by Jim Dees – Few rock and roll musicians have stayed truer to their weirdness than Gustavo Antonio Nelson, known on stages, galleries, shacks and lofts around the world as Tav Falco. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he grew up in Arkansas before moving to Memphis in 1973. His first singing performance in public came in 1978 at the Orpheum Theatre in Memphis at an event called “Tennessee Waltz,” a showcase for a variety of Memphis acts. During a set break, Falco, then known as Gus Nelson, received permission to sing one number.
He took the stage wearing a tux, a Charlie Chaplin mustache and fingerless gloves. He was armed with a guitar running through a Bell and Howell movie projector speaker, a police whistle and a chain saw. He played the old Leadbelly song, The Bourgeois Blues, and, after working the song into a frenzy, began blowing the whistle as he placed his guitar across two stools and proceeded to cut it in half – at top volume.
“It was extremely chaotic,” he would later tell Memphis music writer, Robert Gordon. “People started screaming, going crazy.” Guitar shards flew out into the audience where musician Alex Chilton was seated and hit him in the face. “I was really impressed,” Chilton told Gordon.
So impressed, that a year later Chilton joined Falco’s band, Panther Burns, that would also include at times (former Thacker bandleader) Jim Dickinson. The band’s unofficial mission statement was to be an “art-damage poly-rhythmed rockabilly freakshow with a manifesto to ‘stir the dark waters of the unconscious.’” Their 1985 release, Behind the Magnolia Curtain, is southern psychobilly at its gnarliest. (The album was on heavy rotation on the turntable at the old Hoka Theatre in Oxford). Though there have been personnel changes over the last 33 years, Panther Burns continues to record and tour, and even released a Christmas album in 2017.
During the early 1970s, Falco came under the tutelage of renowned Memphis photographer William Eggleston and began documenting Memphis musicians and the backwoods roadhouses that hosted them. He photographed, filmed and recorded such luminaries as Sam Phillips, R.L. Burnside, Phineas Newborn, Jr., James Carr, Cordell Jackson, Jessie Mae Hemphill – even the then-governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus.
In the early 1990s, Falco moved to Europe, bouncing between Paris and Vienna where his music, film and photography career has continued to blossom. Five of his short films were added to the official archive in Paris’ Cinematheque Française in 2003. The Panther Burns have released over a dozen albums over the years including, Blow Your Top, Conjurations: Séance for Deranged Lovers, Panther Phobia and Command Performance.
In 2014, Falco directed his first full length feature film, Urania Descending. The film follows the titular “muse to the heavens” who comes to earth in the form of a disaffected young southern woman who becomes disgusted with “strip malls and rednecks” and moves from Arkansas to Vienna. She immediately gets caught up in an ill-fated romance amid the pursuit of Nazi plunder.
The following year, Falco published a book of his photos, An Iconography of Chance: 99 Photographs of the Evanescent South (Solar Books). He is also the co-author, with journalist Erik Morse, of a two-volume encyclopedia, Mondo Memphis, (Creation Books) a musical and psycho-geographical study of his beloved city.
Tomorrow, Thursday, Feb. 8 at 6 pm, Tav Falco will step onto the stage at the Ford Center to appear on The Thacker Mountain Radio Hour as part of the Oxford Film Festival – and we have no idea what to expect. Will there be chainsaws? Demented covers of rockabilly classics? Christmas tunes? Or perhaps some good ole “stirring the dark waters of the unconscious.”
I feel nervous in a good way.
The Thacker Mountain Radio Hour at the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts (351 University Avenue) Thursday, Feb. 8 at 6 pm. FREE admission.
Guests: novelist Xhenet Aliu (“Brass”), filmmaker/author Dan Mirvish (“Bernard and Huey”), Grenada native country musician Charlie Worsham (“Beginning of Things”) and filmmaker/musician, Tav Falco.
Hosts: Jim Dees and the Thacker house band, the Yalobushwhackers.
Radio: WUMS 92.1 FM (Oxford)
NOTE: Tav Falco’s Urania Descending, will screen on Saturday, Feb. 10 at 5:30 pm on Screen 3 at the Malco Commons (main box office and venue for the festival ) is located at 206 Commonwealth Blvd. in the Oxford Commons off Sisk Avenue exit on Highway 7. (For ticket info and a complete Oxford Film Fest schedule: http://oxfordfilmfest.com/.