Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Panther Burns (sporadically 1983 - 84, 1991)

The other day I was in a used book store on Charing Cross Road, when I came across the Economist Intelligence Unit's World Statistical Handbook for 1993. In the section on the global music industry, I was taken aback by the startling estimate that, as of December 1992, nearly 3% of the U.S. population had been members of Panther Burns at one time or another. This struck me as an improbably low number, but there you have it, "imperialist running dogs and backslidin' heifers" - the EIU doesn't lie - I am a member of a small and elite club. "Jam up and jelly tight. T-99!"

The first time I met Tav Falco was at the home of my classmate/friend/later girlfriend Gretchen Gassner, a beautiful minimalist modern single-level house on Harbert in Midtown, designed and built by her late father, Francis Gassner, an eminent Memphis architect. I have a feeling this might have been before I saw the Panther Burns for the first time, because I don't remember having any immediate association of Tav with music when I met him, though some of the more unkind among music critics might say this is just a natural reaction. If it was before I first saw him play, then this would probably have been late 1979 to mid-1980, but we're splitting hairs here. Tav, or as he was introduced to me, Gus, was big sister Amy Gassner's beau at the time, and we were all having dinner together with Gretchen and Amy's mother and step-father.

Gus was, as anyone who has encountered Tav might guess, impeccably dressed from another era, very articulate, well-mannered and charming. I recall him mentioning his work with Televista, and also the fact that he was a tango instructor, I believe at the Fred Astaire school in Memphis. To the 17 year-old me, this was about as close as I had ever been to time travel, though I now engage in it frequently.

As it happens, I think I also met Alex Chilton around the same time at the same house, though this time there was no parental supervision, and he was watching TV with Amy in the living room. Given that I was born in 1962 and didn't move to Memphis until 1974, I didn't really have any understanding at this point of the significance of Memphis music in the 1960s. I knew the song "The Letter," of course. I can remember hearing it frequently on my parents' car radio in Texas in the late '60s. I had certainly never heard of Big Star. So to me, at that point, Alex Chilton was this pale guy in a leather jacket watching TV on the sofa. He seemed friendly enough, but didn't really say much.

Gretchen later told me that at some point this weird band from out of town called The Cramps had stayed at the house while they were in town working on a recording with Alex. I got the impression that they were a bit on the unfriendly side as far as she was concerned. Damned Yankees!

Anyway, the years passed, and Panther Burns released their seminal early recordings "Behind the Magnolia Curtain" and "Blow Your Top," and toured extensively, punctuated by the odd show in Memphis, one of which I seem to recall took place in the street outside a party at the old Lou's Antique Clothing in the then decidedly un-chic and un-reformed Cooper-Young district, sometime in 1982.

I think Alex Chilton was based in New York at this point, and then moved to New Orleans in 1983 or thereabouts, Jim Duckworth had fled into the arms of Jeffrey Lee Pierce, and I have some weird recollection of bassist Ron Miller having gone off to do serious jazz stuff with Archie Shepp or someone like that. Tav, who had also been reliant upon out-of-towners for his touring band, seemed to reappear in Memphis on a more regular basis around this time, and was clearly in need of a local band.

Kings of the Western Bop, which plumbed the depths of a similar toxic cultural ditch to that of Tav, albeit with an overlay of professional wrestling and The Honeymooners, were on the scene in Memphis, and seemed to be the body least likely to reject a mutant strain of Panther Burn DNA. I knew most of the material already, Linda was quite capable of picking up the bass parts, and the band already contained founding Panther Burns drummer Ross Johnson, so we were obviously a capable and cheap proxy lineup for the purposes of local gigs. It didn't hurt that Linda and I were relatively young, inexperienced, and enthusiastic enough to be really flattered to be onstage with Tav. And, yes, he had been a big musical influence, and anyone who would have claimed otherwise was lying.

So we embarked on a string of local gigs in which KOWB would open for Panther Burns, the only difference between the two being the front men - much like a low-budget circus I saw as a child in which the Romanian Gypsy acrobat family bore an uncanny resemblance to the American Indian high wire act and the Brazilian trapeze artists. Venues included The Antenna and the old cinema on Highland (help, what was it called?). The set list was a mixture of older material, along with some relatively new additions, such as "Shade Tree Mechanic," and we didn't sound half bad, though this was a far cry from the original visceral screeching chaos of Panther Burns, and more a cabaret act.

In some cases, I recall Kai Eric from New York stepping in on bass, as in a gig in 1984 at the Old Daisy Theater on Beale Street, where Panther Burns were booked for two nights running. Originally, Kai and I were meant to have played both nights, but Alex Chilton and Rene Coman pitched up from New Orleans, and Tav was ready to bump us in favor of the first-string team. (This happened on one other occasion, the infamous gig opening for The Clash at Vanderbilt, though in retrospect maybe not being part of that was not such a bad thing afterall.) I reminded him that I had taken both weekend nights off work from my restaurant job, foregoing some much-needed income, and told him I was not happy about the prospect of being dumped. I think Kai, who had traveled from New York, felt similarly. So we agreed that Kai and I would play the Friday night show, and Alex and Rene would do Saturday night, which was an arrangement I could live with, and Alex and Rene agreed. (I have to say that, during the entire time I knew Alex, he was always kind and pleasant to me each and every time I saw him in Memphis, which I found very odd because I knew a lot of people who had nothing good to say on his behalf, but I speak as I find, and he was always cool with me.)

So, the show at the Old Daisy (a proper old movie house where the screen, and thus our stage, was at the back of the hall, meaning that the audience walked in past the stage) would take place with the first-string guitarist and bassist in the audience, which made me more than a little uneasy, but I wanted to get paid. I certainly earned my money during the opening act, when Ross, Kai and I accompanied Cordell Jackson through a very challenging opening set, complicated by the facts that 1) the songs had no clear beginnings or endings, 2) she had a very curious sense of tempo akin to a record skipping, and 3) Kai and I only knew a couple of her songs, neither of which sounded remotely the same when she played them live anyway. She was clearly completely mad, but very charming. Before we started I walked over to her and said, "It's a pleasure to play with you, but I'm afraid I don't know many of your songs," and she simply smiled and said "Don't worry, let's just have a good time," before launching into "Football Widow," or one of her other peculiar songs.

A couple of years later, a number of us young musical whipper-snappers would attend the Moon Records 40th Anniversary party at her home in Georgian Hills, where I also met Estelle Axton, which was really thrilling. Even later, Cordell would develop an interest in Linda Heck's songwriting, inviting her to her home to audition some songs. I recall Linda telling me that she played a recently-written piece, called "House is Burning" (an excellent version of which may be found, ahem, on the still unissued "Great Lost Linda Heck Album"), which was really about Memphis gossip and schadenfreude, and contained the tag lines, "Everyone knows your house is burning/everyone sees the straw foundation/everyone knows that there's no turning back," which Cordell thought had some sort of Satanic connection (UPDATE: I got this wrong. See Linda's comment below which clarifies that Cordell thought it was a song about cocaine addiction). Like I said, she was sweet, but probably nuts.

After Cordell, the Panther Burns took the stage and went through the typical set of the time, and we conducted ourselves pretty admirably. I'm pretty sure it was at my insistence that we included Conway Twitty's "It's Only Make Believe" in the set, and as I played the opening C-chord and Tav moaned the first line, "People see us everywhere..." a pained, pleading voice rose up from the audience, "Noooo! Noooo!" This voice I immediately recognized as that of one Alex Chilton, distressed to hear a beloved song about to be mercilessly vivisected. This incident makes me smile still after 25 years.

One other show from this period stands out in my mind. I believe this was also in 1984, and Linda and Dan Hopper were living at the Clarke's Quick Print building in downtown Memphis, which in those days was a virtual ghost town at night, and pretty much any other time. Legendary drummer Bob Fordyce worked downtown in the early '90s and once told me that on his lunch break one day, a German tourist, who was obviously looking to kill time on a lengthy layover at the Greyhound station, came up to ask him which way was downtown Memphis. Bob said, "This is it." The German tourist replied, "You're kidding!" Anyway, Linda and Dan were, as was so common back in those lean times, having a rent party/"happening" on the third floor, I seem to recall. It was a Saturday night, and I had to work, but I bribed someone to let me out first, so I raced downtown to play with Tav and Ross (we were bass-less for some reason I can't recall). Because I was getting there at 11:30 or something like that, I was the only person in the entire building (with the possible exception of Ross, who I believe was teetotal at that point, and Tav, who I don't recall ever drinking) who wasn't under the influence of anything. Everyone else seemed to be completely rat-assed in one way or another, and I arrived to see the aftermath of a minor physical misunderstanding between Tommy Hull, Linda and Dan, the details of which I don't really know. I also got stuck in the basement for about ten minutes at one point with Joey Garcia and Craig Shindler of Burnin' Schmen, due to some elevator malfunction. This was my first encounter with Craig, who was still in high school, but would later go on to form K9 Arts with Jim Duckworth and Rich Trosper, who, like Craig, is sadly no longer with us and fondly remembered.

I have a tape of the gig somewhere, and I think it was probably the best one I ever did as a Panther Imposter. Ross and I were both playing really well, and gelling, despite, or perhaps because of, not having a bass player, and Tav seemed genuinely excited and inspired. Perhaps it was the presence of a psychedelic oil wheel light show. The tuning of Tav's violin-shaped Hofner guitar (with built-in distortion button), however, started to drift, without intervention on his part. I recommended that we play The Doors' "You're Lost, Little Girl," a song I had heard Panther Burns play with Alex on guitar, and which Tav and I had messed around with a bit recently. We played it impeccably, except that by this time Tav was probably a half-step out of tune across the board, though playing quieter than I was, which created an almost redneck gamelan-like quality to the sound. The soundman, Tommy (surname?), cocked his head to one side, like when a dog hears something strange and incomprehensible. Tommy and I smiled at each other in mutual recognition of having reached a moment of microtonal Nirvana which Harry Partch himself would have envied, or at least that's what I thought. He might have been thinking, "Shit, I'll be glad to be outta here." When I later played this tape for Tav, he too smiled and said, "Sounds like a pack o' wild dogs off in the woods somewhere." I wish I had a Tav Falco speech synthesizer for times like this.

Lest I forget, there was also a recording session which took place in an empty Antenna Club (empty because it wasn't actually open to the public) on something like a Monday night, in early 1984, which consisted of Tav, Ross, Mark Harrison on guitar, Jim Spake on tenor sax, and me on guitar. As I recall, we recorded three songs: "Cuban Rebel Girl," on which I played through a hideous multi-effect box I had which made a sort of fuzz-bass sound, which made me the surrogate bass player, "Jump Suit," and "Hairdresser Underground," all of which later appeared on a cassette release called "1984," and which may have been re-released on vinyl or CD later. I think Kurt Ruleman may have also appeared on the same release, albeit in a different session. As far as I know, no one involved was ever paid anything for their efforts - it was all about the glory.

Anyway, I went off to Japan at the beginning of 1986 (awakening for my first day in the school dorm in Osaka to the news of the Challenger disaster, which should have told me something), came back, formed Linda Heck and The Train Wreck, went to Japan again, and came back to Memphis in 1990. During this time, Tav found international stardom on New Rose Records, prolifically releasing albums and touring behind them with an evermore eclectic lineup of musicians.

We next met in spring 1991, when I played a couple of gigs over one weekend with him, Ross and John McClure on bass. As I recall, we went to Little Rock, Arkansas, on a Friday to play to a very sparse crowd in a club whose name I have forgotten. I rode with Tav on the way over, and John on the way back, and it was the only time I ever had a chance to talk to Tav one-on-one at length when he wasn't more or less in character. We talked about Arkansas in the '60s, his time as a wandering artist, and life in general. He told me that he and Robert Palmer (with whom I had recorded in Hot Joe - another story) had been in the same fraternity at university, a revelation which he followed with the admonition, "Don't tell anyone." I couldn't tell if he was joking or not, but I guess the statute of limitations has passed in any event. It was an intriguing couple of hours, and I felt closer to him, but also somehow a bit sad.

When we got to the gig, however, Tav the difficult artist reappeared, giving the soundman a hard time during the sound check because he couldn't hear my guitar in the monitors. The soundman pretended to fiddle around with the settings, and Tav was satisfied, but later the soundman told me that he had merely turned Tav's guitar down a little bit. This difficulty with soundmen would manifest itself again the next night with an unlikely outcome. There was no opening act in Little Rock, but we were treated to an extended slide show from Tav's world travels as the Ambassador of Ditch-digging, stirring up the dark waters of the unconscious. Ross, John and I sat together, and Ross gave us one of his inimitable running commentaries as photo after photo scrolled by: Tav, carefree on the Champs Elysees; Tav, thinking deep thoughts beside the Trevi Fountain. We were in stitches. On another occasion, back in 1988, John and I had experienced a similar bout of convulsive laughter at the Overton Park Shell, with my Dad, who had come to see the Train Wreck play earlier, and stayed on for Panther Burns, which the three of us watched from seats near the stage. The sound was terrible, and Tav was very unhappy with the soundman, threatening to walk off if it didn't improve, and all this drama unfolded during the opening number, a 15-minute version of "Jungle Rock." We nearly wet ourselves, and my Dad was practically prostrate. It is one of my most prized musical memories from Memphis.

The next night, at the New Daisy Theater in Memphis, we played to pretty much a full house, and it was a good performance. However, at one point, Tav launched into a fairly harsh criticism of the soundman, an older, muscular ex-Marine named Johnny, whom he named and shamed in front of the audience. The gig over, no sooner had we come offstage and into the dressing room than Johnny stormed in, stuck his finger in Tav's face and said, "Tav, don't you ever call my name and talk to me like that in public again, got me?" Tav, who had a height disadvantage of about a foot, a weight disadvantage of probably eighty pounds, and had never been in the Marines, stood there impassively. John, Ross and I watched, and I expected Tav to either apologize or begin quoting Rimbaud, but instead he suddenly grabbed Johnny by the collar with both hands, said "Come git some, motherf*cker!" and physically manhandled him out of the dressing room, thereafter leaning against the door as Johnny gave it a frustrated kick or two. I was speechless. Suddenly everything stopped, and Tav moved away from the door. We all looked at one another. The door began to open slowly, and Tav picked up a folding chair, ready to brain Johnny when he stepped in the room. Ross restrained him, and around the door slowly appeared a smiling Alex Chilton, who said, "It's only me, man."


Linda Heck said...

Heads up- I have photos of the Cordelll Jackson visit, at the top of a big pile of Spooky Mementos I will soon scan.

Actually, she thought my song "House Is Burning" was a cautionary tale about the dangers of cocaine usage; which we all know I could never have afforded to research. I LERVE what other people bring to my songs!

Tav's a masterful performer, no lie.

Thanks for writing this. I laffed my ass off. And now for some reason, I'm possessed of an urge to crank out a 15 minute version of "Jungle Rock" in Tav's honor. One that can be heard all the way over where you are... or, maybe just disturb the near neighbors.

Donna Upton said...

Really enjoying these!

1) I'm pretty sure I was at that rent party downtown. I went with Tommy; we were both living in the Carey girls mom's house while she was in Europe and NC for six weeks, so we were palling around that summer. I lost track of him for a while after we arrived, and then I heard angry shouting, and the next thing I knew Tommy had stripped down to his boxers. I believe there was alcohol involved. I don't remember much more. I remember thinking, "Well, I guess we better leave now." And somehow we did, but I'm not sure how, because I don't think either of us had a car!

2) Redneck Gamelan is a pretty good band name.

Donna Upton said...

Oh, and one more thing! When I lived in New Orleans, at a mutual friend's request, I drove Robert Palmer to the DMV to renew his driver's license. I was honored, and he was a sweet man.

Amy Adcock said...

Pretty sure Jack and I were backstage during that New Daisy incindent. Unless that happened more than once.

Gregg Boyd said...

I was at the Knoxville Clash show that the Panther Burns opened. I was in school there at the time and being from Memphis and a Panther Burns fan, I regaled my friends with stories of the greatness of the PB. Shortly into the opening I remember the audience turning on Tav as he played a song I don't remember and Ross playing drums with timpani mallets blowing kisses and saying into a mic I love college boys. The crowd became unruly and the show went south quickly.