Somewhere in Time: A Tribute to Art Bell
This blog would not exist had it not been for Art Bell. And, if you have a website, blog, podcast or YouTube channel devoted to the paranormal, psychic phenomena, UFOs, conspiracy theory or cryptozoology, there's a pretty good chance that your digital footprint, like mine, falls inside a much larger footprint first laid by Mr. Bell in 1984.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that nobody can ever fill Art's shoes.
From the earliest days of my youth I have been a fan of AM radio. For as long and I can remember, I have always needed some kind of noise to help me sleep. Each and every night I fell asleep to the radio, tuned in to some AM station from an exotic faraway place, like Toledo. Sometimes I could even pull in Sandusky, if the skies were clear and the moon was just right. I especially liked that Sandusky station because in the wee hours of night they would replay old variety shows from the Golden Age of Radio, with performers like Jimmy Durante, Judy Garland, Milton Berle and Kate Smith. The announcer would mention how many of the stars got their start in vaudeville, which, in my adolescent mind, seemed to be a crazy little town somewhere on the banks of the Ohio River. Even back then, when I listened to the old-time comics and song-and-dance masters, I wondered how much of the audience's laughter was coming from people who were now dead and buried. I guess I was a tad bit morbid as a child. Some people fell asleep to music; I fell asleep to the laughter of ghosts.
Then, one day, my beloved radio broke and was replaced by an inferior model with terrible AM reception. I believe I was in eight grade at the time, because my new radio was actually an old boombox that my older brother left behind after he turned 18 and moved away. After cleaning up the dusty boombox and removing six miles of chewed-up magnetic tape from a Def Leppard cassette that was wrapped around the innards of the cassette player, the boombox was ready to go. Much to my disappointment, I could only pull in three stations, and each station had the same deep-voiced guy who had a fondness for using Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood's "Some Velvet Morning" as bumper music. Usually by the time they got to the part where they were singing about dragonflies and daffodils, I'd switch over to FM and listen to the Dr. Demento Show instead.
But then, one day, they took off the good doctor's show and, having no more Stan Freberg and Ogden Edsl ditties to listen to, I gave Coast to Coast AM a chance. And from that night forward, I was an addict.
Actually, I was more than an addict; I was like an apostle, talking about the show to all of my friends and getting them to tune in. Of course, since I was the only high school freshman with insomnia and bags under his eyes, I'm not sure how many of my friends ever became converts. But, as for me, I listened religiously.
After high school I moved to upstate New York, which was an eight hour drive from my hometown in the coal region of Pennsylvania. I had a 1992 Pontiac Firebird at the time, cherry red, which was a great car for getting laid as a teenager, but a horrible car for moving. So it took me several back and forth trips between Pennsylvania and New York to get all of my belongings moved. And when I mean upstate New York, I don't mean Binghamton or Elmira. I moved to Massena, which is right across the St. Lawrence from Cornwall, Ontario. It is impossible to go any further upstate than Massena. I lived so close to Canada that the smell of poutine and maple syrup carried across the river if the breeze was just right.
Anyway, Art Bell was my co-pilot on every one of these eight-hour trips. And if you've ever made that witching hour drive through upstate New York along Route 11, through that vast, forlorn, interminable stretch of nothingness from Fort Drum to DeKalb Junction, where your nearest neighbor is still a long-distance phone call away and the gnarled, ancient trees look like the dead rising from their graves, you know how spooky it can be. And, as luck would have it, that's where Coast to Coast AM came in at its loudest and clearest (I'm no expert on radio, but I think it has something to do with the lack of hills and mountains, or maybe just the general lack of humans).
There were many times while driving and listening to Art when I had to make a conscientious effort not to look in my rearview mirror, lest I see a demon in the backseat grinning at me. And there were times I refused to slacken my pace, lest I get abducted by aliens (believe me, most of St. Lawrence County looks like prime alien abduction territory) or ambushed by Sasquatch, or possibly even stalked by a chupacabra. Many, many miles were driven with the hairs of the back of my neck standing on end. And I absolutely loved each and every second of it.
It was during one of these lonesome drives when the famous episode about Mel's Hole first aired. Art's guest, Mel Waters, claimed to have a bottomless pit on his property in Washington State. Not only was the hole bottomless, but it was apparently miraculous-- dead animals lowered into it would come back to life. Mel's Hole became something of an urban legend (actually, I guess it was more of a rural legend, considering its locale), and several follow-up shows were devoted to Mel and his marvelous, mysterious hole-- which nobody ever got to the bottom of (sorry, couldn't resist).
I believe this episode to be the definitive Coast to Coast AM episode, in the same way that the "Job Switching" episode, in which Lucy and Ethel take jobs in a chocolate factory, is the definitive episode of I Love Lucy, or how the "Festivus" episode of Seinfeld is considered by many to be the definitive Seinfeld episode. Not the necessarily the "best", mind you-- just the one that's quintessential, the one that captures, bottles, and corks the very essence of the show, sealing it in time for future generations to savor like a fine wine. And I always shine a little on the inside when I hear somebody talk about Mel's Hole because I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I listened to it, all those years ago.
I moved back to Pennsylvania in the spring of 2000, right when Mike Siegel had taken over hosting duties. Even though Siegel's style was different, I thought he was an exceptional host and it was bittersweet to see him go when Art returned. There have been several guest hosts of Coast to Coast AM, but I fervently believe that Siegel was the best of Art's pinch hitters, and it's a shame he never got the credit he deserved, and a bigger shame that he got much of the blame when the show's ratings began to decline. Many people don't know this, but, out of all the guest hosts, Siegel was Art Bell's handpicked first choice to take over as his full-time replacement.
In 2003 I purchased a vintage 1970s Realistik stereo receiver at a yard sale because of its phenomenal AM reception, and tuned into the show on Harrisburg's WHP-580 regularly (which I still do). It was around this time George Noory became the full-time host. Now, I've got nothing against Noory (in fact, he saw it fitting to feature Journal of the Bizarre not once, but twice, on the Coast to Coast AM website), and even though he has done an exceptional job, it's just not the same. It's kind of like going back to your hometown and finding that a new owner has taken over your favorite pizza joint, and even though the name on the sign is the same and the pizza is still good, it's not exactly the same as it was, like maybe they switched to a different brand of flour or started putting more oregano in the sauce. It's still delicious... just different.
Art Bell passed away, perhaps fittingly, on Friday the 13th at his home in Pahrump, Nevada, at the age of 72. He was inducted into the Nevada Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame in 2006, the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2008, and he once held a Guinness World Record for continuous on-air broadcasting-- a career he had been honing and perfecting since the age of 13. As I sit here reflecting upon his death, I'm struggling to find the reason why he possessed some sort of quality that George Noory lacks, or, in other words, what secret ingredient he put in the pizza sauce.
Maybe it was his insatiable, almost childlike, curiosity of the unknown-- the vague yet perceptible timbre in his voice that let us know that he really, truly, deeply, passionately wanted to know the answers to mankind's great mysteries. What happens after we die? Are we alone in this universe? Is it possible to communicate with loved ones who have crossed over to the other side? Sure, most of us think about these things from time to time, but Art was desperate to find out, even if it meant patiently listening to the rambling theories of some crackpot caller. Art was the type of guy who would willingly crack open a million oysters just to find a pearl; he would entertain all points of view and explanations, no matter how bizarre or off-the-wall they sounded.
You could just tell that his soul would never rest until he stumbled upon the answers to mankind's most pressing questions.
And know he finally has.
Godspeed, Mr. Bell, and thank you for being my co-pilot on the dark highways, and my partner in insomnia.