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Tav Falco’s Evanescent South

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Joe Atkins

MEMPHIS—Tav Falco, enfant terrible of the 1980s, walked onto the stage at Lafayette's Music Room here, dressed in black, his hair a Nuevo-'50s coif, picked up his guitar and let loose. I listened from the balcony to an indictment of fascism and ethnic arrogance:

"These people don't look like us—they don't smell like us / We are the masters of their miserable fate / For mercy they get down on their knees to pray / But we're superior in every way—they're insects baby—it's doomsday baby"

Falco was the Antonin Artaud of the Memphis punk and post-punk scene who, in his first performance in the late 1970s, took a chainsaw to his guitar and sliced it into pieces before passing out on stage. But no longer must he bear insults, such as when local TV host Marge Thrasher told him his band Panther Burns' just-finished gonzo performance of Johnny Burnett's "The Train Kept A Rollin'" "may be the worst sound I've heard come out on television."

Falco's response to her insult was Tom Waits-precious: "Well, the best of the worst is what we're after."

"The artist, he is never really on the inside," the Arkansas native told me in one of two recent telephone interviews he gave me while on his just-ended cross-country tour, which included stops in Clarksdale and Memphis. "He can see what is happening on the inside, but he moves around on the outside. ... He's never quite assimilated."

Falco today is an expatriate living in Vienna, Austria, a Memphis-like outpost on the Danube River where money and profits "are not the defining criteria" of the artist.

Even when Falco was living in Memphis and performing with legends such as Jim Dickinson and Big Star leader Alex Chilton, he stood apart, a "torchbearer" of the city's music at its post-Sun and post-Stax nadir, yet bringing to it what writer Robert Gordon called "country blues ... with a punk aesthetic."

He named his band Panther Burns after the Mississippi Delta town, which got its name from a troublesome panther whose ungodly shrieks after being caught and burned alive are still supposed to haunt the nights there. The band played everything from rockabilly to tango.

Along with his "Whistle Blower" tour, Falco has just released a new album, "Tav Falco: Command Performance," and a new book of his early black-and-white photographs, "An Iconography of Chance: 99 Photographs of the Evanescent South." Some of these photographs also appeared in Falco's 2011 book, "Ghosts Behind The Sun: Splendor, Enigma & Death," a surreal history of Memphis in which Falco, as alter-ego Eugene Baffle, travels through time alongside figures such as General Nathan Bedford Forrest and Machine Gun Kelly.

A noted filmmaker and actor as well as musician, photographer, and author, Falco acknowledged his art has taken on a new edge, overtly socially conscious and acutely aware of injustices both here and abroad.

"I'm all for art for art's sake, but there comes a point where the artist, the rank-and-file artist citizen, can no longer remain silent, because silence is complicity," he said.

On his new album, the song "Whistle Blower" warns of a creeping fascism in American society, where figures like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning are hounded and punished for revealing the dark underbelly of the nation's politics and policies. Another song, "Doomsday Baby," is a broadside against Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians.

Falco said he'd like to return home someday, but things stand in the way. "Arkansas is so crazy, so benighted and so fascist, I find it difficult to entertain that idea," he said. "Arkansas used to be a marvelous place to live."

Yet, in some ways, he has never left. Along with its protest songs, "Tav Falco: Command Performance" also includes paeans to Memphis and southern music: Memphis Minnie's "Me and My Chauffeur Blues," Alex Chilton's "Bangkok" and Charlie Feathers' "Jungle Fever." And his book of photographs, the first in a planned series of three, pays homage to an "evanescent South" that is always with him. "There is a landscape that draws people ... a social fabric," he said. He remembers his first trip from backwoods Arkansas to the big city of Memphis and hearing blues musicians such as the Memphis Jug Band, Napoleon Strickland, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Bukka White. "I was enthralled. ... I saw how they mesmerized the audience and how the ladies and gentleman were throwing silver dollars at them," he said. It's not something an artist easily forgets.

Joe Atkins is a veteran journalist, columnist and professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi. Email him at [email protected]

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