I first met Tav Falco, leader of the Panther Burns faction, when, ten years ago, we both participated in a Madrid poetics festival, Festimad. Lydia Lunch, Richard Hell, the Master Musicians of Joujouka, Alex Garcia Alix, Hamri the Painter of Morocco, John Cale, and John Giorno were amongst the powerful creative people involved. We were treated to imperial paella in this large flamboyant dining hall in the city's venerable old art school where, I think, Dali and Picasso once hung out. A sexy young Zapatista stirred us in Spanish.
I have strong memories of going to see a definitive Goya exhibition at the Prado with Richard Hell, of Tav roaming in search of tango parlours, of breakfasting with Lydia, and of Hell looking for a real bullfight to go to. I met some remarkably chic women with Tav; hanging out with him suggested to me that others were leading more adult lives than I was.
In Madrid Tav performed solo but mostly, musically, he travels in style with his Panther Burns combo. They bring the swamp into the existentialist city. Once I attended a hugely significant evening of his movies at London's Horse Hospital. A onetime associate of America's best photographer William Eggleston, Tav, with all manner of cameras, roamed the Southern backwoods, neon cities, and swamplands in search of the real thing. The film I liked the most was the one he shot about the pandemonium outside Graceland in the hours after Elvis' death.
One more recent day I walked with Tav north from Maison Berteaux in Soho up Charing Cross Road past the eighties Marquee Club where I saw Jane's Addiction do their London showcase. We'd been talking about our mothers and about our film ambitions. I asked him if he had any good stories for my Chelsea Hotel Manhattan book that I was then working on. He told me that he remembered one incident, which happened during Panther Burns' New York period which didn't actually have anything to do with the Chelsea Hotel but which should have had.
One night he and angry wild Jeffrey Lee Pierce from the Gun Club wandered through the Lower East Side, each of them balancing a foam mattress on his head, African-woman-carrying-water style, looking for a derelict abandoned house where they could throw their mattresses down on the floor and sleep for the night.
I thought it was a superb almost filmic image of romantic, youthful, rebellion, and a slice out of the life of any working artist.
I consider Tav to be one of the most significant American presences of our time and Panther Burns to exemplify that part of rock'n'roll which is touched by, reflective of, and in competition with, high art.
I asked Tav what Panther Burns stands for and this is what he told me:
It is the song of sex and death sung always in the Delta, and it's the same song with a more lyrical lilt sung up in the hills that eventually comes up river or down river into Memphis. The same song catching the wind off the side of a boxcar or drifting into town on the black wave of a river barge or floating on the winding smoke of burning mansions. The song of sex and death sung by a steppin' dandy with the bible in one hand and corn whiskey in the other. Sanctified in the church or sung in the juke joint... the ethereal song of earth and sun, of loss and betrayal, of night and sacrifice. It is the song of the Panther Burns.
During the later part of 1978 at the time we were forming our group in Memphis, I kept hearing this word, this term, spoken around me, 'Panther Burn', 'Panther Burn'. Who is it? What is it, I wondered. Then I found out. It's a place. Panther Burn plantation off of Highway 61 just north of Greenville, Mississippi. A legend surrounds the plantation wherein at the turn of the century before last a wild cat, a tail dragger, a black panther, the last vestige of the vanishing frontier, displaced from forest and plain, homeless in the wake of further expanding cultivation of farmlands... the animal, out of a sense of hunger and general discontent began to howl all night, to harass the countryside, and to raid the chicken coops of the local farmers. Fed up with this worrisome nuisance, the planters launched a campaign to rid themselves of this creature who slept all day and prowled all night. When they caught sight of it, they fired their rifles and tried vainly to shoot it, but the panther was fast and they always missed. Then they set traps, but the panther was cunning and it eluded their traps. One night, a posse of irate farmers managed to run the animal into a cane brake (a stand of wild cane bamboo growing) and then they set the cane on fire. The shrieks and howls of the panther perishing within the flames were so horrific that the place became known from then on as Panther Burn. My cohorts and I thought this would be a fitting nom de guerre for a RnR band.
In New York, Panther Burns recorded a disc at Radio City Music Hall for Chris Stein's label, Animal. This was a subsidiary of Chrysalis, and in those offices one day I met Iggy who was also releasing a record on the label. The Animal connection resulted from our appearances on TV Party, which was a makeshift, videotronic cabaret cablecast out of studios on 23rd. St. and hosted by Glenn O'Brien and produced by Chris Stein. Other TV Party scenesters released by or connected with Animal were Walter Steading, the electro violinist protege of Andy Warhol, Gun Club, Fast Phreddie, etc.
This is an edited version of an essay by Joe Ambrose which appears in Headpress 28, guest editor John Sinclair
Joe Ambrose has written 12 books, the most recent being Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. He is currently writing a book about the Spanish Civil War.