Downtown 81: Tav Falco Recounts East Village Adventures

The Memphis punkabilly figure is currently on the road through the fall

Tav Falco 2022 (Image: Maria de Freitas)

Rock & Roll Globe last caught up with Tav Falco in 2018 on the occasion of the release of his 14th studio album Cabaret of Daggers.

After extensive touring with his band Panther Burns in 2019, Falco took refuge in his homebase of Vienna, Austria as the pandemic took hold the following year. 

For those unfamiliar with the history, Panther Burns played its first show in a Memphis cotton loft in 1979. Former Box Tops/Big Star frontman Alex Chilton was a founding member alongside Falco. Chilton played on the first four Panther Burns albums, as well as produced 1987’s The World We Knew, but had retired from the touring lineup by the mid-1980s. Over the next four decades, the group has steadily gigged and recorded, with Falco being the sole constant member. The roll call of Panther Burns alumni includes such alt-rock mainstays as Jim Sclavunos, Mike Watt, Will Rigby and Ken Stringfellow. 

Falco was born in Philadelphia to a family of Italian descent, but was raised in rural Arkansas. After studying film and drama at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, he moved to Memphis in 1973. Memphis would be his homebase throughout most of the 1970s and ’80s, as Panther Burns tours took him to increasingly more exotic locales. During the 1990s, Falco lived in Paris, a city that had captured his youthful imagination via the serialized adventures of Fantômas and Les Vampyres directed by Louis Feuillade. At the turn of the century, Falco was feeling simpatico with Vienna, where he lived for nearly two decades. In January 2022, wanderlust stirred again, and he now resides in Bangkok, Thailand. 

To celebrate Panther Burns’ first U.S. tour in three years—which begins August 25 in San Francisco and includes shows in an additional 33 U.S. cities—we caught up with Falco to discuss his time spent living in another great metropolis, New York City.  

 

Tav Falco Panther Burns USA Tour 2022 poster (Image: Panther Burns)

 

Tell us about the first time Panther Burns played New York City. 

We had a week-long stand in 1980. Among those shows was a 2:00 AM set at Danceteria. Jim Fouratt had advertised us as “Direct from Memphis.” Will Rigby came down from a dusty rehearsal flat in midtown to play with us. Jazz acoustic bassist Ron Miller played the Fotdella, Alex Chilton was flogging lead guitar, and I played my six-string Höfner violin-shaped guitar with the inboard factory fuzz tone. Robert Palmer, Pop & Jazz writer for The New York Times, whom I knew from Arkansas, joined us on squawking, free clarinet. In those days the headliners in NYC went on at 4:00 AM. In this instance, it was Joe “King” Carrasco. Our set turned into quite an atonal art-damage incantation as no one in the riveted audience, nor the musicians onstage, quite knew what to expect. After it was all over, Fouratt came backstage and berated our performance as perhaps the worst sounding affair he’d ever heard. Alex took issue with his acerbic remarks, citing the fact that no one had asked for his opinion, but Fouratt went on to say that someone named Geoff Travis wanted to come backstage to meet us. Apparently, Travis was from some outfit in London called Rough Trade. Out of that initial meeting came Panther Burns’ debut album, Behind the Magnolia Curtain, which we recorded later that year in Memphis. 

After that first week of dates, we hightailed it back to Memphis. 

 

In 1981, you returned to New York, and actually lived in the city for a few years, while Chilton stayed in Memphis. When you weren’t gigging, how did you get by as a starving artist? 

My tenure in New York began in earnest in 1981. Accommodations and groceries were sketchy. I ate a lot of 50-cent sacks of plantain chips from the Puerto Rican markets on Avenue D. Day-old edibles at DiRobertis Pasticceria and Caffè on 1st Avenue were always tasty. I met up there with Steve Jones (Sex Pistols) a number of times. Couch surfing and floor space-hopping were the order of the day. At one point, Jeffrey Lee Pierce and I were trolling the East Village in the evenings with rolled-up foam mattresses on our backs as we often bumped into comrades who offered space for the night. Sometimes we had to feed a quarter to the pay phones on Avenue A around Tompkins Square Park in an attempt to find someone who might offer a place to crash. Often it was no dice, and we’d end up at the Kiev Café sharing a cup of barley soup at 5:00 AM with the junkyard blues. The only income we could expect came from live gigs. 

During this time, Panther Burns’ bassist, Ron Miller, lived in Greenwich Village. We played in the city and toured cross country a few times.  

 

VIDEO: Downtown 81 Clip 

You appeared in Edo Bertoglio’s cult film Downtown 81, which featured Jean-Michel Basquiat in the lead role, and supporting roles from Debbie Harry, James Chance, Arto Lindsay, and August Darnell (Kid Creole), among others. How were you recruited for the film and what do you remember about working with these people?

After witnessing an incendiary set of 45-second atonal spew selections by Arto Lindsay, I encountered bassist Tim Wright of Lindsay’s power trio DNA in the corridor of CBGB. Tim took me over to a taping of TV Party, a weekly cable TV program shot in a small studio on E. 23rd St. This was Chris Stein’s show, and the host was the late Glenn O’Brien who wrote the music column for Warhol’s large format Interview Magazine and later became men’s fashion editor at GQ. The concept was loosely modeled on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show and focused on the exploding lower Manhattan underground music/art scene. 

The TV Party Orchestra was composed of the fair-haired electronic violinist Walter Steding (who was a Warhol protégé before being displaced by Jean-Michel Basquiat), Tim Wright on electric bass, and Lenny Ferrari playing the sticks on cylindrical Quaker Oats cartons. 

In due course, Panther Burns & I were invited to appear on the show and eventually became TV Party faves. Glenn began to write about us in Interview, and Edo Bertoglio was the photographer for his column. For a while, Glenn declared us “The World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band,” until he discovered the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I felt relieved, actually, that the title was passed on because I never felt comfortable with it. 

Glenn was writing the screenplay and dialogue for the Fiorucci-financed film Downtown 81 that he and Maripol had concocted to chronicle the movements of Jean-Michel through the back streets of the club scene. My cameo appearance with Jean-Michel was filmed in Super 16mm around 4:00 AM at the Mudd Club on White Street. It happened in a booth next to the notorious bathrooms that had no doors. The dialogue I had improvised so incensed Jean-Michel that he stalked out of the scene in a hissy. Then he had to come right back on set to be filmed in another cameo in the booth with filmmaker Amos Poe. I did feel somewhat deflated by the experience as I had spent half the night before staying up on green tea writing my lines as I was asked to do — only to have Jean-Michel express utter contempt in my presence. 

Later, Edo drew some heat surrounding a murder on Fire Island and split back to Switzerland. The movie itself was “lost” for a couple of decades. Eventually, Glenn and Maripol were able to retrieve it from Fiorucci, who had absconded with the production parts and taken them back to Italy. In summation, this whole scene evolved out of hanging out. There were no cellphones, rather there was a “process by association.” Networking by hanging out.

Out of this heady milieu came Panther Burns’ second record, Blow Your Top, a co-production between Rough Trade in the UK and Chris Stein’s new Animal Records label on Chrysalis. On Chris’ roster at the time were Iggy Pop, James Chance, Panther Burns, the Gun Club, and Walter Steding. 

In 1982, I sublet a pad on East 3rd St. from DNA bassist, Tim Wright, for a couple of months. Just up the street from the Hell’s Angels clubhouse. I left NYC and headed back to Memphis in 1983. 

 

You knew and were influenced by NYC Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Do you have any adventures to recount? 

When Allen and I shared a bill at an anti-nuclear rally at the new Peppermint Lounge in 1982, he had two Parisian street musicians playing electric guitars behind him while he played the harmonium. That night I gave Allen my first album, Behind the Magnolia Curtain, and dedicated it to him. A few years later I happened by his pad in the East Village. I literally threw a pebble up from the street toward a window that I thought might be his. Suddenly, Allen stuck his head out and invited the band and I up. I did ask him whether he had ever listened to the album that I’d given him, but he gave a vague reply. Some minutes later, I noticed that Behind the Magnolia Curtain was actually sitting on his turntable! Ha! You know, on that album I interjected lines from his poem “HOWL” into our electric rendition of “Bourgeois Blues”:

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night….”

 

Did you cross paths with Johnny Thunders during your time in New York?

My association with Johnny Thunders was limited to an encounter at the Mudd Club. I was moving through the crowd, going to the stage to start our show, when I passed Johnny Thunders standing there in the middle of the audience. I stopped and gave him a friendly punch in the stomach so he would remember me. Sometime later, I was at a downtown rehearsal studio at which a fellow musician recounted that he had recently participated in a rehearsal session with Johnny, who was telling his band, “Play it like Tav Falco.”

 

The current lineup of Panther Burns includes Falco alongside a trio of Italian musicians who have backed him for nearly a decade: Mario Monterosso, Giuseppe Sangirardi, and Walter Brunetti. For the complete concert itinerary visit http://www.tavfalco.com. Tav Falco’s latest release is the Car Club Zodiac EP on ORG Music. Downtown 81 is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Metrograph Pictures.  

 

 

VIDEO: Tav Falco Panther Burns U.S Tour promo clip

 

 

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Randy Haecker

Randy Haecker has been writing about music and cinema since the 1980s. As a publicist, he's worked for Slash Records in Los Angeles and both Angel/EMI and Sony Music's Legacy Recordings in New York City. He currently owns and operates the publicity agency Prime Mover Media based in Austin, TX. Randy does his part to keep the memory of Slash Records alive by administering the Slash Magazine & Records page on Facebook.

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