CONJURATIONS TIME Tav Falco/Panther Burns

A journey down memory
lane – literally – with the Memphis
ex-pat and high priest of cool.

 

BY
JUD COST

It
was one of those perfect rock ‘n’ roll days you never could have planned this
well in advance. It just unfolded. A tiny notice in the Sunday pink section of
the San Francisco Chronicle said that
Tav Falco, fronting the latest edition of his Panther Burns band, would be in
town to appear in not one, but two storied venues last week, on Wednesday, Nov.
9.

 

Falco
would do a 6:00 p.m. reading from his recent book, Mondo Memphis, at the revered City Lights Books on Columbus Ave. in North Beach.
Then everyone would move across town to Potrero Hill for a 9:00 p.m. gig at Thee
Parkside on 17th St.
Only a fool wouldn’t put maximum effort into such an endeavor. My wife and I
started loading the car with provisions in case this turned into more than a
one-day event. Or we decided to join the “Occupy San Francisco”
movement. One day, it turned out, was just right.

 

The
Chron referred to Falco as a
“Southern rock cult figure,” something like that. And that would
about be the half of it. You might think of the slim gentleman from Tennessee
as the latest to be passed the torch designating him a member of the
“short little mustache” genius fraternity whose previous members
included “rock stars” no less notable than Charlie Chaplin, Little
Richard, Jimi Hendrix and Prince. Adolf Hitler didn’t make the cut. His lip
brush was too short (and he had anger management issues). 

 

Back
in 1981, Falco had cut a mind-altering slice of mysterious, swamp-infested juju
from the heart of the Old South, a mighty LP called Behind The Magnolia Curtain which also featured former Big Star
gazer Alex Chilton. With its slashing, sometimes slightly out-of-tune blend of
guitars and vocals, Panther Burns brought to mind the similarly tortured wail
of Jeffrey Lee Pierce and Gun Club. Falco and his boys had permanently altered
the brain cells of all who heard this demented gem that successfully cloned the
brittle sound of the Sears Silvertone guitar tenfold.

 

I
hadn’t seen Falco since he’d made two appearances in California in 1988. He played San Jose’s
long-departed Oasis in St. James Park, then encored later that year at Los
Angeles’ much-derided Coconut Teaszer, the Sunset Strip home for a dumbbell
legion of “hair farmer” bands. At the latter show, while support act
Sid Griffin’s Coal Porters were setting up, I’d briefly spoken with Falco, an
amiable chap, then and still.

 

We
find a parking place in North Beach tonight, never a sure-thing, and inhale the
garlic and basil-laced perfume from nearby Italian trattorias as we hoof it
down to the book emporium once frequented by Beat celebrities (man, they would
have absolutely loathed that term) Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Neil
Cassady. City Lights hasn’t changed much since I used to frequent the joint in
my high school days to look for books of poetry by Kenneth Patchen before going
to see John Coltrane, Charles Mingus or Jackie McLean at the Jazz Workshop just
around the corner on Broadway. And there’s still the vague, overcooked aroma of
dank paper product arising from the basement far below.

 

The
store manager is busy setting up a couple dozen chairs for the event, and he
knows his projected audience. The seats are finally filled with bottoms,
leaving about seven or eight stragglers to peer around the corners. Stuck in
traffic, Falco arrives 20 minutes late, toting his guitar in a soft black case,
with Jello Biafra, onetime frontman for notorious local punk rockers the Dead
Kennedys, in tow. Or maybe Biafra had Falco in
tow, hard to tell. His mustache now gone with the wind, Falco begins to read
fascinating selections from Mondo Memphis.
He vividly describes the naming of his perennial backup band after the trapping
of a marauding wildcat in a dry cornfield, when someone set the corn stalks on
fire. “The screams of that panther could be heard for miles,” he
claims.

 

Surrealism
as it applied to French pulp fiction anti-hero Fantômas creeps into the
conversation. Falco briefly details the short time he lived in S.F.’s Mission
district back in the ’80s before finally settling in Vienna, Austria,
his current residence. “I’ve been up since four o’clock,” says Falco,
looking a little baked as he hands Biafra the
mic. Never at a loss for words, Biafra describes his first visit to Memphis, gazing through the fence rails at Graceland, Elvis Presley’s personal mausoleum, without
enough cash to gain admission. The Dead Kennedys, claims Biafra,
were inspired to cut Elvis’ “Viva Las Vegas” by this long-distance
tourist experience.

 

The
City Lights affair takes on the flavor of a high school reunion, as the crowd
also includes Ken Stringfellow, founding member of sharp Seattle
pop duo the Posies, Scott McCaughey’s Minus Five and former utility infielder
for R.E.M. and the reconstructed version of Memphis wizards, Big Star. Now living in Paris, Stringfellow opens
for Falco tonight as well as playing bass with Panther Burns. Barry Simons, the
“rock ‘n’ roll attorney” is here, too, lamenting that the west coast
version of New Orleans’ Ponderosa Stomp hasn’t happened as of yet. 

 

As
I wait to have a battered publicity photo from Falco’s brief tenure on L.A.’s Marilyn Records signed, I reminisce with Biafra about the first time I saw the Dead Kennedys, when
they opened for the Clash and the Cramps at seldom-used Kezar Pavilion in 1979.
The Clash didn’t go on until 3:00 a.m. that night, claiming their cabbie
couldn’t find the place. “Hmm, I think it was more like they were busy
looking for other things,” smiles Biafra.
“That was the night the crowd stripped me naked.” Indeed it was, as
well as an early local appearance by the Cramps, whose wildman vocalist, Lux
Interior, climbed to the top of a giant stack of amplifiers, then leaped back
to the stage without any grave bodily injury while guitarist Poison Ivy
Rorschach, resplendent in ripped fishnet stockings, cranked out the inexorable
rockabilly big beat below without batting a heavily mascara-ed eyelash at her
partner’s daredevil escapades.

 

A
quick trip out the 280 lands us at Thee Parkside within 10 minutes. As all the
participants wander in, we chow down on a couple of Cubano sandwiches while
sitting at a picnic table in the back of the joint. Stringfellow warms up the
house with a lovely solo set of originals played quietly on electric guitar. At
times he sings off-mic, then steps down into the crowd to really sing off-mic.

 

Scott
Miller, former Game Theory and Loud Family guru, shows up to check out what
Falco has been up to since he last saw him at the I-Beam in the early ’80s. I
didn’t recognize Miller at first with his shaggy locks shorn to more manageable
proportions. Now 51 and languishing in a self-imposed musical retirement,
Miller should get back in the studio. A talent as fertile as his shouldn’t be
allowed to retire.

 

Finally,
the return of Tav Falco is heralded by an accidental sonic blast from the tiny
bandstand as the guitars are plugging in. It’s probably the same kind of
frightening sound that will appear on Judgment Day when the dead awaken for one
last walkabout. Tav and the boys are dressed in sharp sharkskin jackets with a
slight tinge of electric blue. Falco’s jet black coif has been trimmed a bit
over the years, but the music hasn’t changed much from the halcyon days of
1985’s Sugar Ditch Revisited. A
bang-up job on John D. Loudermilk’s “Tobacco Road.” gets things off
to a ripping start before a crowd of about 35.

 

“Here’s
a song from our new album, Conjurations,
called ‘The Lady From Shanghai,’ from the Orson Welles film shot here in San Francisco,”
announces Falco. The band begins to play a slightly familiar refrain, and Biafra bends over from the left and volunteers,
“That sounds suspiciously like the riff from Ted Nugent’s ‘Cat Scratch
Fever.'” Then Simons leans over from the right to say, “That movie
starred Rita Hayworth.” It’s nice to be in the company of such experts
willing and able to do a little on-the-fly fact-checking.

 

At
one point during the evening, I did manage to ask Falco why he’d shaved off the
trademark mustache after so many years. He smiled broadly and replied, “It
gave me zits.”

 

[Photo
Credit: Baldo]

 

 

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