"Being a star is not what you think it is, that's what I've learned," Joey Bowker says. He's descending the narrow steps to his temporary home in a dingy Music Row apartment complex. A leather biker cap is clamped on his head; a baggy black shirt hangs off his dwindled frame like a wizard's robe. For those who've known him 10, 15 years, it's disconcerting to see Bowker, typically a burly, excitable fireplug of a man, leaning against the staircase wall for support.
No less strange are his new surroundings. His current home is a friend's spare basement room scarcely big enough to hold a bare mattress, a metal shelving unit, posterboard plastered with memorabilia, and a chair propping up an ancient breadbox-sized TV and a pair of crutches.
But it is here that Joey Bowker's secret life is kept in suspended animation. Unless you're looking for it, you might miss the Styrofoam wig stand holding the dusty but erect points of a cowled mask.
Holy public access! It's the inner sanctum of The Bat Poet! Or at least what passes for it these days, ever since a kryptonite whammy of health woes and catastrophic medical expenses sidelined the caped crusader of Nashville community-access TV earlier this year.
For almost 15 years, Bowker led a double life. On weeknights, he drove a taxi, prowling an open-all-nite world of greasy spoons, gentlemen's clubs and adult nightspots the rest of the city seldom sees.
But on Friday and Saturday nights, he transformed. Donning his cowl and cape, the stubbly, stubby cabbie stretched a black T-shirt across his gut and emerged on Nashville community-access station CATV Channel 19 as The Bat Poet—enemy of all things stuffy and proper, and cult hero to a generation of kids, stoners, bored channel surfers and insomniacs.
That routine came to an end earlier this year. After what he describes as four years of fatigue and discomfort, Bowker was found last spring to have three blocked arteries. In October, he underwent bypass surgery, only to find his troubles just beginning. He was diagnosed with diabetes and verged on kidney failure. Worse, he was left unable to work as hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical expenses piled up.
Needless to say, there is no insurance plan for public-access personalities. The closest Bowker comes to an HMO is his former CATV colleague, horror host Dr. Gangrene.
"I overworked in the cab, that's what it is," Bowker says, his sideburns shaved into slightly mismatching horizontal points. His usual mile-a-minute rap and manic giggle are gone, replaced by a wet, wracking cough. "They're all telling me I'm disabled, but in my mind I'm not. I'm too strong. I'll fight this."
Bowker remains the city's most recognized figure in the parallel universe of celebrity that is community-access TV. In a city where showbiz hopefuls arrive every day, this is the underground where literally anyone can be a star, for $35 and some classes in station operation.
Broadcasting from a bare-bones studio on the Nashville State campus off White Bridge Road, the station is provided for as part of the city's agreement with cable provider Comcast. It's housed under the same PEG (politics, education, government) umbrella as Metro Council broadcaster Channel 3, arts channel MCA tv9 and educational channel iQtv10. Channel 19's other shows range from legal and showbiz advice to rap videos and Kurdish public-affairs programming, all provided by volunteers on a budget of spit and shoestring.
It is safe to say that most of them aspire to the quality (and sobriety) of network-affiliate programming. "We want to put on better shows," says Jesse Goldberg, a familiar face as host of three separate Channel 19 programs.
And yet the Bat Poet stood out by doing the opposite—by pushing the uninhibited amateurism of public access to its extreme. Nothing stopped channel flippers in mid-surf faster than the paunchy Bowker in his costume, gesticulating wildly to a frog puppet while some primitive strobe-light superimposition sputtered onscreen.
"To me, he's almost comparable to John Belushi," says W.D. Humpfree, a local author and occasional Bat Poet guest star who's known Bowker since they gigged as cabbies at the turn of the '90s. "There's a charisma to him—this wild-assed, outrageous stuff he comes up with. There's nothing like him around here. He's unique."
A native of East Palestine, Ohio, Bowker got his first Nashville gig in 1971. Back then, he was touring state fairs as an audience-baiting clown. He did some performance-poetry shows in Chicago, and he didn't move here for good until 1989. He started his CATV career in Nashville with guest spots on Speer Presents, an early 1990s poetry show. In February 1995, Bowker launched his own program, known for many years as The Slime Show, with a $62 Batman mask he got at Spencer's Gifts.
Apart from a split with his on-air partner David Aubrey, a.k.a. Bad Boy Breeze, his show hasn't changed much over the years. He recites poetry, pantomimes, does improv skits with visitors ranging from country-music entertainer Melba Toast to colorful attorney Bart Durham. His reference points are doggedly local, from Opryland to Lower Broad.
New episodes haven't been broadcast in more than three months, but reruns still play every Friday and Saturday night. For better or worse, his cowl has become as emblematic of Channel 19 as the Batman Building's pronged silhouette is of Nashville.
"If you mention 19 to someone, they go, 'You mean The Bat Poet Channel?', " says Larry Underwood, who, as horror host Dr. Gangrene, is regarded with awe by fellow Channel 19 vets for landing a Saturday-afternoon slot on The CW—the equivalent of a sandlot player getting called to the bigs.
But that notoriety has at times made the show something of a mixed blessing for the station—resented by a few, regarded by others as a bewildering curio. Non-fans weren't amused when CATV dignitaries met some years ago with then-Mayor Bill Purcell to put the station's best foot forward, only to have the city's top executive ask in all earnestness about the Bat Poet.
At the same time, when Bowker fell ill, it was the makeshift family at Channel 19 that rushed to his aid. Last Saturday, the station devoted more than an hour of prime-time programming to a live on-air telethon in Bowker's behalf. Hosted by Miss Melba Toast, "the Toast of Music City"—who held court with her foot-high nimbus of platinum blonde hair, a sequined black dress and a flouncy red décolletage the size of a windowbox—it was a cavalcade of CATV stars.
Present were Dr. Gangrene, Mind Your Own Music Business host Goldberg, attorney and Channel 19 veteran Don Hildebrand, CATV president Sam Thompson, and Marcus Petway and Michael Northern from the Channel 19 rap show Cashville. The ladies of Music City Burlesque did circumspect stripteases and dance routines, and country comic Jerry "The Hogman" Isham drove 150 miles from Roane County to perform a hog-call number replete with lusty oinks. Although a slot was wishfully reserved for Mayor Karl Dean, the only "civic luminary" the show could dredge up was a visiting drudge from the Scene.
The call-in take was rather slim. "Let's have a tally!" Toast enthused on camera, only to have someone off-camera urgently gesture back "no." One pledge call started with "What are you wearing?" and went downhill from there. "You take the next one," the repulsed receptionist said, handing off the phone to a guy.
But Channel 19 came to the rescue there as well. A coffee can passed around by Goldberg to the 30 or so well-wishers and participants on hand came back stuffed to overflowing with change and bills. In the end, the evening was much like an episode of the Bat Poet's own show—ramshackle, all-embracing and lit by the glare of unextinguished work lights.
The only thing missing was the guest of honor. Still too frail to deliver new episodes of his show, Joey Bowker watched the telethon propped up on Melba Toast's couch in East Nashville. But in a basement off Music Row, near the headquarters of the honky-tonk industrial complex, a cowl sits on a wig stand awaiting the call to action.
"I'm not tall, dark and handsome. I'm ugly and short," Bowker says. "But it's amazing what happens when I put on the clothes. I'll still be chasin' women, tearin' up the streets and waitin' for that call from the mayor. God's gonna let me live a little longer."