Art Bell died this week.
If you don’t know who he was, well, he was probably best known as the former host of Coast to Coast, a paranormal-themed radio show broadcast back in the 1990s. There’s probably no real reason you should know who he was, and if I’m being honest, I don’t even know who he turned into. I don’t know if he was a good person in his personal life, or what he did after the 90s. As far as his Wikipedia article says, he didn’t get up to anything more controversial than a quick remarriage after the death of his wife.
But here’s what I remember of Art Bell.
I’ve always had insomnia. Like, imagine an autistic kid who didn’t know there was a name for it, who literally banged his head on his pillow to fall asleep on a regular basis (much to the concern of his parents and the annoyance of his older sister). Imagine a kid who couldn’t make his mind shut up for love or money, and whose legs have ached since forever, especially in the small hours of the morning. Sleep and this kid have never been much better than acquaintances, and that’s in the good times.
Now imagine that kid’s parents give him a small, AM radio, powered by a couple of batteries (double A’s, I think), so he can stick it under his pillow and at least not die of boredom while he’s lying in bed, awake.
The kid, you obviously know, is me.
There wasn’t a hell of a lot to listen to at night, not on AM radio in the Toronto suburbs in the 1990s. There was baseball and hockey, sure, but aside from the 92 and 93 seasons—when the Jays even attracted fans from the less-masculine among us—that didn’t mean much to me. There was a show called “Lovers and Other Strangers” that still cracks me up to this day when I remember it, mostly for the love letters they read in sultry voices and for the sheer, unironic abundance of Kenny G. Soprano saxophone that was the siren song of late-night AM radio.
And then, later at night, so late it was really more like morning, there was Coast to Coast AM.
God it was weird. They covered everything, from Bigfoot and other “cryptid” sightings, to ghosts and psychics, to alien abductions and government conspiracies. It didn’t matter if it was real. It was fantastic, in the most literal sense of the world.
Lying there in my bed, head pressed to the pillow that muffled the sounds of talk radio for everyone else in the house, I heard stories. Calling different numbers from east and west of the Rockies, I heard a parade of long-time listeners (first-time callers) sharing their personal experiences, opening the door to a whole world that existed beyond the one I knew. For a couple of exhausted hours in the time of the night that even the monsters under my bed were too tired to come out, I had a front-row seat to strange, bizarre, and sometimes dark fantasies made real.
The truth value of the things covered was essentially nil, but the truth claims held something deeper. In retrospect it’s a little bit sad. So many of the callers were people who were genuinely scared of things they didn’t understand, or who were sublimating the terrible stresses of their daily lives into a kind of performance art without even knowing it. I think many of them genuinely thought they’d been abducted, or were the target of a conspiracy, or that they’d really seen Bigfoot out of the corner of their eye while they were out in the deep forest in their early twenties, some decades ago. Many more probably knew they hadn’t seen the things they were saying, but just desperately needed someone, anyone, to take them seriously for a moment’s time. Just for thirty seconds on the end of an echoey, staticky phone line.
Art Bell did that for them.
Of course the genre isn’t what it used to be. The successors to the late-night tin-foil-hat conspiracy theory talk shows have gone from the realm of harmless cranks endlessly rewatching the Zapruder film, arguing whether it was one bullet or two, to people openly subverting the country’s faith in democracy and screaming at fever pitch that the first black president—not, of course, because he was black, never that—wasn’t a legitimate president because he was “born in Kenya.” It’s gone from people calling in at 3 in the morning to talk about that time they saw the chupacabra on their ranch to a red-faced Alex Jones wannabe ranting that the woman who would’ve been the first woman to be president—not, of course, because she was a woman, never that—was a literal tool of the Devil who had to be stopped at any cost.
And maybe Art Bell had a part to play in that history. Maybe in entertaining the minor conspiracies, the outlandish ones that never gained any real traction, he carved out a space that could be exploited later by his more malicious successors. Maybe the world would be a better place today if he hadn’t been who he was and done what he did.
But for that kid with his head to the pillow in the hours of the night that even god wasn’t awake to see, Bell’s absurd little show was a lifeline into a realm of possibility. For a couple of hours when nobody else was around, the impossible was possible, for better or worse, and every dark thing that ever haunted your dreams was out there, somewhere, waiting to be seen—or caught on camera.
Art Bell died this week. He was 72.
Featured image is of Art Bell in his recording studio, and is taken from various unattributed twitter feeds. If you know whose photo this is, let me know, as my google-fu is clearly lacking.