leadbelly, and W. C. Handy. The raunchy, psychedelic treatments earned the record a number-one spot on a San Francisco radio station for several weeks in 1979, when it was first released.

The band has also recorded a single and EP with Rough Trade, as well as an EP on Animal Records called Blow Your Top. All are published with the band's Frenzi moniker. Presently Chilton, Falco, Johnson, and Coman are working with Jim Dickinson and Roland Janes of Phillips Recording to record an EP due out in the summer.

Panther Burns events can vary from the sublime to the bizarre; there the unexpected is pretty much expected. Just the mere sound of the music has brought out the police on occasion, namely, once at The Well (now Antenna Club), the Beat Exchange in New Orleans in 1981, and once recently at an impromptu recording session I witnessed at Doug Easley's home studio.

Some nights, the band might indulge in some feedback mischief, like at a September performance at the Los Angeles club, Lingerie, where Johnson rode his bass drum across the stage while Falco raked his guitar's neck across the microphone. Chilton, on the other hand, wasn't satisfied with the feedback level until he'd left his guitar against the amplifier.

Occasionally, however, the band meets up with a hostile crowd, such as at their March shows at Vanderbilt and U.T.-Knoxville, opening for The Clash. The first leg of the trip, now known to some who made the journey as "Fear and Loathing in Nashville," began in a driving rainstorm with one of the band's cars breaking down on the bridge over the Tennessee River with a flat tire while traveling at around 70 miles per hour.

Panther Burns, 1984, opening for The Clash at Vanderbilt University, Nashville

Opening for The Clash at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, 1984
(left to right Chilton, Falco, Johnson, )

The band arrived at the Vanderbilt gym just as it was time to set up and perform — and sitting before them was a crazed mob of Clash fans waiting to be served the main act on a plate, and with no dilly-dallying. In short, half of the audience was hostile before the band even hit town and were in no mood to be made to wait on an opening act. At the end of the set, band comedian Johnson blew kisses to the crowd and jeered, "I love college boys!" in response to all the booing. Many in the crowd did enjoy the band, however, despite the nasty majority. (As an aside, I witnessed a supportive crowd at Vandy attend a dormitory coffeehouse event hosting the band there a couple of years before, when I was in college. So I suspect the 1984 problem was being on a billing opening for this particular band, though they were nice to invite Panther Burns to play with them.)

The second leg of the journey, "Fear and Riot in Knoxville," was more a knockdown, drag-out fight with the audience, as several outright brawls erupted in the crowd, and screamed heckling prevailed. Midway through the set, just after they'd played Mack Rice's "Tina the Go Go Queen," Falco stopped the show short to play only two songs more, a blazing, extended version of Leadbelly's "Bourgeois Blues" and Junior Wells' "Snatch it Back."

The Panther Burns' version of "Bourgeois Blues" has often included excerpts from Falco's favorite beat writing, such as works by Louis Aragon and Allen Ginsburg, and that night he launched his manifesto with a vengeance.

Tav at Jimmy`s in New Orleans in 1983

Tav at Jimmy’s, New Orleans, 1983

"We just decided to remove the guise of entertainment at that point and try to communicate to them where we thought their minds were at," says Falco. "Those people weren't there to be entertained. They were bored — they wanted to abuse each other and to be abused. So we took them on at that point.

"By the end of 'Snatch it Back,' a lot of them were in shock, a little embarrassed. Some were yelling for more, but we left them hanging. We don't often go as far as we did at that show. Normally you have to pay $2.50 extra to be abused by the Panther Burns." The show included Falco's trademark declaration, "Laugh your fill — the Panther Burns are the ones who always hold out a hand to the enemy."

From Video Artist to Alternative Musician

"I'm not an intellectual — I'm just a slave to beauty," says Falco to anyone who asks about all that beat movement poetry he quotes so freely. When Falco arrived in Memphis on the Frisco Rail from Arkansas, leaving his hometown of Whelen Springs behind, he brought with him a rabid interest in beat art in several media, including that of photography.

By 1975 he had helped form the loosely organized TeleVista video outfit with artists Randall Lyon and William Eggleston. With their help and hours of advice, he recorded hundreds of hours of footage of blues artists, learning to play blues as he watched.

His first experience playing before a live audience came at a 1978 "farewell" performance of Mud Boy and the Neutrons at the Orpheum Theatre, where he was allowed to perform his "Bourgeois Blues" manifesto in honor of Mud Boy. There he irreverently sawed his guitar to pieces onstage while singing, proclaiming, and blowing a police whistle.
Jim Dickinson is godhead

Jim Dickinson

Chilton had seen the performance, and he subsequently began working up old blues and rockabilly tunes with Falco to found the band that would first take life in February of 1979 in a show with Mud Boy himself, Jim Dickinson, who wore a mask for the event.

"Jim Dickinson is godhead," laughs Falco. "He was a tremendous influence in our work all along, though at first we rebelled because he was so ever-present and established in the underground, nearly mainstream underground.

"I'm basically an amateur, and that means I stand for and represent the possibility of anyone performing who wants to. But I'll always have faith in Dickinson. He's remained himself through all the years. He's an incredible artist and producer."

Dickinson performs with the Panther Burns two to three times a year, when he's not busy producing records at Phillips Recording or traveling around performing and recording with cohort Ry Cooder. He is known for his work in the 1960s with Sun label's Jester group, his Jim Dickinson Blues Band, his band the Dixie Flyers, and Mud Boy and the Neutrons. He also performed with the Rolling Stones on the "Gimme Shelter" tour and has scored several films, including The Long Riders and Paris, Texas. He produces some of Panther Burns' recordings as well.

Making Hidden Treasures Visible

Performers at Panther Burns happenings often include local artists like Cordell Jackson (founder of Moon Records and writer of "Dateless Night"), Mose Vinson, Van Zula Hunt, Jessie Mae Hemphill, and rockabilly legend Charlie Feathers. Falco says many of the best blues and rockabilly artists around are "treated like the idiot wind here." The band's ambition is to bring recognition to these overlooked artists by translating their work into today's social framework.

"The influence of William Eggleston on my work is in being introduced to a symphony of color and sound while looking at seemingly mundane objects," says Falco of the noted local photographer.

Tav Falco with friends at the Antenna Club

Tav with friends at the Antenna Club

"We create an anti-environment to make visible that part of Memphis and of life that is normally overlooked. The beat writers and theorists like Antonin Artaud were treated like they were crazy — it wasn't until he died that everyone realized he was a genius."

Falco has recently written two originals, the spirited "Cuban Rebel Girl" (named after an Errol Flynn movie) and the jaunty "Hairdresser Underground," which warns of the dangers of being "jumped, worked over by the hairdresser underground."

A Mack Rice song figuring prominently in the repertoire, "The Robot," was written by the Stax staff writer about the dance by the same name. When Falco plays it, he often refers in stage patter to a sculpture called the Rabbot by avant-garde San Francisco artist Mark Pauline. "It is the actual carcass of a jack rabbit suspended in mid-air and attached to mechanical jigs that make its legs move backwards," explains Falco. The song in the hands of Panther Burns is the directionless dance of modern, mechanized society.

Like the shadowy, gothic midtown Memphis neighborhood Falco lives in, his songs project a dark, shadowy image — a sort of art noire style musically and visually. But it's really more basic than all that. Call it Ark-noire, but the sound is "unapproachable," a word Falco sometimes uses to describe the band, taken from a phrase commonly used to characterize his favorite British motorcycle, the Norton. "It had a featherbed frame that made it hold the road the best, so they called it 'unapproachable,'" says he, though he currently rides a '67 Triumph "summer of love" cycle.

The Panther Burns' performance at MusicFest is a must for fans of Memphis music in town from around the globe looking for fresh local music out of the mainstream. Visitors, if you glimpse a poster of a snake, pine cone, mask, and panther, look out for signs of Dionysian revels underway and brush up on your Southern mythology.

This article reprinted with the author's permission. © Lisa McGaughran

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