Wings of Desire
The Bat Poet and Breeze fly high on public-access TV
By Jim Ridley
OCTOBER 18, 1999: "Wait a minute," says the guy in the black T-shirt. He walks over to a brick wall and gives it a shove. It rolls away, and he steps behind it and pulls it after him. It's Saturday night in a cramped TV studio in the recesses of TSU's downtown campus, which is eerily deserted. At the moment, with the guy behind the wall humming while he changes clothes, no one else is around. Unless you count the barbarian with KISS makeup practicing baseball swings with a giant plastic beer bottle.
"Got it," says the guy behind the wall, and the fake-brick set rolls aside. It reveals a stubbly fireplug of a man standing on a spartan living-room set in front of a crookedly draped American flag. His body is swathed in a cape. His gut is criss-crossed with bandoleros, and a belt studded with rhinestones holds up his pants. Perhaps his most striking feature, though, is his headgear. His eyes and forehead are obscured by a pointy-eared mask--the unmistakable sign of the Bat.
A stuffed lion. A white bull. A Super Soaker water gun. The props are laid out in a shopping cart. After the bat and the barbarian huddle behind a camera for a moment, they walk back into a control room behind glass windows. They're joined by a deathly silent, bespectacled technician, Skip, who quickly establishes himself as the most bashful human being on earth. These three people are all it takes to produce the single most popular show on Nashville public-access television.
Nearing its fifth season, The Slime Show (formerly known as The Bat Poet Show) is a local sensation--though for first-time viewers, it's almost impossible to see why. Even Harvey Floyd, who appears on the show periodically as the lip-synching Green Man, says, "If you just tune in once, you'll think it's crazier than hell." And yet, to its loyal viewers--who include preteens, stoned college kids, musicians, and lawyers--that's its chief appeal.
For an hour every Friday night, The Slime Show's hosts, the Bat Poet and his shape-shifting partner Bad Boy Breeze, trample their muddy feet on every comfort that television offers. They perform improvised 10-minute skits in a medium that prizes brevity. They pantomime to sound-effects records. They don't cut, playing instead to a fixed camera. Their long takes would tax Tarkovsky. Production values rarely extend beyond a kitchen table and thrift-store props.
And instead of the generic locales of sitcoms and syndicated public-affairs shows, their jokes are about specific Nashville institutions. The previous week, on the air, the Bat Poet read from a Wall Street Journal article about the shortcomings of the Opryland Hotel. To make his position clear, the masked man produced a plastic dollhouse labeled "Opryland Hotel." Then the cast took turns smashing it with hammers.
This sense of place--and a hellzapoppin' quality not unlike the Teletubbies--has kept The Slime Show going for four-and-a-half years on Nashville community-access television. That's remarkable, given the amount of time and commitment it takes to fill just one hour of TV for no money. Most people take CATV classes for $25, manage to eke out maybe one episode of a half-hour show, and call it quits. But the Bat Poet and Bad Boy Breeze, as we shall see, are hardly most people.
By day--and morning, and evening, and night--Joey Bowker drives a cab for the Diamond Cab Co. Hearing one of his mile-a-minute monologues makes a great show in itself:
"I got something you can print, buddy!" spiels Bowker, 47, in his raspy, excitable murmur, nosing his cab onto Franklin Road. His rap has been well-honed on tourists, who hire cabbies to show them the stars' homes and expect a running commentary; he sometimes punctuates his thoughts with a high-pitched giggle (hee-hee-heee!) that calls to mind an amiable cartoon character. "I had the governor of Tennessee in my taxi, Don Sundquist! Yes, sir. Even gave me his card, I have proof of it. I ran into him about six months later, he still remembered my slimy face.
"I was at the airport one night, in an isolated spot where you're not normally at," he continues, pausing only to point out Ronnie Milsap's house, "and this handsome man comes running to my taxi, jumps in, says, 'I'm a congressman, Congressman Don Sundquist, I'm one of four candidates running for governor, I'm in desperate need of a taxi.' He says, 'How much do you charge, son? My ride didn't make it, I got four'--whaddayacallem--fundraisers he had to be at on time." He snaps four times for emphasis, knocking the tape recorder out of my hand in the process.
"I'm a Democrat, he's a Republican, he told me all kind of great off-the-record Ronald Reagan stories," he says, swigging Coke from a convenience-store cup the size of an oil drum. "I got his business card, pal. The governor! I don't have any state business, but if I did, I'd go see my buddy Don. Got all these lobbyists throwing money to get five minutes of his time, I've got three hours, hee-hee-heee! That's a true story. My buddy Don!" He rolls down the window. "Heyyyyyyy, Donnn!" he hollers as we pass the governor's mansion. "Really nice guy, really nice guy, pretty kyewwwwl."
Every Friday and Saturday night, though, Bowker ditches the taxi, dons a mask, a cape, and biker threads, and emerges in Middle Tennessee living rooms as the Bat Poet, a manic combination of street preacher and impoverished superhero.
What does the Bat Poet do? The Bat Poet makes up songs for sock puppets. The Bat Poet hosts wrestling matches. The Bat Poet hangs out with buddies like Torg the Headhunter, DJ Johnny Vomit, and the ever-popular Christmas Drunk Frog--all of whom are alter egos of his co-conspirator Bad Boy Breeze. The Bat Poet and Breezy have three consistent satirical targets: the GOP, country music, and longtime Nashville rock station KDF, which earned the show's undying enmity by switching to a country format and dumping morning DJs Big Dave and the Dook.
Here's a better question: How is the Bat Poet different from Joey Bowker? Bowker himself seems stunned by the question. "I don't know that it is," he says, scratching sideburns shaved into long horizontal points. But people who know him insist that the genial, philosophical Bowker is the polar opposite of his alter ego, who stages long-running grudge matches with stuffed animals and chases a mythical "Republican fly" with a giant fly swatter.
"Joey is just a wonderful guy, knowledgeable about politics and history, everybody just loves him," says Jim Gilchrist, executive director of Community Access TV. "But when he puts that costume on, get out of the way."
Bowker grew up in East Palestine, a small town near Youngstown, Ohio, where his father worked as an upholsterer for 48 years. "He thought that little town was the center of the universe," says Bowker. "I was just the opposite. I was an artist, cosmopolitan, international. I wanted to see the whole country."
He joined a band called Brother Acid in the early '70s, but his first trip to Nashville came in 1971, when he toured the country as an audience-baiting clown at state fairs. By the time he moved to Nashville in 1989, he had been gigging around Chicago as a performance poet. His first few years here were spent performing poetry at the Ace of Clubs and other nightspots. What he lacked was a gimmick.
In 1992, he was combing through Spencer's Gifts in Hickory Hollow when he came across a $62 Batman mask. From the mask, the Bat Poet was born. "In a way, I wish I hadn't started the Bat Poet character, because it's too close to Batman," Bowker says. But he started getting guest slots on local poet Joe Speer's long-running CATV show Speer Presents. While in the studio, he met David Aubrey, a security guard and technician with a much more pronounced theatrical bent.
Bowker started The Bat Poet Show in 1995, but it wasn't until Aubrey came on board a year later as Bad Boy Breeze that the show started hitting its stride. The Bat Poet often leaves center stage to Breeze, a leather-studded Road Warrior droog who's an avowed enemy of everything warm and fuzzy.
"We've gotten so locked up with things that are cute and cuddly," says Aubrey, 32, who spent his adolescence in Nashville and is now taking classes at Georgia Southern University. (He taped a string of segments for this season before leaving.) "All Breeze wants to do is trash what's too cute. Like Elmo, or Kathie Lee."
The show attracted immediate notice on CATV. Across the country, community-access programming--which is intended to give anyone access to the public airwaves at low cost--has become the last refuge of the kind of homegrown idiosyncrasy that once distinguished local stations. To find horror-movie hosts, live children's shows, or even local public-affairs programming, all former staples of network affiliates, you must look now to public access. Thanks to its no-budget restraints, though, these shows are now doubly surreal: movie shows padded with public-domain oddities, variety shows staged on the barest of sets--often with the barest of talents.
Since the early 1980s, local public access has generated a few shows with broad appeal. The mid-'80s sketch-comedy show Belle Meade Beach (which starred future Scene food critic Kay West) had a cult following, even though it filmed only eight episodes. Even more popular was the late-'80s The Sylvan Brothers, which launched the career of comedian Shane Caldwell.
But with a $38,000 annual budget, Nashville's CATV--a 14-year-old not-for-profit organization provided for by Metro government and the area's cable provider, InterMedia--is among the lowest-funded community-access stations in the country. That places the burden of promotion and production values squarely on the producer--i.e., the little guy calling the shots.
According to Gilchrist, there are several CATV shows with loyal audiences. These include Watch TV, which offers tranquil scenic views for minutes on end; Judy Lee Hooper's Old Time Southern Cooking; the Will Green sketch-comedy hour; and Mind Your Own Music Business, a music/legal advice show hosted by musician Jesse Goldberg.
It's hard to gauge just how popular these are, because no ratings data exists. But from the only means available--calls, letters, repeat requests--Gilchrist says The Slime Show is still the undisputed champ.
"I was surprised how many people told me they saw it," said attorney Bart Durham, who guest-starred on one episode as a wrestling manager. A rare venture outside the studio, the show started with Durham and local woman wrestler Candy Divine trading insults; it ended somehow with Breezy getting flattened in the ring, victim of a fix between a corrupt ref and Breezy's opponent, a stuffed bear. (Breezy took some comfort later when the bear was discovered to be a lion.)
"It's a total change from what people see on network TV," Gilchrist explains, merely stating the obvious. "They're totally free and fun, they get a little wacky and nutty, they appeal to people who want to feel like kids again. Everything we do doesn't have to be a political talk show."
"We don't know exactly what we're going to say or how we're going to say it," Bowker says. "We want it to be like a live show. The lighting's never perfect; the audio's never perfect. We don't want to be perfect. We just capture the magic of the moment." He cites the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, and The Munsters as inspirations, as well as the old Dean Martin sketches where Jonathan Winters would pick up props and improvise routines around them.
"Breezy, you could hand him a hole puncher, and he could talk your ear off about it," Bowker says admiringly. "Most people don't have that ability." Aubrey says he always "thinks back to shows you could turn on that were just great." I suggest the old Ernie Kovacs Show, which had a similar anything-goes style that was both cerebral and wacko. But he's never seen it, so I ask for an example. He thinks for a moment, then pipes up: "Welcome Back, Kotter."
At its best, The Slime Show might tickle Kovacs and Kotter fans both: it's anti-authoritarian, cheerfully juvenile, disrespectful of form and politeness--and accessible to kids without really being for them. Bowker and Aubrey keep the show's content clean because of their many young viewers. As with Teletubbies, though, that somehow makes it even weirder. Bowker isn't kidding when he says, "It's like all those kids read Mad magazine--they read it because it's silly, they don't always understand the profound, deep intellectual content of what Mad's trying to do."
Given the nature of his day gig, a little innocence is probably refreshing. We're riding down Eighth Avenue South one late Thursday night in Joey Bowker's cab. Apart from The Slime Show, this is his life. "I spent the entire decade of the '90s in the front seat of a cab," he says. "See, I got no family right now. I'm out here all by myself in this big ol' world. I've got several girlfriends, but I'm not married. I've got five that I date. They're all single. They're all single! When you drive a cab, you meet a lot of women. One's from Nashville, Indiana. Little town of whateveritis. Name's Janet." He insists they all know about each other.
Apart from them and Breezy, his closest pals are cabbies. "I've got about 200 friends," he says, "that's why I'm never lonely." Yet his day gig, like his TV show, whisks him in and out of people's lives without them learning much about the man behind the wheel (or mask). In his spare time, such as it is, he's an activist for a local cab drivers' association. "Cab drivers are fiercely independent," he says. "We're all hillbillies, hippies, rejects, rebels, and criminals. And songwriters."
As a cabbie, he has access to a dusk-to-dawn nightworld most Nashvillians never see. Cruising past Eighth Avenue's red-light district of spas and rub-and-tug parlors, he lays out an informal guide to the city's vice industry. First off, he explains, since a night-crawling out-of-towner's first question to a driver is often "Where's the broads?," some showgirl bars give kickbacks to cabbies--$2 a head at one strip bar off the interstate, $5 a drop-off at another nearby.
Massage parlors may give even more, depending on the level of service. To one Eighth Avenue spa, Bowker says, he's delivered more than 500 guys: salesmen, tourists, even religion conventioneers. In many cases, they're so afraid of being seen that they pay cabbies just to wait in the front lobby the whole time and watch TV.
"Over there," he says, gesturing across the street to a neon-lit brick bunker, "all the girls know me by name."
Being a cab driver in Nashville isn't always such a picnic. We're sitting at the Demonbreun Shoney's, within grabbing distance of the soup and salad bar, when I ask Bowker how dangerous it is to drive a cab. He reaches beneath the table. A turn of the wrist and a click, and a stubby 3-inch blade he carries for protection appears about a foot from my face. "That's the legal length," Bowker says. When he pulls out his wallet, which bulges with business cards and slips of ragged paper scrawled with phone numbers, I ask about the Band-Aid sticking out. He shrugs. "In case I get in a fight, it stops my hand from bleeding."
He's used up plenty of them. Even outside the projects, where Bowker says he won't even go at night, cabbies are targets on delivery. "These guys on drugs, there's only two places you can get cash late at night: convenience stores and cabbies," he explains. In 1995, a couple of cabbies were killed on the job; Bowker knows two others who carried riders to local banks, only to learn they were being used as getaway cars for stick-ups.
Besides, the pickups are frequently soused. Bowker remembers getting a call from the old Wanda & Louie's bar where Legends Corner is today on Lower Broad. He arrived to find a fare slumped over the hood of a car. He heaved the limp figure into the back of his cab and asked where he was going. The drunk shouted, "Wanda & Louie's!" After arguing, with no luck, that he was indeed parked right outside Wanda & Louie's, Bowker gave up and took a spin around the block. "Man," the drunk said, peeling off a sawbuck, "that's the fastest ride I've ever had."
If driving a cab keeps Bowker in touch with Music City's seedier side, it also brings him into contact with TV stars, visiting dignitaries, and the country-music industry. Granted, the encounters aren't always meet-and-greets: a famous 1970s country singer once pursued him at Daytona speed down the interstate, while her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend tried to slump below eye level in the back of his cab. But he relishes meeting fellow musicians and new acts, even if he's pessimistic about the direction of country music as a whole.
"In '80s and '90s country music," says Bowker, a diehard rock 'n' roller who nonetheless has abiding respect for artists like Patsy Cline, Roger Miller, and Johnny Cash, "everybody sounds alike, looks alike, smells alike, talks alike. They're corporate-made, OK? You have no real innovators now, that's what's so bad about it. I'm sure there's some great artists out there with great songs, but the industry's got it set up where we don't hear these people."
That's part of the spirit behind community-access TV in general and The Slime Show in particular: that Bowker, Aubrey, and their comrades in shoe-box studios around the country have the free-wheeling, let's-put-on-a-show spontaneity that the networks--and network affiliates--can no longer afford.
"Everybody's watched so much TV over the past 50 years that they know how to react to something," Bowker says. "We don't want to do the same show everybody's seen before. We're kinda like Martha Stewart on acid.
"Everything I do is nonprofit and noncommercial," he adds. "I haven't made any money as the Bat Poet. I got paid 50 bucks one time for a biker show, that was it. All my shows are free, all my tapings, I don't make any money. Joe Speer's been on 10 years; I've been on four-and-a-half years. There's only a handful of us can do that when you're not getting paid."
If anything, Bowker's planning to access even more of the public airwaves. He hopes to start a half-hour local-music show called The Music Castle, which would showcase some of those artists he feels are being ignored--on a set made to resemble a castle, no less. He plans concerts, he plans public appearances, he plans multimedia events. But does he plan to be the Bat Poet for the rest of his life? Joey Bowker laughs off the question. His answer is classic Batspeak.
"I'm 47 years old, I can't even relate to that," he says, pulling into the Scene's parking lot. "47? What the hell's that, I was just 27! But see, time is an undefined concept. Always remember that: Time is an undefined concept. Chuck Berry's 73 now and he's still playing 'Sweet Little Sixteen.' I'll still be 70 and crazier than hell. Hee-hee-heee!"
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