The Columbus community reflects on Don B., who died on August 29 at age 75
Most funerals are dour, somber affairs. Others, like the ceremony marking the Aug. 29 death of Don Bovee at age 75, are imbued with the same colorful spirit with which the deceased moved through life.
“Hi, I'm Mike Hummel and I'm a Bovee-holic,” said musician and longtime Bovee friend Mike “Rep” Hummel early in the service, eliciting chuckles from the room of 70 or so mourners gathered at Evans Funeral Home on the East Side on Friday, Sept. 1. A strong contingent from the Columbus music scene turned out, a number of whom wore T-shirts emblazoned with the Batman insignia in tribute to Bovee, aka Don B., a campus-area icon who, for decades, belted out an endearingly amateurish version of the “Batman Theme” with any band that would allow him to share the stage.
What followed was part remembrance (“It's important to remember Don was a real human being and not just a campus rock star,” Hummel said) and part celebration (the ceremony concluded with a group “Batman” sing-along, of course), filled with tales recounting Bovee's “improbable life,” as longtime friend and former Singing Dog Records manager Marty Cole described it in a later interview.
One attendee told of Bovee's traditional greeting method — “Don introduced himself to me the way he introduced himself to most people: He punched me,” he said — while another spoke of giving Bovee a ride home from Bernie's Bagels & Deli following a late, booze-filled night, only to be admonished for driving drunk after pulling up safely to Bovee's home.
Others spoke of the challenges Bovee was forced to overcome. He was developmentally disabled and had myriad health issues, including missing most of his front teeth and lingering problems with his feet brought about by diabetes, which required use of a wheelchair in the final years of his life. “Somehow or another,” Hummel said, “these [challenges] never killed his spirit.”
“Don accepts where he is and makes the best of it, and maybe that's a good way to live,” Hummel said in a phone interview the day before the funeral. “It's a lesson for us all: Make the best of what you've got.”
Though Bovee had been a campus fixture since at least the late 1970s, even close friends know little of his upbringing.
“He was pretty private about his past and private about his family,” said Black Swans founder Jerry DeCicca, who moved to Columbus in 1992 and befriended Bovee soon thereafter. “In a lot of ways, he reminded me of men from that generation in a way where his disability didn't come into play. He was open when it came to joking around and having fun, and he was more protective of those things he was emotional about.”
Born on May 24, 1942 in Fostoria, Ohio, to Raymond Bovee and Genevieve Ladd, Don Bovee was one of five children (his siblings included two brothers and two sisters). His parents later separated, with his father remarrying to Helen Bovee; the split left a lingering impact on the youngster.
“If you ever asked Don if he wanted to get married, his face would get all serious and he'd be like, ‘I don't want to get married because then you've gotta get a re-vorce,'” said Matt Reber of New Bomb Turks, who first met Bovee in 1989 or 1990 when he started working as a clerk at Singing Dog.
“He didn't have a lot of family … and there were times he'd get really upset about it, and it would just come gushing out of him,” said Jim Weber of New Bomb Turks, who first saw Bovee perform “Batman” with the Royal Crescent Mob in the late '80s and later befriended him after taking a job at Singing Dog in the early '90s. “He was cognizant of the fact he could have had a family and was kind of left behind … but it was also a different era where support wasn't there for the families that were trying to raise people [with cognitive disabilities].”
Bovee first encountered academic trouble when he failed to pass first grade in 1950, according to records provided by Columbus Center for Human Services executive director Becky Sharp, whose professional relationship with Bovee dates back 23 years. At the urging of school administrators, Bovee was placed in the Columbus State Institute (now the Columbus Developmental Center), where it appears he remained until 1972, when he transferred to a group home. While living in a series of group homes, Bovee held down a string of jobs, including stints with the Vern Riffe Center, the Ohio State University cafeteria and at the now-defunct laundromat Suds & Java.
Marty Cole started working at Singing Dog in 1985. Around this time, Bovee became a fixture in the shop, taking out the trash or sweeping up in exchange for a few bucks. “He was a nice guy, but he had more rough edges in those early days,” said Cole. “When Don would get drunk, he could be a little bit of trouble. He could get a little touchy and a little pushy [with women], and he did not like boyfriends.
“But his campus experiences kind of socialized him, and he became a much friendlier person in the second half of the time I knew him. And, god, he knew hundreds of people. That's why I say his life was improbable. Someone else in his shoes, that probably doesn't happen.”
Like most superheroes, Batman included, Bovee has an origin story all his own. For Bovee, this took place in 1980 when he crossed paths with Screaming Urge guitarist Michael Ravage while working in a janitorial role at a campus-area pizza shop.
“My girlfriend at the time, Sara, had a job at the pizza place on Summit and Chittenden, and it turned out Don worked there, too,” said Ravage, who first spotted Bovee haunting High Street after moving to Columbus in 1977. “One night he goes, ‘You in band?' I said, ‘Yeah, I play in a band.' ‘I come sing “Batman.”' ‘All right, come and sing “Batman.”'”
A few nights later, at short-lived North Campus venue That Place on High Street, Ravage spotted Bovee in the audience during the band's performance — not exactly a challenge, considering the guitarist estimated the crowd at five or six people. As the set progressed, Bovee moved closer to the stage, finally blurting out, “Batman!” during a break in the action.
“I'd almost forgotten he wanted to sing, but we said, ‘OK, let's do “Batman” in the key of A,' and he came up and just started saying, ‘Batman. Batman. Batman,'” Ravage said. “Every time I'd see him after that it was, ‘When you playing?' And he would be there every show.
“As far as I know, we were the first band he ever played ‘Batman' with.”
Over the next 37 years, Bovee would perform the song, which was composed by Neil Hefti for the 1966 TV series, thousands of times with hundreds of musicians, including local and national acts. He became a staple during R.C. Mob shows beginning in 1985 (“He played with us at Stache's, the Newport, Bernie's — anywhere we played in town,” R.C. Mob's Happy Chichester wrote in an e-mail), and for more than two decades, performing “Batman” with Bovee existed as a rite of passage for any local band.
“It was just something you did,” said Sudhir Ranganath of Shucking Bubba Deluxe. “When we played ‘Batman' with him, I tried to emulate what I had seen countless bands doing when I was in school at OSU and going to shows. … Then, at the end of the night, I'd buy him that Don B. staple: a beer and a shot of peach schnapps.”
Eventually national bands got in on the act, with punk-rock group the Queers even featuring a photograph of Bovee on the cover of its 2006 live album, Weekend at Bernie's, which was recorded in September 2005 over the course of two nights at the campus dive bar.
At one point, Cole even petitioned U2 prior to a 1997 tour stop at Ohio Stadium, though he quickly met a dead end.
“They came to town on May 24, and that's Don's birthday. Through The Other Paper, I made a serious but half-hearted effort because I thought it might be funny if Don got up onstage with U2. It took about one phone call to figure out … nobody at [U2's record label] found that funny. So that didn't happen,” Cole said. “But Don had it in his head he was going to do it, so we had to find a way to let Don down easy. And it turned out to be, ‘Well, these guys are from Ireland, and over there they drink beer warm.' And Don did not want to have anything to do with people who drank beer warm.”
While health issues prevented Bovee from going out with the same regularity in his later years, he continued to sing the tune right up through the month he died. On Aug. 3, Brian Griffin of Caring a Tune performed “Batman” alongside Bovee at his residence at the Park West Court Apartments, a private Hilltop facility for adults with developmental disabilities.
“He was in a wheelchair and came up and goes, ‘Know Batman?'” said Griffin, who plays under the stage name Brian Clash and has headed up Caring a Tune since October 2016. “He seemed quieter and not as animated, but once he got up there to perform, he was on. He was in the zone.”
On the surface, it seems like such a simple thing — one man performs one song with hundreds of bands. But something about the concept struck a nerve, or there's no way it could have endured for nearly four decades.
“It was pure joy for him to be up there and playing … and I think that was infectious for people,” Weber said. “And it's not the novelty of, ‘Here's this mentally handicapped guy getting up onstage and doing “Batman,”' because if that was the case it never would have lasted that long.”
“I saw in him how I feel about music and how I feel about things I love. You see his eyes light up and you're like, ‘That's why I'm poor. That's why [I do this],'” Reber said. “You see somebody who is into the purity of it, and it's just one fucking song most of the time. And he gets so much joy out of doing that one song.”
Hummel also pointed to Bovee's unique ability to dissolve the stage, which could often function as a barrier between artist and audience. “Seeing Don up there, perhaps the average Joe saw themselves to a certain degree,” he said. “They're in the middle of hero worship, and all of a sudden here's Don singing ‘Batman.' … Don bridged the gap. Here I am drinking with Don, and there he was a few minutes ago drinking with the Replacements. Don would bring the audience closer to the bands.”
Like any performer, Bovee had a way of adapting “Batman” based on the musical accompaniment. With bands like R.C. Mob and New Bomb Turks, the song tended to be faster and more guitar driven, while DeCicca described the slow, funereal take offered up by the Black Swans as “an Appalachian dirge.” Bovee also didn't take kindly to performers who neglected to allow him to share the stage.
“I had a friend, Adrian Crowley. He was from Ireland doing his first tour of the U.S. and he must have just gotten out of the car at Andyman's Treehouse when Don [approached and] was like, ‘Can you play “Batman?”' DeCicca said, and laughed. “It was hilarious seeing Don try to explain to someone from another country, ‘I do “Batman.” What do you mean you're not going to do “Batman” tonight? What's wrong with you?'”
Though less frequent, Bovee did occasionally dig deeper into his musical repertoire, performing “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen and “Play that Funky Music” by Wild Cherry. For Bovee's 50th birthday, New Bomb Turks composed a parody song, “Snoop Don B” (sung to the tune of the Beach Boys' “Sloop John B”), a version of which Bovee would later perform onstage with Mike Rep & the Quotas, along with “Don't You Just Know It,” by Huey “Piano” Smith.
“He was capable of singing other songs when given the chance … but when that band came to town and didn't know who he was, heck, any band can play ‘Batman,'” Hummel said. “And it wasn't that he had to sing; sometimes he was just at a show. I suspect the connection with music — and I go back 40 years being around musicians and that culture — is that musicians tend to be outsiders in their normal lives, just like Don was, and maybe he related to that.”
“As … beautifully dysfunctional as any arts and music scene is, that's where he had a home,” said Reber. “People accepted him for who he was, and, actually, Don was a lot more straight-laced than a lot of us.”
In general, Bovee kept a clean appearance. His standard uniform consisted of jeans or chinos and a white T-shirt worn beneath a long-sleeved flannel button-up. Weber also noted that Bovee always carried a comb in his pocket and kept his hair neatly parted. According to DeCicca and Reber, Bovee's apartments were usually clean and organized, with sparse decoration and predesignated spots for various household items. On one visit, Bovee offered a tour to Reber and his wife, Alisa, noting various highlights along the way: “This is where I keep my hairbrush”; “This is where I keep my TV remote.”
Everyone interviewed noted Bovee's unique sense of humor.
“I think like a lot of people that are foolish enough to get onstage and perform music, he was just a ham,” DeCicca said. “I think he was processing a lot more than people give him credit for if they didn't know him. He had a good comic delivery and a great sense of timing.”
He also had a quirky approach to language, coining numerous words and phrases that were adopted by those who lived within his orbit. A partial glossary of terms includes: “peach” (as in schnapps, his shot of choice), “bald-headed gooseneck” (his designation for any guy whom a girl he had a passing interest in might be dating), “hot dog in the mail” (an unlikelihood, as in, “that has as much chance of happening as receiving a hot dog in the mail”), “shorty hognut” (another term of derision) and “sghetti-ball meatball” (Spaghetti Warehouse, a favorite dining destination alongside Iacono's Pizza & Restaurant and any spot with a buffet, which he referred to as “eat all you wants”).
“Marty would hold court in the back of Singing Dog, and he put forth this theory where we would start to consider everything Don said as though it were coming from some divine source,” Reber said. “Anything going bad in your life, Don's got the phrase for it. ‘You lucky you get that much.' He would say that all the time and it was like, ‘Well, yeah, I guess you're right.'”
Some, such as Jenny Bell, who started the Don Bovee Fan Page on Facebook, view Bovee's passing as another blow to old Columbus. “His demise is kind of like the demise on High Street,” she said.
“He was one of the last of that old [High Street scene],” agreed Weber. “Singing Dog is gone. Used Kids [Records] is gone. They're tearing up High Street and turning it into a giant mall with a lot of mixed-used buildings. In a lot of ways, Don represented everything that, to me, was cool and unique about Columbus in that particular time period.”
And while those closest to Bovee will always remember him as a friend foremost — “He wasn't just a character who sang ‘Batman,' and the people who knew Don understand this,” Hummel said — there was an awareness that the familiar superhero theme would be the first thing most think of when stumbling onto his name in future years.
“Before, I was like, ‘Fuck. He's just going to be remembered as the Batman guy,'” Reber said. “But you know what? That's kind of cool. … Those of us who have been lucky to interact with him, and invited him to parties and invited him to our weddings, we got to know a deeper side of Don. But if all somebody knows of Don is that he loved to get up and sing ‘Batman' with every band, Jesus Christ, that's pretty awesome.”