Bowker, 59, presided over one of the weirdest spectacles in the history of Nashville TV programming: a fleabag variety show featuring hand puppets, stuffed-animal warfare, wrestling matches, and local celebrity cameos ranging from attorney Bart Durham to country warbler Miss Melba Toast. These were embellished with crude first-generation video effects and supported by plotlines that could only be followed by kids and the deeply, irretrievably stoned.
But the man in the $62 Batman mask (purchased in 1992 from Spencer's Gifts in Hickory Hollow) had a loyal fan base that included musicians, politicians, wiseguy teens, college kids, and anyone else likely to be home, bored and curious on a Friday or Saturday night, when his shows aired on NECAT Channel 19 (as they have, off and on, since the show debuted in 1995). His notoriety was sometimes regarded as a mixed blessing at a public-access station trying to cultivate an air of professionalism. But there is too much dull proficiency in the world as it is, while there was only one Bat Poet.
A staccato mile-a-minute talker who subsidized his broadcasting habit by working as a cabbie, Bowker had suffered enormous medical and financial blows over the past several years, from diabetes to heart trouble. Benefits put scarcely a dent in his hospital expenses. For those used to seeing him in his jaunty, barrel-chested prime, his appearance in recent years was a shock: frail, unsteady, propped by a walker, wracked by coughing fits and wheezes that tended to stop his perpetual scheming in frustration.
And yet he always steered away from his current troubles to talk about doing that next show, working that next promotional hustle, getting that next cool guest, finding that syndication deal that might allow him to make a living wage off doing what he loved. As a cabbie, he was privy to a whole nightworld most of Nashville never sees, a world of all-nite greasy spoons and strip-club parking lots, a world where the conventioneer in your backseat slips you a couple of bills just so you'll stay put out back of the massage parlor. In standing up for rock bands and burlesque gals and kayfabe wrasslin' matches, he was the anti-Chamber of Commerce, hellbent to remind hoity-toity Nashvillians that they were living in his Music City, not he in theirs.
A memorial service is being planned, and we'll pass along the details as they arrive. A memorial page has also been established on Facebook. In the meantime, here's the end of a 2008 Scene article detailing a benefit held on the air at Channel 19 in Bowker's behalf:
A coffee can passed around by [Channel 19 producer/host Jesse] 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."
If only, Joey. We'll keep watching the skies, just in case.