So why is Tav Falco walking around a free man? The musician and bandleader has spent a lifetime preserving and reconfiguring the musics of dark emotions. As chief conceptualist of Panther Burns, a loosely organized troupe founded 17 years ago in the freewheeling Memphis underground, Falco has built a somewhat obscure but notable career on his deep fascination with the occultish aspects of human nature and the melodic expression of same.
The music that attracts Falco, he says with some eloquence, is "trance music. It's music of irony, of obsession. It's blues of the night, of the moon, and of the tides. It's music of the earth." Clearly, he's not inspired by clean living.
A slight, dapper eccentric with a piled-up coif and the wispiest hint of a Charlie Chaplin mustache, the Southern-born Falco describes himself as a "crude" musician. Equally inspired by the Mississippi drone-blues of guitarist R.L. Burnside (a subject of Falco's documentary film work in the 1970s) and by the shattered boundaries of punk-era performance, Falco formed the Panther Burns in 1979. Various associates of the band have included the beleaguered pop singer Alex Chilton, wild-man producer Jim Dickinson, and members of Nick Cave's Bad Seeds and New Orleans' Iguanas.
Robert Gordon's recent book It Came From Memphis includes a priceless retelling of Falco's earliest claim to fame: a legendary 1978 Memphis festival appearance in which the unknown performer flailed his way through a version of Leadbelly's "Bourgeois Blues" before demolishing his still-amplified Silvertone guitar with a motorized handsaw, scattering a horrified audience.
Similarly, the Panther Burns take their moniker from a Mississippi town named for the excruciating howls of a predator set ablaze by vigilant farmers -- or so the story goes. Though the Panther Burns' earliest, roughest work sometimes reflected their namesake, over the years Falco and his charges have burnished their delivery considerably, to the point where the entertainer's wry, art-damaged philosophies share equal footing with eminently enjoyable music.
The Panther Burns' most recent album, Shadow Dancer, on Nashville's Upstart records, features a seamless blend of original tangos, sambas, and blues, interwoven with well-chosen covers of songs associated with Bobby "Blue" Bland, Dion, Dean Martin, and Gene Pitney, all shot through with the comic otherworldliness of Peter Dopita's singing saw. After years of hard-to-find, patchwork releases cobbling together a skewed rockabilly-based aesthetic -- a writer once noted, "As the Cramps are to rockabilly, the Panther Burns are to the Cramps" -- the Panther Burns have made their most fully realized recording to date in Shadow Dancer.
In fact, the record is so thematically sound that Falco considers it to be a "soundtrack without a movie." Currently, he's negotiating with potential backers in Spain for a film version.
"Somehow I feel like I'm understood in Europe by more people," Falco says. He's calling from New York, where he has just arrived from his home of two years in Vienna to begin a brief tour of the United States. Hearing him breathe deliberately into the phone, it's easy to imagine the velvet curtains of his room drawn tight, his eyes twinkling by candlelight.
"In Europe you can do things outside the realm of entertainment and people will listen to you. It's been a problem for me sometimes in the States to go in my divergent directions and play rock clubs, when what I'm doing is a little outside of that."
"Sure, we can be entertaining and create a fun-loving atmosphere," he continues, "but there's something else underlying the performance of the Panther Burns -- something that stirs up the dark waters of the unconscious." Like tango, a style prevalent on Shadow Dancer, the music of Panther Burns is akin to "trying to revive something you can never really retrieve."
"Panther Burns," he proposes, "are a missing link. That's our whole purpose. We're not a revival, we're not nostalgia. ... It's fun to dress up in old clothes and listen to funny music, but it's entirely something different if you clothe yourself in an atmosphere, in the work of an artist of another period."
Moving to Vienna, Falco says, has allowed him to focus on the art forms that really speak to him, without concern for commercial viability. Like the Mississippi in which he filmed R.L. Burnside, the intrigues of Vienna could be those of "Buenos Aires in 1919, or Cuba in 1920," he says. "It's the same kind of atmosphere."
"I've been living in Vienna to get outside the music scene as we know it," Falco says. "I'm refreshingly free of any contact with musicians. Vienna is a music town, but it's a music of the past. It is a crossroads between east and west, a river town -- kind of like Memphis. People from different cultures move through and play their music there. You're just one of many. It's a city where they lowered Mozart into a pauper's grave. If you cultivate a Vienna audience, you really have something."
In "Born Too Late," the singer's perennial theme song, he croons, "Have you ever tried to escape from a world you did not create?" Falco says his motivation is "the feeling I have that I'm on a threshold, reaching for experiences from the past."
"Not that I want to live in the past," he emphasizes. "There are so many things in the modern world that I'm glad for, and there are so many things about the past we would never want to bring back. But there are certain things we've lost that we need to be aware of, too. There's something existential about it: longing for change and permanence at the same time."
Existentialism you can dance to. Now there's a concept.
Tav Falco's Panther Burns play Sunday, June 9, at the Kilowatt, 3160 16th St., S.F.; call 861-2595.