Originally published in Arthur No. 21 (May 2006).
Inside the Invisible Empire: My Travels With Rock ‘N’ Roll Legend Tav Falco And His Unapproachable Panther Burns
Text and photography by Richard A. Pleuger
Ingenious original layout by W. T Nelson
Special thanks to the indefatigable Peter Relic
* * *
THE LEGEND OF THE PANTHER BURN
“Around the turn of the last century—1900 or so—they started clearing more land for the cultivation of cotton and other crops around the Mississippi River. These big piles of trees and bush were left there to be burned later. And the animals that were living in these areas—foxes, bears, rabbits—had no place to go.
“There was this wild cat, a panther, who was very cunning and howled all night. Faced with the destruction of his own habitat, the panther started to raid the farmers’ chicken coops. The animal became a general nuisance. They tried to hunt the panther down, but he eluded their traps.
“One night the farmers ran the animal into a canebrake, a stand of wild cane bamboo growing there, and they set the canebrake on fire. The shrieks of the panther were so intense that it was unforgettable. The location became known from then on as The Panther Burn. In essence, it was a symbol for the downfall of the last vestige of frontier America and the onset of European civilization in the South. And this is were we derived the lore of the Panther Burn.”
—Gustavo “Tav” Falco, in conversation with the author, 2002
* * *
The story begins in Germany in 1981, a full five years before I met Tav Falco. At the time, I was studying art and film in Düsseldorf, but often traveled to Berlin. There, I discovered the mythical power of rockabilly music along with a tight group of friends who had formed The Legendary Golden Vampires, the most hated band in Berlin. While their peers Einstürzende Neubauten exorcised their German demons by eating rusty metal, the Golden Vampires had been authorized to use the honorarium “Legendary” by an obscure relic of American music, The Legendary Stardust Cowboy of Lubbock, Texas. The key influence on the Golden Vampires was The Cramps, whose musical psychosis was highly seductive at a time when New Wave felt mighty pretentious.
I was blasting my own head open with music by The Sonics, The Droogs, Link Wray, Benny Joy, The Gun Club and the darker side of country music. Not only did these artists provide me with the outsider anthems I required, they seemed to suggest a code of ethics that was cemented further by Robert Mitchum’s performance in the film Night of the Hunter, which we watched obsessively.
In essence, my friends and I lived in our own world of American underground pop culture. We identified with the dark anarchy underlying the birthplace of Rock’n’Roll, and I was particularly haunted by the work of American bandleader Tav Falco, whose first EP “She’s The One to Blame,” released on his own Frenzi label in 1980. Tav tunes like “Bourgeois Blues” and “Hairdresser Underground” contained a transformative energy found in only the most truly unpredictable Rock’n’Roll.
But besides the music, Tav himself seemed to have a deeper connection to the historic evil heart of Rock’n’Roll: he came from Memphis, Tennessee, the heart of the American South. His voice evoked the spectral quality of “Strange Fruit” hanging from poplar trees, and the haunted sound of crickets chirping in hundred percent humidity on a night when a race-related killing has taken place.
Tav Falco oozed American authenticity. His brand of music seemed simultaneously experienced and unpredictable. When I saw Tav staring down conspiratorially from the cover of his first album, 1981’s Behind the Magnolia Curtain, I felt a deep inner connection with this slightly melancholic, Chaplin-‘stached Southern Gothic Dandy. In those dark and sluggish days in ’80s Germany, Tav Falco and his Unapproachable Panther Burns inspired me, and in fact ended up drawing me to the other edge of the Western world and into the dark undercurrents of American pop culture.
* * *
In the mid-‘80s I had sung in my own ’60s-style garage band C.H.U.D., named after an obscure American horror movie. (We had our moment when our song “Rumble at the Love-In” was included on Lee Joseph’s Sounds of Now! compilation in 1986 on Dionysus Records.)
My interest in Americana eventually took its toll, as the fierce focus of my obsession contributed to my girlfriend leaving me. After that, there was nothing keeping me in the Heartbreak Hotel called Germany. I applied for a grant to study in the States, got it, and was on my way.
I landed in San Francisco in 1986 to study filmmaking at the Art Institute with George Kuchar. On a cool late summer night, I went to see Tav Falco unleash his unique blend of rockabilly and country blues in a club down on Broadway. Sporting a big black curly pompadour, Tav proved to be an even more powerful performer than I could have imagined. He drove his group the Panther Burns, in his own words, like “the last steam engine train on the tracks that does nothing but run and blow.” The power of the music propelled the crowd into other realms of fierce, ritualistic reality. During the a hypnotic rendition of “Jump Suit,” Tav proclaimed: “Panthermen and Pantherwomen, this is the Invisible Empire!” The audience then stormed the stage to sing along.
After the show, I introduced myself to Tav, and was pleasantly surprised to find this feverish performer to be highly approachable. Warm and welcoming, Tav invited me to come along to a small informal aftershow party being thrown by a friend of his in an apartment by the beach not far from Golden Gate Park.
There, we sat and talked. Lorette Velvette, a warm and lanky Southern Belle and Tav’s muse at the time, sat curled in a chair strumming country blues songs on her acoustic guitar. Tav, dressed in a smart blue-and-white striped dress shirt with a white collar, long-sleeved vest, black cigarette pants and pointed black boots, stated his specific fondness for German Film Expressionism. He enthused about the trance-like states achieved by the medium Cesare (played by Conrad Veidt) in Robert Wiene’s 1920 silent classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. We bonded over a mutual affinity for the under-appreciated storytelling titan Erich von Stroheim and his romantic stylization of Vienna in the late Austro-Hungarian Empire. I played a mix-tape of obscure ’50s and ’60s music, including the melancholy, almost Viennese, Hawaiian song “White Birds” that Lorette later adapted on her debut album.
Tav told me in his characteristically refined Southern drawl that he had at one time been an assistant to famed Memphis photographer William Eggleston. I knew of Eggleston and his status as the man who’d introduced color photography into the world of fine arts. I mentioned my fascination with a particular Eggleston photograph of an older, forlorn-looking white man standing beside his car close to a river, while behind him, with reverent distance, stood his white-uniformed black driver. Tav explained that Eggleston had taken the photograph at a funeral ceremony not visible in the frame, thus accounting for the somber atmosphere of the scene. We spoke about Astor Piazzola and Tav’s fascination with tango. Tav also wrote down a list of books I should read, including Against the Grain by Anthony Dunbar, Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis, As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner and Walk on the Wild Side by Nelson Algren. Outside, the Pacific Ocean lashed the beach in dark waves.
We continued to hang out over the next few days, and by the end, Tav had commissioned me to film a movie/video clip for “Shadetree Mechanic,” the lewd double-entendre blues by Z.Z. Hill on Panther Burns’ new “Shake Rag” EP. We made a plan: I would fly to New Orleans, get picked up by Tav, go on tour with Panther Burns to Baton Rouge and Atlanta, then return to Memphis to shoot the movie. Almost all of the photographs that accompany this article were shot during this two-week adventure.
* * *
Tav had a rich background in filmmaking. Back in 1974 he’d recorded a black and white open-reel video of Delta bluesman R.L. Burnside (whose first name Tav pronounced “Rural”) performing in Burnside’s own honky-tonk, the Brotherhood Sportsmen’s Lodge near Como, Mississippi.
“R.L. used to play acoustic guitar in the ’40s and ’50s,” Tav told me, “but the first time I saw him, he was playing electric.” While I was staying at Panther Burns headquarters in Memphis, Tav screened his Burnside footage for me (some of it was later used in the Fat Possum documentary You See Me Laughin’). It blew my mind: I saw poor people dancing barefoot on a sawdust floor to the hypnotic beat of the local master, escaping life’s misery into the sanctuary of moonshine and cheap beer, entranced by a volatile, mass hypnosis-inducing, one-chord Blues in a wooden shack somewhere deep in Northern Mississippi.
It was Burnside, Tav told me, who had inspired him to pick up the electric guitar. The instrument became one of Tav’s primary tools during events that normally might be termed gigs, but because of Tav’s particular methods and aims he referred to as “art actions.”
It was during one such event in 1979 at the Orpheum Theatre on Beale Street that the Panther Burns were born. There, Tav delivered a frenzied solo performance of Leadbelly’s “Bourgeois Blues.” Recalling the event, Tav says: “I did an art action with Jim Dickinson’s band, Mudboy and the Neutrons. I performed alone in full evening clothes, wore white gloves with the fingers cut out. I wanted to express publicly the frustration, alienation and discontent I felt, being some kind of trash from Arkansas, an artist and living on the margins.
“I got tired of the bourgeois thing happening in the States at that time. I was trying to work as a photographer and filmmaker and felt thwarted. I was a product of the ’60s, a time when I met a lot of people on the road. There were these mass movements of people across the country then, and a great deal of that time was dedicated to the rediscovery and the celebration of the Blues. I took up a guitar out of frustration. Bought this five dollar Sears Silvertone guitar and thought, I’m gonna give notice to the people, I’m gonna destroy my guitar and tell them, it’s a sad bourgeois town, and they can kiss my ass!“
“I was alone with the guitar, a police whistle, a SKIL saw and a chain saw, all put in use against each other. And little Bill Eggleston was there on my own Televista camera, videoing the entire event. He was videotaping onstage and it was being played back in real-time on a massive television monitor that I brought to the stage and aimed at the audience. So the powers-that-be could not control what I was feeding back to the audience, since I had my own video. Then immediately all three television stations descended upon my performance with their broadcast TV cameras. Many people noticed my gesture, like they were thinking the same thing, of doing some kind of spontaneous action. I hadn’t been thinking too much about it, because I was already living in that kind of art-action way. Alex Chilton was in the audience that night and we formed Panther Burns with Ross Johnson.”
* * *
Tav always collaborated musically with his idols. Beside playing with Chilton, Charlie Feathers and James Luther Dickinson, he had blues singer Jesse Mae Hemphill (a.k.a. Shewolf) and the marching drummers of Napoleon Strickland’s Cane Fife Band heavily destabilizing the already raucous rendition of “Bourgeois Blues” on his band’s debut album, 1981’s Behind the Magnolia Curtain. But despite the band’s impressive collective pedigree, Panther Burns was not about musical virtuosity, it’s about an aesthetic.
“To this day I regard myself more as a performer than a musician,” Tav told me in 2002. “It takes a special individual to play in the Panther Burns. You can’t just plug a musician into this music. To play this music is hard work for musicians, but easy for an artist. I would rather work with someone who’s got more of a philosophical orientation than sheer musical virtuosity to display in the band. I’m looking for something ineffable.”
* * *
My two-week trip into the world of Tav Falco and the Panther Burns was an inspirational fever dream that was over too soon. Yet the Panthers Burns themselves have never stopped.
Astoundingly well preserved over the last 20 years, the result of a physically, intellectually and artistically stimulating lifestyle and vegan diet, Tav Falco could be the true Dorian Gray of Rock’n’Roll. Now rumored to be approaching sixty years of age, he appears about two decades younger, especially energy-wise. Surrounding himself over the years with a set of arresting if not controversial men and women, this consummate entertainer continues to present his plethora of personas: rockabilly psycho, Italian crooner, heartbroken tango shadowdancer, country-blues aficionado. Like any intelligent original artist, he has explored different musical paths over the last 25 years, and now has the understated authority of a man who’s survived a quarter of a century worth of artistic dread and cultural homogenization.
There still is a fire burning in the Panther’s eye, and I admire him for that. And now, through the passage of time, his fire burns with a finer grain. I feel a bit like Claude Rains, talking to Humphrey Bogart at the end of Casablanca. I never met a finer Southern gentleman than Tav Falco, and those days almost twenty years ago were the beginning of a beautiful friendship that continues today. As Tav himself signs his correspondence: Panther Burns Forever Lasting!
* * *
[HERE ARE THE CAPTION/ESSAYS TO THE PHOTOGRAPHS— SORRY, WE CANNOT PRESENT THE PHOTOS ONLINE — IF YOU WANT TO SEE THEM, STOP BEING CHEAP AND BUY A COPY OF THE MAG FROM THE ARTHUR STORE!]
1. Pages 32-3:
Tav Falco and Lorette Velvette leaning on Tav’s 800 Norton, with their armed neighbors in the back, as photographed by James Chappell.
2. Page 34:
Lorette Velvette, leader of the Hellcats, and Panther Burns’ Italian drummer Giovanna Pizzorno drive over the train tracks somewhere in Arkansas.
Tav Falco was born into Italian roots in Gurdon, Arkansas, a sleepy railroad town between Little Rock and Texarkana, east of the Interstate on Highway 67. While driving through rural Arkansas in his 1964 Ford Thunderbird, the sight of the train tracks just outside of Bluff City, Memphis brings him back to his childhood:
“I was living out in the backwoods between Gurdon and Whelan Springs, Arkansas, a whistle stop on the railroad where the cannonball freight ran through it, way in the backwoods and not much bigger than Panther Burns in Mississippi.
“When a steam train came through, it covered the whole town in black smoke, you couldn’t see anything. It was like a fantastic mist that transported you into the netherworld of the imagination and the unconscious.
“Even today, the whole essence of the Panther Burns is to stir up the dark waters of the unconscious mind. That’s why we’re here. You can have a party, you can have sex, you can find your husband or wife—all this happens at Panther Burns shows. You can get spaced out. You can get drunk. You can lie on the floor, get stomped on. You can intermingle with the races, you can dance your ass off. But the essence of it is: stir up the unconscious mind.”
Childhood experience inspired young Tav to become a brakeman on the Missouri-Mississippi railroad, not unlike Jimmie Rodgers, the great country singer of the 1920s. In fact, in the beginning Tav and his band were billed in Memphis as Tav Falco, the Beale Street Blues Bopper and The Unapproachable Panther Burns. Later he changed it into Tav Falco, the Steppin’ Breakman and the U.P.B.
Tav: “The brakeman separates and couples the cars together. He climbs up on the car and sets the big round handbrake. He gives hand signals when to do what. A very romantic job.”
3. Page 34:
At an after-concert party in San Francisco, Lorette Velvette curls up in a chair, playing country blues, on a guitar while Ross Johnson listens.
4. Page 35:
Tav at home in Memphis wrestling with his Panther.
Tav’s Panther Burns Memphis HQ was a modest house at 2425 Princeton Avenue close to Overton Park. After having dinner at the Arcade on Calhoun Street, one of the best preserved ’50s restaurants in Tennessee, Tav screened the director Rudolph Mate’s glorious 1953 Technicolor riverboat classic Mississippi Gambler (starring Tyrone Power as gallant gentleman and quintessential showboat gambler Marc Fallon) as inspiration for a video shoot with the author.
5. Page 36-7:
Tav, stretched out at Sam Phillips, 639 Madison Avenue, Memphis.
Richard Pleuger: “After another fine fudge ice cream at the Arcade, Lorette, Giovanna, Tav and I went across the street to Candleroom 14, a local gris-gris voodoo shop. Inside it was pitch dark with the exception of weak neon tubes barely illuminating some glass cabinets displaying magical herbs for every possible evil deed and thought. The complete silence in the shop was only interrupted by an insanely old German shepherd licking one of the cabinet windows.
“The owner, a sophisticated older black man, appeared from behind a dark curtain and gave quiet instructions on different mojo hands and magic candles. I purchased a special book on herbs and a black candle in the form of a naked woman.
“During a photo session on the first floor of Sam Phillips’ studio on Madison Avenue, lawless elements broke into Tav’s Thunderbird and stole money and my book on herbs. We cursed the robbers to get ‘stinging nettle-afros’ and ‘thistle-mullets.’ I still don’t know what god or entity had a problem with my acquisitions, but he, she or it clearly did not want me to have them.”
6. Page 36:
After frustrating experiences telling German barbers how to carve something that looked like early Elvis (and oftentimes winding up looking like a sprouting potato), the author retreated to sporting a full-on Brian Jones-meets-Dave Aguilar-mop during his time in C.H.U.D.
Richard Pleuger [right]: “Upon my arrival in San Francisco I went to an old hairdresser on Market Street, showed him photographs of rockabilly singers Tex Rubinoviz and Billy Lee Riley [further right] and got exactly what I wanted: a straight old duck’s ass, lubricated into aerodynamic, jaw-dropping shape with gel and Final Net. I now had a tornado-proof helmet of defiance against all unnecessary trendiness.”
7. Pages 36-7:
Panther Burns perform live in downtown Atlanta.
The club was full of A Flock of Seagulls-type New Wavers who had never seen anything like The Panther Burns. The band had Giovanna on the drums, Rene Coman on bass, George Reinecke on special claw-hand guitar and a red-caped Tav thundering through “Cuban Rebel Girl” (named after the Errol Flynn movie filmed during the Cuban revolution in 1959), “Dateless Night” from Cordell Jackson’s Memphis-based Moon label, “I’m on This Rocket” (a cover suggested to Tav by the Cramps’ Lux Interior) and a version of Z.Z. Hill’s “Shadetree Mechanic.”
L.A. rockers Kip Tyler and the Flips’ rockerbride-anthem “She’s My Witch” got Tav’s eerie dessert nightwind treatment which tested the hairsprayed new wave happyhelmets of some listeners in front. Tav finished the set with the upbeat dance numbers “Mona Lisa” and “Tina, The Go-Go Queen,” climaxing with the psychosexual tango “Drop Your Masque.”
After the show, the band and their young hosts — architecture students and big Alex Chilton fans — ate at a restaurant close to the venue in downtown Atlanta. My rockabilly pompadour raised many an eyebrow in this Southern establishment.
8. Page 37
(From right to left: ) Lorette Velvette, Tav, New Orleans blues radio DJ Melinda Pendleton (who was going with PB guitarist George Reinecke at the time), and the author.
9. Page 38
Tav and a Kingrider inspect the Thunderbird’s engine during the video shoot.
10. Page 39:
Tav’s neighbors: Sammi Lee Williams, wife Jeany and daughter Sharee Ann.
Richard Pleuger: “When Tav and Lorette introduced me to their neighbors, it dawned on me that these were the people on the porch behind them in the photograph on the back cover of the “Sugarditch Revisited” EP, an image that I had enlarged and hung on my wall in Germany.
“Sammi Lee Williams was an Indian from Mississippi. His massive frame was sat either on his porch or in a wheelchair. Years before he had wrecked his Honda 450 on a stormy day in Memphis. He was thrown through the air after hitting a car and came down in a liquor store parking lot. They put him into two plastic bags and thought he was dead. Sam survived somehow, but never healed. His leg always had an open, gangrenous wound in which strange things grew.
“Sam collected trash for a living and stored most of it in a rusty school bus in his backyard. Sam had a coyote called Blue Eye, a couple of dogs, and about eighteen overexcited puppies.
“His wife Jeany and daughter Sharee Ann were very nice, mentally handicapped people, who under Sam’s direction had built a huge fence around the property. Those ‘goddamn young hippie-redneck’ neighbors had apparently been drunk out of their mind two months back and had a ball shooting two of his beloved dogs in the early morning hours. Since then Sam’s paranoia had risen. He told all of his visitors—including us—not to make any sudden movements in the house, and to step lightly. The fuses of the live hand grenades he had stored in sawdust “somewhere in a backroom” could go off any second. (Tav told me that Sam had also molded his own bullets out of liquid lead, but I never saw them.)”
“A year later, Tav recorded the rockabilly song Warrior Sam by Don Willis and the Orbits and wrote in his liner notes that ‘Warrior Sam lives on the porch next door.’ When Tav returned from his first European tour, Warrior Sam was no more. Sami had the habit of slapping Jeany and Sharee Ann with his crutch when he was displeased with their work on the high fence. Apparently, he had done that once too often. Jeany knocked him over in the wheelchair, took all the money in the house and left for Mississippi with their daughter. Sammi Lee Williams had a heart attack and was left to die, which he did.”
11. Page 39:
Drummer Giovana Pizzorno, Tav Falco and Lorette Velvette at Sam Phillips Recording Service.
12. Pages 38-9:
Tav Falco and friends during “Shadetree Mechanic” shoot. Right: Tav and a Kingrider inspect the Thunderbird’s engine during the shoot.
“Say you ain’t had a tune-up in a long, long while/ I’ll give you good service with a smile.” —”Shadetree Mechanic” by Z.Z. Hill
Richard Pleuger: “The idea of the “Shadetree Mechanic” video was for me to show a day in the world of the Unapproachable Panther Burns: their women, house, cars, hogs, dogs, garage, music, bodyguards and rituals.
“The film begins with Lorette and Giovanna getting out of bed in the morning with their wire-haired dachshund Daniac. They cruise around Memphis in a Thunderbird, buy an ice cream and drive through the surrounding countryside in Tennessee and Arkansas. They pick up hitchhiking love-starved guitarist George Reinecke, who behaves badly and is thrown out quickly near a pigsty. On the way back to Memphis, their car breaks down and they have to take refuge in an enchanted garage with several engineering professionals. One in particular, Tav, gets the attention of Lorette.
“The shoot took place at night in a warehouse garage in an industrial area in Memphis adjoining the black neighborhoods that were complete ghettos. A very dangerous place. The garage was inhabited by Randy, the mechanic who went with Diane Green, one of the guitarists in the Memphis girl-band The Hellcats.
“Filming at night in the end of November in Memphis quickly put the mechanics of Tav’s own 16mm Bolex camera to the test. The spring-wind, with which you wind the camera up until it runs for about 30 seconds without electricity, did not work properly at times due to the freezing cold. The Stroheim-like precision with which I swore I would make this video clip into a dark Southern Rock’n’Roll masterpiece went unnervingly out the proverbial window in this windowless garage.
“We had assembled a strange mix of people, meeting then and there for the first and maybe the last time. Tav Falco, the Hellcats, Sammi Lee Williams with his blue-eyed coyote on his thigh, Sam’s daughter and his wife holding the stick with the all-seeing hand (an emblem of Panther Burns lore), and Ray Dayton, president of the all-black Harley Riders Motorcycle Club, along with his fellow Club members.
“Lying on a board fixed to the wall overseeing the whole scenario underneath me, the malfunctioning Bolex brought me to the verge of inner hysteria. Yet any possible volatility among this crowd I had envisioned beforehand was replaced by a camaraderie and kinship that only Tav Falco could have created. Meanwhile I did my best in directing and created the desired precision later on the Steenback in the editing room.
“Two days after the movie shoot two members of our film crew were beaten up and robbed. It seemed like yet another example of Sleepy John Estes’ statement that Memphis is the leader of all dark going-ons in this world.”
13. Page 41
The historic Showcase Lounge in Memphis, photographed in 1974 by Tav.
When talking about Memphis, where he honed his creative fire and which formed the mythical basis for his work, Tav becomes ominous.
“When B.B. King, Bobbie Blue Bland and Jacky Wilson headlined at the Memphis Auditorium in 1966, there were only three white people there: Randall Lyon, Robert Palmer from the New York Times and myself.
“In 1968, I went to the Showcase Lounge at Orange Mound to see Howlin’ Wolf. Only six white people in the joint that night, nobody else.
“Memphis is a place of murder and death. They kill artists there, it’s documented. They tried to kill the great piano player Phineas Newborn, broke his hand. They killed supreme guitarist Lee Baker, who used to play with Jim Dickinson and his Mudboy and the Neutrons. A kid who was renting a house from Lee shot him.
“They killed the great painter Dwight Jordan. Shot him, point blank range. Race plays a part. ‘Cause he was going with Connie Gidwani, one of our go-go dancers. He was a black artist and she was a white girl. Jordan was a quiet man, a gifted painter from the Oakland School of Arts and Crafts who studied with Diego Riviera and became a mural painter. This wealthy art patron from Memphis took him in and he painted murals in banks. Connie’s brother, a convicted felon just out of jail, shot Dwight in her living room.
“Memphis is full of crazed random violence. Memphis killed Elvis. He died of loneliness there. Memphis will never be safe. Maybe this is good for Rock ‘n’ Roll, I don’t know.”
14. Page 41
Tav Falco and his fully extended “Tapir Billy” hair, at William Eggleston’s villa.
Richard Pleuger: “We drove to William Eggleston’s villa on motorbikes. I was riding Tav’s 1968 Triumph Trophy 650 that he’d bought off a deputy sheriff in Bryant, Arkansas. Tav took his 600 Norton. I told Tav that in the ’30s and ’40s my uncle was known as ‘The Race Tiger’ on his NSU-cycles and cars, made by the company that is now Audi.
“It was the first time I rode a motorcycle, and we had to duck bats going through a city park. Tav came up with the name Bat Marauders M.C., and later integrated this imaginary gang into his movie script Girls On Fire.
“After arriving at Eggleston’s villa, we were treated to a listening session to the music of then-hot country band Asleep At The Wheel on Eggleston’s newly self-created speaker-system. The debonair photographer then showed us some of his newest 11×14 color prints, containing his usual trademark empty spaces and mysterious depictions of urban and rural boredom.
“I asked Eggleston how he worked, and he laid down the law: ‘Shoot every subject only once.’ (A few years later he titled his next book, The Democratic Forest.) He then played Bach on his 17th century piano in an adjoining room. Atop the piano was a literal army of ’40s and ’50s Leica cameras. One had a brown suede lining with a Swastika.
“We went outside to Eggleston’s garden overlooking the empty pool. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the atmosphere of Sunset Boulevard. Eggleston showed us his six new engraved York shotguns that he was going to use on his next hunting outing in Spain. Tav took a photo of me with Eggleston with my Asahi Pentax. Eggleston complimented me on the camera, saying he used the same one often. As we left, I remember Eggleston swearing on his way up the spiral staircase about his son’s blaring punk rock music.”
15. Page 41
Alex Chilton enters his parents’ house.
Richard Pleuger: “Tav introduced me to his friend Alex Chilton in a Memphis guitar shop. I remember Chilton as a very gentle and intelligent man, genuinely interested in issues not related to music (although he did tell me I should listen to Slim Harpo).
“On the way to Chilton’s parents’ house, where he stayed when he was in town, Chilton told me about the urban renewal that had changed certain areas in Memphis in the ’60s and ’70s. The black slums became white slums, and the path Martin Luther King walked from Clayborn Temple AME church to Beale Street was paved with concrete. Even the little shortcut to the house of Chilton’s parents was blocked by construction.
“I wasn’t feeling sneaky when I turned around and photographed this tragic hero of timeless music entering the house. It was just the right mood in the last light of this late autumn day. A few years later, Chilton’s mother, a former gallery owner and one of Eggleston’s earliest champions, burned to death in this house.”
BONUS PHOTO CAPTIONS, UNPUBLISHED DUE TO SPACE CONSIDERATIONS:
1. Charlie Feathers and Tav, photographed by Gisela Getty.
Tav Falco: “We deal with truth in Panther Burns. Some people ask, how much of this is parody? Parody is a high art. But nonetheless, art is predicated upon truth, whether it’s parody, satire, written poetry, Rock’n’Roll, or a short story. Shredded truth—that’s what you have to deal with in the Panther Burns.
“We know it takes a good song and we know this song has to have truth in it. That’s what Charlie Feathers told us in the beginning in Memphis. Once Charlie Feathers tells you what’s required of a good performance, you don’t forget it.
“Charlie Feathers said, ‘If you are not doing something different, you are not doing anything at all.’ There is a lot of ritual and repetition in what we do, for effect. The point is: the totality of what you do has to be different and original. And there is no band like Panther Burns.”
2. The Lore of the Panther Burns.
This painting depicts the four elements of the Cult of Dionysius: Pinecone, Panther, Mask, and Snake. The painting was made in 1983, when Tav was a resident of New York City, living in a Chinatown apartment Jean-Michel Basquiat had just vacated, leaving behind his paintings on the walls.
Tav: “I was staying there with Kai Eric, an artist who played bass with the Panther Burns. We did this painting between the apartment and an artificial bubble we had built on the roof of this building. That’s where I also slept during that summer, with a girl from The Clitts, a Rock’n’Roll band from Memphis that Alex Chilton had put together.”