Updated: Feb 4, 2021
I’d been hearing about Bat Masters for more than three months by the time I attended his virtual comeback concert. The pandemic was in full swing by then, so more and more musicians were finding their way into Second Life. There, represented as avatars, they could host live shows, build international audiences, and collaborate with other musicians.
Bat, however, was what Second Life audiences refer to as an old timer. He first started performing in Second Life in 2011 and was well-known for his musical versatility and self-deprecating humor. To quote Bat at the start of one of his shows, “I enjoy getting up in front of people and making a fool of myself. It’s kind of a trademark of mine.”
The show was scheduled for 6:00PM pacific standard time on a Saturday night. By this point, I’d done a little research. Though I still had no idea why it was being called a “comeback,” I’d learned three interesting things. First, Bat was much more than “…just an old man with a guitar playing tunes and singing a bit,” as his bio claimed. The name Bat, for example, had nothing to do with furry critters with wings. It was an acronym for Burton Alfred Tienken, Jr., the name given to him at birth.
Second, Burt was universally liked and respected for being “funny as hell,” and “a hell of a musician.” Edward Lowell, who regularly performs with Burt, said, “He’s a loyal friend, musically talented, and very generous with his time and knowledge. Burt’s like a brother to me.” The most intriguing description, however, came from Beth Odets-Brown, a violinist who’s been playing with Burt for more than ten years. “Burt is the best human being I know,” she said. “When I had surgery to remove a brain tumor, and was dealing with all kinds of financial and physical challenges, he was there for me. He raised money; stayed on the phone with me all night when I couldn’t sleep; and threw me a “benign tumor” party when we learned the tumor wasn’t cancerous. He even wrote a song about the whole experience!”
The third piece of the Burt/Bat puzzle was harder to nail down. Each person I spoke with mentioned health challenges, though none were willing to say exactly what they were. So it was with curiosity and trepidation that I arrived at the venue where Bat was scheduled to play.
The avatar who took the stage that night was tall, slender, and nattily dressed in a dark blue blazer, crisp white shirt, and a black fedora. A vintage Gibson Hummingbird guitar with mother-of-pearl inlays was slung across his chest, and round spectacles, reminiscent of John Denver, completed the look. If first impressions were anything to go by, I liked his style.
Bat was followed onto the stage by three other musicians — a fiddler, a pianist, and a mandolin player. There was a brief pause as everyone set up and tuned their instruments, then Bat began the show by addressing the question on everyone’s mind. “Well, I suppose y’all heard by now that I died,” he said, sounding slightly amused. “Well it’s true. My heart stopped while they were prepping me for surgery, but as you can see they brought me back. The only thing I regret is that I didn’t have an out of body experience — no tunnel, no white light, no nothin. I feel cheated.”
Amidst laughter and cheers Bat and his band went on to play a lively set of country, rock, and what I learned was his signature brand of rap — making up lyrics and adding commentary as he played. It was hilarious and the audience loved it — clapping, stomping their feet, and singing along. The only other mention of physical issues came when Burt stopped playing in the middle of a song and apologized to his band. “I’m sorry guys. My left hand won’t do that one tonight.”
After the show, I sat down with Burt to hear the story of his life — where he was born, how he was raised, and the role music has played in his life. Though he’d been playing guitar since the age of 12, Burt never dreamed of a career in music. It wasn’t until he’d served in the Air Force and moved to Sugartit Kentucky (yes it’s a real place) — where he met, married, and had two kids with his wife Jodi — that music became important.
In Kentucky, Burt joined his church choir and began playing both acoustic and bass guitar in a local band called, “Masters of Leisure.” “That’s when I started fine tuning my taste in music,” said Burt. “I realized that I didn’t really care whether a song was country, rock, or rap. What mattered was how people felt when they heard me perform it. I wanted them to feel like they were sitting on my front porch with me, singing along. I wanted them to have a good time and leave happy.”
Going Virtual In 2011, a friend suggested he check out the music scene in the virtual world of Second Life. There he discovered a close knit and active community of musicians with whom he had an instant bond. “I started getting to know these folks by listening to their music. It didn’t matter that they were avatars. Their music transcended virtual reality. I made good friends and started playing with them regularly.”
The one thing that Burt found pleasantly surprising about virtual reality was fashion. He took the time to make his avatar, Bat Masters, look and dress in a way that reflected his personality and taste. “I spent some time developing my style,” he said. “The clothes, the beard, the glasses are all part of my look. But the thing I’m known for is my hats. I love hats,” he said with a grin. “Most of the money I make playing in Second Life goes to buying new ones and adding to my collection.”
The Wake up Call In addition to performing in Second Life, Burt started attending Second Life music jams. These were real- world gatherings where musicians from Second Life and their friends got together to jam with one another. It was at one of these jams in 2016 that Burt’s left leg started to drag. Concerned he might have had a stroke he went for tests and discovered he had a motor neuron disorder called, Primary Lateral Sclerosis (PLS). PLS causes weakness in voluntary muscles, such as those used to control the legs, but in most cases isn’t fatal.
The PLS diagnosis was both shocking and humbling. “People started sending me cards and showing up to help. They raised money, got me a chair lift, helped me set up my “Bat Cave” in the basement, and let me know I was not alone.”
Being forced to slow down as his mobility decreased further strengthened Burt’s ties to the Second Life music community and gave him time to write some songs. “I’m not very prolific,” Burt explained, “and I tend to write about things that happen in my life, but I did have some songs rattling around in my head that I wanted to get down.”
I’m Still Standing
Then on July 16, 2020 the unimaginable happened. At 3:00 am a small tumor in Burt’s colon ruptured, sending what he described as “fire” shooting through his guts. Burt’s wife called 911 and he was rushed to the emergency room. There it was determined that his colon was perforated. To avoid peritonitis, the medical staff immediately started prepping him for surgery, only to have his heart stop.
“They tell me they had to zap me several times to bring me back. Fortunately, I don’t remember any of it.” Burt’s medical team put him on a heart pump and a respirator for two days. Once he was stable, they dealt with his blocked arteries, took out his appendix, and repaired his colon. “I woke up to find my hands strapped down and the sound of the ventilator breathing for me.”
Once he was off the ventilator, Burt’s doctors broke the news that the tumor in his colon was cancerous and he would need chemotherapy. “This whole experience has really changed how I approach life,” Burt said. “I started calling my friends and making sure to show up at their shows in Second Life. I realized that music is not about money or fame or perfection. It’s about connection. If I can get people to feel, to have a good time, that’s all I care about.”
As of the writing of this piece, Burt just finished his seventh round of chemo and it seems to be working. He still performs three or four times a week in Second Life and is collaborating on backtracks that will allow him to perform once his PLS progresses. “Motor neuron disease is not for the weak of heart,” he said, “but I’m still standing and I’ll keep playing as long as people are willing to put up with my raggedy ass.”
Burt will be playing live in Second Life on Thursday, February 4, 2021 at 6:00PM pacific standard time. For more information, contact Jena Ball: Jena@BraidedLives.com
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