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Live from the High Desert.
RIP Art Bell, June 17, 1945 – April 13, 2018
Today is the fifth anniversary of radio host Art Bell’s death.
To celebrate his life, I asked a handful of people to write short reflections about his impact on them. I’ll be posting one a week for the next few weeks. The first one, below, was written by my friend Harlan Dietrich, who once upon a time owned Brave New Books in Austin, Texas.
When I first moved to Texas, I spent hours and hours on the Drag—the stretch of Guadalupe across the street from UT where Brave New Books once sat—working on a screenplay called Live from the High Desert. It was, of course, about Art Bell. I’ve long given up my dream of turning it into a film, but those were some of the most precious moments of my life, moments I’ll always associate with Harlan’s store.
In West Texas, the landscape paints your senses with a limitless sense of wonder. The awe comes from the never-ending expanse, but it also comes from the profound boredom around you. A calm sea of sand, rocks, and juniper trees in every direction. I was in the desert to ride my motorcycle through the backroads of one of America’s largest national parks, Big Bend.
Before beginning the trip, I was asked by my friend Katherine Dee to write a tribute to one of our mutual targets of admiration, the radio host Art Bell. What better place to organize my thoughts and reflect on his work than in the bosom of the High Desert and the great American southwest? If you smiled while reading that, then you too remember how Bell would bid farewell five nights a week on his very popular radio show Coast To Coast AM. At its height, there were 15 million of you listening to some part of those 4-hour radio bouts late at night. Bell passed away five years ago to the day of writing this on a very appropriate Friday the 13th in April, 2018. He signed off from our world at his home in rural Nevada, finally achieving disclosure of the secrets of the unknown that fueled the speculation of his guests, callers, and the musings of the man himself.
At least, I choose to believe so.
Coast to Coast AM, like the desert it emanated from, was a dark place. The paranormal, government conspiracies and revisionist history are ideas that don’t see much light of day. It was a strange sort of religious meeting each night. A druidic gathering in the woods made up of long-haul truck drivers, midnight shifts, and insomniacs gathered to hear what our daytime normie counterparts never heard or conjured. Bell’s real talent was being able to chronicle a look into these subjects with just enough agnosticism that even an unbeliever could sit at a pew and listen.
He was the Prairie Home Companion of the underworld.
His listeners skewed male, naturally, but there were also many women callers too. When I asked a female friend I met through the revisionist bookstore I founded and ran for eleven years about what she remembered about Bell from the late ‘90s and early 2000s, she told me how he was an important father figure to her. She was right. I don’t think many of us spent 4 hours listening to our own fathers in a month, let alone a day. Mass media has a way of doing that.
We sought out belonging in a greater family because generational families were no longer there for us. Before Facebook, and before Twitter, one way those relationships were formed was through AM radio, thanks to its call-in feature. Shock jocks, political junkies, sports fanatics, everyone could find their kinsman on a certain band of frequencies. There were even many movies made in the late '90s that centered on the radio host as protagonist logline.
You’d remember, had you been there.
And like many family gatherings, there is always the strange uncle telling stories about when he saw a skinwalker appear in Utah or how the government was growing HIV viruses in corn and aliens were mutilating livestock. No? Well, that was our family, and Bell was the head of the household.
Bell and the show also spent a lot of time speculating about the night sky. And being out in the desert, I certainly could understand why. The truth is out there was a tagline to the popular show The X-Files at the time. Area 51, future weapons, interplanetary visitation, was all on the table. “Out there” the possibilities seemed endless. They also seemed hopeful.
While still counting myself in the camp of UFO believers and researchers, I still understood the appeal to shape the information into our own cosmologies, our own obsessions. Whenever there are gaps in knowledge, our subconscious tends to fill in the blanks. It’s human nature. It also doesn’t mean your conclusions are always wrong. But what was great about the show was Bell provided a place to experiment with those ideas. There wasn’t a test at the end. There were only the questions.
And looking as I did over the West Texas sky, the question was always, what could be out there?
Bell believed that disclosure was inevitable. His guests echoed the same.
You can’t mention Art Bell without discussing a great deal of skepticism even his listeners had for the man himself. Most of the chatter stemmed from his abrupt departure from the show in the late 90s to months later, returning without explanation. Many believed he was never the same. That he had had “the talk.”
The well was now tainted with a small amount of poison. And indeed it was. The show was passed to a less charismatic and cheerier figure, George Noory. Bell moved on to start another show, “Midnight in the Desert,” but it could never fully capture the dynamism of his previous decade run. Like many great musicians or filmmakers, sometimes you only have the magic in those early albums or films.
The novelty of it all was beginning to play out in popular trends.
Perhaps Bell was a victim of his own success.
His nighttime church was no longer a secret for the select. By the 2010s, drugged thru 9/11 and the Bush patriarchy, millions held some form of dissident groupthink. There were daytime services now. Punk was being played over crash tests to sell Volvos to suburban moms. There was a Coast to Coast app. It always happens the same with anything great. Popularity stands at the threshold of mediocrity. Those of us that were there to stay up late and dial in through the static-filled airways can all remember what it was like to hear an American talisman piercing the desert darkness with a torch we carry on.
Regardless of what you believe is or isn’t out there, we all can agree it’s necessary sometimes to tune out our silly world in a tiny part of a much larger universe and tune into something bigger. Bell and Coast to Coast listeners all understood this.
And we all miss the special time we spent in the High Desert listening along.
Founder of Brave New Books