Tav Falco (1945–)

aka: Gustavo Antonio Falco

Tav Falco is an innovative rock musician who combines rockabilly, blues, and fractured noise. He has created films and documentaries about musicians and the cultural scene in Memphis, Tennessee, in addition to touring across the globe. The New York Times describes Falco as a “singer, guitarist and researcher of musical arcane who hasn’t let his increasingly technical expertise and idiomatic mastery compromise the clarity of his vision.”

Tav Falco was born Gustavo Antonio Falco on May 25, 1945, to Rita Rose Falco on the East Coast. After his mother married Horace Homer Nelson, a sailor from Arkansas, they settled in the rural land between Gurdon (Clark County) and Whelen Springs (Clark County), where Falco was raised. Falco moved to Memphis in the late 1960s and started his career as a documentary filmmaker with an art-action group called TeleVista. He trained in photography and filmmaking under famous photographer William Eggleston during his early years in Memphis. Falco then began seeking out blues and rockabilly artists to film their performances, filming artists such as R. L. Burnside, Charlie Feathers, and Jessie Mae Hemphill. Inspired by the performances of these artists and becoming interested in the relationship between performer and observer, Falco began playing the guitar. His first performance was in 1978 at the Orpheum in Memphis in the middle of a concert by Mud Boy & the Neutrons, in which he played a few songs and then proceeded to use a chainsaw to shred his guitar to pieces; he then promptly passed out. This outrageous performance was met with mixed reactions, but Falco certainly revealed his capacity to captivate an audience with his unique sound, style, and performance methods.

In 1979, Falco formed a group called Panther Burns, named after the legend of a plantation in Mississippi that supposedly was terrorized by a panther to the point that the people living on the plantation trapped the panther in a canebrake and set it on fire. The earliest members of the frequently changing group were Falco, Alex Chilton, and James Luther (Jim) Dickinson. The group has lived up to the intensity of their name; they quickly gained popularity in the Memphis area for their unusual harsh noise, and their shows became extremely popular, featuring guests such as rockabilly legend Charlie Feathers. Panther Burns released their first EP in 1981, titled Behind the Magnolia Curtain. The album was met with a great deal of success, and the group’s members decided to move to New York City to further their musical careers. In 1982, they released their first and only major record label album, Blow Your Top. Although this album was not very successful on the charts and met with mixed reviews, it did garner the group a spread in Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, as well as attention from several New York Times critics. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Falco traveled back and forth between Europe and the United States, touring with Panther Burns throughout Europe and playing several small roles in films in America such as Great Balls of Fire, Wayne County, Downtown 81, and Highway 61. Falco also studied and observed Latin music and dancing, particularly the tango, and danced the tango in the film Dans Le Rouge du Couchant in Paris, France, in 2003.

Falco continued performing with Panther Burns between 2005 and 2010 at several large venues such as the “It Came from Memphis” series in London, England, in 2005; the Arthur Nights Festival in Los Angeles, California, in 2006; the Fondatin Cartier in Paris in 2007; the Strade Blu Festival in Tredozio, Italy, in 2008 (headliner); the Alternatilla Festival in Mallorca, Spain, in 2009; and the Barreiro Rocks Festival in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2010. The band then became Tav Falco and the Unapproachable Panther Burns, releasing Conjurations: Séance for Deranged Lovers in May 2010.

In addition to performing music and acting, Falco has created several short films on varying subjects, but mostly regarding “underground” city life in Memphis. Five of the films were added to the official archive of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris in 2006. Falco also collaborated with rock writer Erik Morse in writing a two-volume encyclopedia titled Mondo Memphis, which is a musical history and psychogeographic study of Memphis, released in 2011 (vol. 1) and 2012 (vol. 2).

In 2014, Falco released a feature-length film, Urania Descending, which is set in Little Rock (Pulaski County) and Vienna, Austria. The following year, he published the book An Iconography of Chance: 99 Photographs of the Evanescent South.

For additional information:
Clancy, Sean. “Tav Falco Brings Panther Burns to White Water.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 19, 2019, pp. 1E–2E.

Gordon, Robert. “Scare ’Em a Little.”Oxford American (Summer 2013): 24–29.

Stephenson, Will. “Lost Causes and Burning Mansions: A Q&A with Tav Falco.” Arkansas Times, October 8, 2015, pp. 30, 33. Online at http://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/a-qanda-with-tav-falco/Content?oid=4111487 (accessed November 2, 2021).

“Tav Falco.” AllMusic.com. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/tav-falco-mn0000016147 (accessed November 2, 2021).

“Tav Falco: Sexual, Abandoned, Political.” L.A. Record, November 10, 2011. http://larecord.com/interviews/2011/11/10/tav-falco-sexual-abandoned-political (accessed November 2, 2021).

Darby Burdine
University of Central Arkansas


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