Just in case you’ve never had trouble sleeping or been lost in the country at night, Art Bell is the sound radios make. And he’s back on the air. To those of us on the perpetual graveyard shift, this is an historical event on the order of Johnny Carson returning to the Tonight Show in 1997.
What’s even more shocking is that he’s back on the air full time. He was a ghost on his own show for many years, popping up occasionally for special episodes and weekend hosting duties, until finally he was gone outright. Then he migrated to Sirius/XM, but left after just six weeks, back to silence. It’s not like it was inexcusable. He was 68. He didn’t need a reason. But it’s 2015 and he’s 70 now and the poet laureate of the paranormal is out of retirement.
If you reduce Art Bell to a list of keywords – conspiracy theories, UFOs, ham radio operators with sleep disorders – then you will not grasp the depth of his significance. Nobody does what he does. Not even his replacement host on his own show, George Noory, does what he does. (The most popular thread on an Art Bell fan forum is titled “George Noory Sucks!” and it’s 2,311 pages long and has been clicked on nearly five million times.)
Here’s what he does. You know when you’re driving at night, and your environment is so devoid of stimuli that every faraway thing becomes vaguely fascinating? When you’re in the middle of nowhere and you see a grain silo and force yourself to get interested in it? You start to wonder how long it’s been there and who put it there. You wonder if a crime was ever committed there or if anyone ever got good news there. Stare long enough and you ascribe mythic powers to that grain silo just because it’s so far away and you know so little about it.
In “Why Distant Objects Please” – and yes, this is pretentious, but nobody got around to saying it better – William Hazlitt figured out how this thought process works: “Whatever is placed beyond the reach of sense and knowledge, whatever is imperfectly discerned, the fancy pieces out at its leisure.” That’s where Art Bell always is. He talks about the far away things, the edge of sense, the itches we can’t scratch.
He reckons with our late night fears, those sounds we couldn’t explain when we went camping, those lights we saw between the clouds on some November night and never saw again, those phantom creaks in the floorboards. All the little midnight things that isolate us and make us burrow into our own heads, he engages them. He reminds us of the limits to our daylight comprehension.
Sometimes this is entertaining as hell, like when a stunt caller uses the platform for live theater or when somebody’s drunk and stumbling to describe the Routine Midwest UFO Sighting. But it doesn’t need to be entertaining as hell to work. The ambience alone is enough. Art Bell says sentences you can’t hear anywhere else. He’s in the seat next to you when you pass that grain silo, he’s perfectly lucid, and he’ll ask, calm as a neurologist, “if you had access to the Ark of the Covenant, would you hesitate to open it?” and boy is that a relief. Other people think things like that, and they think them in public.
But the beautiful thing is that when you pass a certain hour, when you pass the point of no return on a good night’s sleep and you’re in a waking dream on the highway or in your bed with the wind blowing, all that paranormal stuff becomes true. Aliens exist once you imagine rural New Mexico and Bigfoot exists once you imagine enough redwoods. This is where Art Bell’s performance power lies. Once he has control of the mood, he becomes the Leonard Cohen of absurd bullshit. He can make any insane thing sound important through his deliberate, hushed phrasing and comfort with dead air.
I have a thousand memories of listening to him on long drives. The search to find a station that carried him when I was between towns, and how I’d leave the station on long after it had disappeared into static. The things I’d think I saw in the winter when the fog rolled in. A few stand out. One stands out better.
I had just finished my final exams in college. This meant I had been awake for almost three days. I had to pack up and get out of town, and I made the huge mistake to leave right away rather than sleep for a week and wake up unsure of my own name. I guzzled a pot of cold coffee and got on the highway at midnight. I turned on Art Bell. He was talking with some guest about UFO sightings. It was just me and the truckers on the road, and I was using the truckers for guidance to check my speed – poor man’s cruise control – and I didn’t understand any of the words coming out of the radio. I just heard the static and the ambience. Area 51, static. Visitors, static. Blue light, static. Vanished, static.
After an hour of this, I started hallucinating. The trucks reorganized themselves into saucer shapes in the sky. Their speed and distance became impossible to ascertain. They inflated like balloons and darted around like pinballs. I kept driving because I was able to talk myself out of what I was seeing. Then I passed the truck scales, and as my madness ate my willpower, all the stopped trucks became a table, and all the moving ones became a hammer pounding nails in it. I put on my hazard lights, pulled to the side of the road, staggered out of the truck, jumped around to make sure I wasn’t dead, and Art Bell was still droning on dispassionately in the distance. He had engineered my hallucination, or at least given it shape, through sheer power of suggestion. Other performers have gotten in my nightmares, but none beside Art Bell have gotten in my hallucinations.
Of course, I don’t believe in a single paranormal thing. But I believe in scraping the outskirts of awareness, and I believe in indulging uncertainty for its own sake. And I believe it can be done without being, like virtually every figure in the racket who followed in Art Bell’s footsteps, stupid or patronizing or a used car salesman. Oh, and how’s his new show? Don’t worry. He’s still got the Giorgio Moroder theme. It’s the old show.