|Tav Falco Sizzles While Panther Burns
By Bunny Matthews — Permanent Vacation - September 1, 1980, FIGARO
Allow me to set the scene: it is Saturday night, the moon is almost but not quite full. The largest truck I have ever seen - a block long with 50 chrome-plated wheels - is parked on Oak Street in front of that place that gives poodles clip jobs. A diverse and mostly polite mob of people (ranging from a quartet of hefty frauleins in too much zebraskin to back-from-Connecticut Newcombites in scuffless Weejuns to any number of young boys attempting - some better than others - to impersonate the way John Lydon used to be) fills the inner spaces of Jed's which is inexplicably without air conditioning. Two of my friends (women, it should be noted) are about to punch out one of the doormen because he - faithful to the Commandments handed down to him by Mr. Palmer - will not allow them inside the club with the drinks they had purchased not five minutes before from - you guessed it - inside the club. Only at Jed's would anyone attempt such a scam and in a way, it's charming. Who in their right and sober mind would deny that Jed Palmer - ever the innovator - was a punk a good decade before anyone else?
Unashamedly, I will confess that I am pretty crazy about the Panther Burns. I have my reasons, one of which is that they put their audiences through changes. Changes is a trite and passé word (not to mention a defunct music club on South Clairborne) but it fits the Panther Burns, Jim. No one is ever going to attend a Panther Burns recital and leave with mixed feelings.
Tav Falco, in the brocade dinner jacket and semi-Hitler moustache, is the group's vocalist-guitarist and he prefaces almost every song with a frenetic "Jam up and jelly tight!" Sometimes he drops that and declare "We just love the dogshit out of ya!" On a previous visit to New Orleans - many years ago - he exhibited a videotape of veteran heroin addicts at the New Orleans Museum of Art's Biennial.
He is no teenager and neither are any of the other Burns, including the rather retiring Alex Chilton, who gets nervous when he's not in his hometown of Memphis and who - at first - I mistook for my cousin who's a G-Man with the Treasury Department and spends all his waking hours trying to bust affiliates of the Cosa Nostra.
At Jed's, the Panther Burns were opening for the Cold and having their share of problems with the Cold's amplification system. Midway through their set, Tav stepped forward and told the audience "You realize that tuning is strictly a European concept." Such a great line should've gotten at least a small ovation but as usual, everyone and their cousin were just biding their time until "Babs" appeared in one of her stratling mini-skirts.
The Rockats, as I expected, were cute and wore terrific clothes. They were also entertaining but after a dose of the Burns, everything else seems like so much well-rehearsed theatrics. The Rockats, you might say, are enthusiasts while the Panther Burns simply cannot help but being what they are: gone, which happens to be Tav's favorite words.
The following afternoon, I conferred with Tav in the basement of a large St. Charles Avenue home while various souls fiddled with a synthesizer upstairs and Alex Chilton drove around town selling the band's record to the vinyl outlets. Tav chain-smoked pastel Shermans and in a soft, entirely pleasant voice delivered the following information.
On the origins of the Panther Burns' name:
"It's a plantation in Mississippi - the Panther Burn plantation off Highway 1 in Greenville. It's been there for quite a long time, since the 19th Century. What happened there - from what I've heard - is that around the turn-of-the-century they had a cat - a panther - that was harassing the community. They couldn't capture it and they couldn't kill it. All they were able to do was to contain it in a canebreak and set the canebreak on fire. Apparently, the shrieks of this critter were so intense and vivid to these people that the place became known as Panther Burn. The plantation is still thriving to this day. We liked the sound of the words, the imagery, what it conjures up. We thought it was a fitting concept in music - kind of a renegade sound, a sound that can't really be wiped out or captured but can be contained under certain incendiary conditions.
On his personal origins:
"I was born in Philadelphia and came to Arkansas when I was 5 ½ and I was raised over there in a small town call Gurdon - between Little Rock and Texarkana. It's the same place Jimmy Witherspoon is from. I lived up in the Ozarks for a long time and started living in Memphis steady in 1972. I used to visit Memphis a lot in the '60s because they had a lot of blues going on and a lot of good indigenous music that really turned everything around for some people. It's really a unique area - Memphis is more Arkansas and Mississippi than Tennessee.
"I played blues alone - not in a band. Mainly, I made video tapes of country blues artists. I played blues at home - a very primitive kind of blues. I was doing a tape in January of 1979 and I met Alex Chilton about that time. I had met him before but I didn't know anything about his music at the time but later on in the year, he came over the house and we got to know each other and started playing music."
"Some people think that rockabilly music was the first time that white people took up electric folk instruments and attempted to play the Black man's music in something other than a jazz way - in a way that was real gone without being technically harmonic. They picked up the Black people's spirit in music but they took it out on their own white way. Like the idea of a Bible in one had and corn whiskey in the other, as Faulkner says. The white man moved through the South in that way. That's what rockabilly is - ot's Black music, it's chruch music, it's revival music - Elmer-Gantry-on-the-pulpit-preachin' situation.
"There's a song that Elvis did - 'Milkcow Blues' - where he starts out in Sun Records' studio and they begin the song in a very blues kind of way because it is a blues song like 'That's alright, Mama' and some others. He stops the song after the first few bars and says, 'All right this is not gonna get it, boys - let's just get real gone!! And you can hear the difference - they go onto what was a new kind of music for them, music they hadn't heard before, which has become known today as rockabilly for some reason.
"It was taking the Black man's blues to the limit of the white capability or white insanity or the most bust-out way they could take it. It was a progress of getting real gone in one way or another. I think they felt Black music was a good vehicle for them to take off from.
"Jazz in the '50s had reached a nice balance between its more primitive forms and its more modern manifestations but I think Black popular music was something that electrified. People like Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters were musicians that rural people in the South were beginning to hear for the first time and they got carried away with it. White people wanted to get into it themselves and rockabilly is what came out.
"Charlie Feathers has Memphis Minnie records at his house and Charlie is a very good country person. He comes out of a poor white background and somewhat biased against Black culture because they're on the same sort of social and economic situation as the Blacks. He's got this double relationship with the Black culture as only exists in the South. He really accepts Black people and at the same time maybe feels threatened by them in some way - feels that he should be threatening about them sometimes. There's a lot of people like that in the South. He really respects Black music and would be the first to say that rockabilly is 'cotton-patch blues and bluegrass' or 'mountain music'. He calls it 'mountain music'.
"Charlie still plays occasionally when the conditions are right. He'll be on the Schlitz Festival. Last year, they had Warren Smith, just before he died. He was 78. Warren Smith was pretty hot.
"The hottest man right now is Billy Lee Riley. He was on the Sun label - he did 'Red Hot'. He still plays when he can get dates. There's nobody really doing it like Johnny Burnette did. There aren't many of the real bust-out Mississippi bullfrogs getting up there and getting about an inch off the stage and just knocking it out in the most abandoned way that they can. That's the way Johnny Burnette was.
"I've been talking to Johnny's guitar player - Paul Burlinson - he's the only one left from the band. He lives just south of Memphis in Walls, Mississippi. He's got a construction company down there. He's trying to put together a band to take overseas - he's looking for a young Johnny Burnette."
On English rockabilly revival bands:
"Crazy Cavan and the Rhythm Rockers came to Memphis and they're supposed to be a serious Teddy Boy band but I don't know - they just didn't seem… it was like country music. They had a lot of the licks down. They have one I like a lot, they wrote it themselves - 'Teddy Boy boogie' - a Gene Vincent-sounding thing. The lyrics go like 'Walking down the street, swinging my chain / A cop came by and asked me my name / Whipped out my razor and slit his throat … ' Something like that - a certain intensity.
"But when they were on stage in Memphis it was like a country-western band - about the same velocity. I was expecting something real intense. I hear there's some new rockabilly bands in England - young guys - the Polecats and some other bands… some young, young bands that really have the spirit of it."
On the Panther Burns' record:
"These are live recordings. I screen-printed the covers. On 'she's the one to blame', we wanted to do a treatment of the English Teddy Boy rockabilly and send it back to them. It's a Crazy Cavan tune. 'She's the one to blame' and 'Dateless night' were both recorded at the Evergreen Theatre in March. Recording in a theatre like that you get the Stax sound - all the early Stax stuff was done in an old movie house in Memphis.
" 'Dateless night' is a Memphis song written by a lady named Cordell Jackson who had a record company in Memphis during the Sun era - a small company named Moon records. She released a number of 45s and had a rockabilly band called Allen Page and the Big Four - they were semi-successful in the '50s. We took the Cramps to meet Cordell and they really got along.
" 'Train Kept a-Rollin' we recorded at a small club called The Well where we play a lot in Memphis. It was recorded on a cassette machine. In fact, we thought about doing the whole record on a cassette. It gives you a funky radio sound. This song has a tunnel-sound. We were using a synthesizer, two guitars and drums.
" 'Drop your mask' is a tango from the '20s that we do live. We don't want to be strictly a revivalist rockabilly band and rehash a lot of things or copy them in a slavish way. We want to capture the spirit of rockabilly.
"See, in the '50s when these white cats were taking up electric guitars for the first time and Black cats were taking them up, this was all new. Audiences weren't educated to this kind of music. You walked out with a tiny Fender amplifier with one 12-inch speaker and one microphone on stage and it was revolutionary. And it was loud, too. They got an incredibly fine mix - an awfully hot sound. If you came out with that same equipment today, I don't know - I don't think the audience could hear it. You almost have to assault them with volume. We're still trying to figure these things out. We're still experimenting."
On his Silvertone guitar:
"We played a gig in Little Rock last year and they gave me a little money and couldn't pay ma all the money they had promised and they offered this guitar and I took the guitar. I had known the guitar for awhile because it had belonged to someone I had known in Little Rock and I had used it some before and I knew it was a guitar I would like to have. I knew it has a good sound. I think it was made in America and the later Silverstones were made in Japan or Italy. I had a Japanese Silverstone and it was pretty nice but I trashed it at the Orpheum Theatre in Memphis last year. Silverstones don't have a lot of power - you've got to have a good amp. With a Fender Twin Reverb, they're really basic, really hot."
On the Panther Burns:
" We've got Bubba Chip Larson on traps, the Detroit Bullfrog - Ron Miller - in bass fiddle and we've got Bogue Chitto on guitar and myself on guitar and vocals - Tav Falco. We just renamed Alex on our last trip down here. Rancid Jizm on guitar and vocals sometimes stands in for Tav Falco."
On the Address he often delivers before performances:
"It's a Surrealist Address by Louis Aragon from Madrid in 1925:
Bankers, students, workers,
Officials, servants -
You are the fellaters of the useful,
The masturbators of necessity,
I shall never work,
My hands are pure -
Madmen, hide your palms from me
And those intellectual calluses that are the source of your pride,
Let America's white buildings rumble among her ridiculous prohibitions
Let the Orient - our terror - answer our voices at last:
Rise, thousand-armed India
It is your turn, Egypt!
Let the drug merchants of the world fling themselves upon our terrified nations!
Laugh your fill
But see how ready the earth is
For every conflagration
The Panther Burns are the ones
Who always hold out a hand to the enemy!"
On the Purpose of the Panther Burns:
"Well, the Panther Burns are anti-stars. They're black holes where a star should be. The purpose of the Panther Burns is to create an anti-environment to make authentic music that's all around us more visible, especially in Memphis where indigenous music abounds and can be found on every corner and in every cotton field. It takes an anti-environment to make that visible which has become invisible to us. All the great musicians and overlooked artists in our environment remain overlooked and invisible to people because all we can see are industrial television broadcasts and news broadcasts. We see the public trust of the airwaves violated each day and therefore, it takes an anti-environment to make visible to us that which we have become blind to. We can't see anymore. It takes an anti-musician to create reality for the sleepwalkers."
By Bunny Matthews