Art Bell: Coast to Coast AM host passes away at 72
Art Bell was one of my dearest and oldest friends. We had not spoken together for about a month before he died, but the friendship remained strong. I can recall how we first met. Through my publicist, he sent me a tape of his late night show, which was then in the process of breaking out into a national phenomenon. He had heard me on Larry King’s old late night radio show on the Mutual Network.
I don’t remember what subject was covered on the tape, but Anne and I both loved the ambience of the show, its sense of mystery and excitement, and Art’s voice. I agreed to be a guest, which was the beginning of a long association with the show and a deep friendship between me, Art, his first wife Ramona and my wife Anne.
The show was breaking new ground in a fundamental way. In those days before the internet, all public forae were carefully curated so that anything said on them would either conform to generally agreed notions of reality or be ridiculed. I’d ended up becoming a laughingstock for claiming that I’d had a close encounter of the third kind, and was routinely exposed in the media as a fool, essentially for having told the truth as I saw it. But Art had a different approach. He was more a listener than a talker by nature, and he had a very open mind. It wasn’t that he would believe anything, but rather that he wouldn’t disbelieve things simply because they violated consensus reality.
So I found a home on Coast-to-Coast AM–along with hundreds of others considered by the broader community to fall outside the consensus. This made for a wild–and wildly entertaining–radio program. But it was also a pioneering format. Instead of demanding that any and all claims stick to accepted norms, Art’s show was saying, ‘let’s not believe or disbelieve, but rather let’s keep an open mind.’
His listeners understood this. They understood that the show was not there to propagandize them into believing every wild claim that was made on it, but rather to allow them to entertain ideas that were generally rejected, scorned, derided and condemned. Not to believe them, but to explore them in the same way that Art did.
I found his skillful neutrality bracing and exciting and loved being on the show. I could at last tell my story as I had lived it in all its ambiguity and with all its contradictions. The listeners weren’t for the most part believing or disbelieving my claims, but they were hearing and responding to my sincerity and that was enormously reassuring to a man who was otherwise being laughed at by millions.
A personal friendship developed as well. Anne and I would drive up to Pahrump and spend weekends with Art and Ramona. Sometimes Art and I would do the show together in his studio. Mostly, though, the four of us talked and talked about life and just enjoyed one another. They took us to the spot where they’d seen a silver triangle heading toward Area 51, and we explored the mountains west of town together. It was, in short, a comfortable friendship and a very pleasant one.
At about that same time, Anne and I had run into financial trouble. We lost our home in upstate New York and ended up living in Texas with literally almost no money and a son in an expensive school. We sometimes had to choose between buying food and paying tuition. It was that stark.
Art was a generous man, and he suggested that I make a video of one of my meditations to sell on his show. I did this, and he sold it every night for weeks, asking for nothing in return except the satisfaction of knowing that he had helped his friend. Then, in 1998, I had the encounter with the Master of the Key, which set me on a journey of search through the scientific literature to see if any of the claims I remembered him making had any support.
To my surprise, I found that the collapse of the Gulf Stream that he predicted and the great storms that would accompany it were suggested in the climate record from the end of the last ice age. Art was fascinated and we ended up writing “Superstorm” together. When it came out, we were openly scorned by Matt Lauer on the Today show, and when Roland Emmerich’s film based on it, “The Day After Tomorrow” appeared, the criticism became strident. Both left and right agreed: we were way off base. Our claims were nonsense.
I am very glad that Art lived to see “Ice Melt, Sea Rise and Superstorms” by leading climate expert James Hansen and 18 distinguished colleagues. Although they could never mention our work, their paper does support the idea that superstorms have happened in the past and describes the circumstances under which they could happen again. We both felt vindicated, and I was once again left wondering who in the world the Master of the Key was.
Art Bell was a pioneer of the open mind. He was a fine man with a generous heart and a great capacity for friendship. When Ramona died, he called me from their RV in tears. He’d waked up and found her. He was contemplating suicide. Anne and I rushed to Pahrump and spent some time with him. We ended up missing Mona’s funeral but spent a good deal of time with him trying to convince him not to follow her. Then, just a short time later, he told us that he’d met a new woman–a lovely young Filipina–on the internet! We cautioned him that he might be moving too quickly, but Art was a man who knew people and who knew his own heart, and his marriage to Erin has produced two children, a beautiful young girl and now also a baby boy.
There was a lot of love in that family and now there must be a lot of grief. But as my wife Anne has said, “grief is another form of love.” When she died, I called Art in tears just as he had called me in tears when Mona passed. Just as he had been, I was contemplating suicide. And just as I had, he told me, “Whit, you don’t want to go where you’re not wanted. Live your life. Annie won’t leave you behind.”
But they do leave us behind, those of us who must continue on this path after the stars of our lives have gone. Erin and the kids must travel this path that he traveled and that I am traveling. Sometimes I think of people as being like little drops of dew sparkling in the morning sun and so soon gone, risen into the morning.
Art was a good man and a dear friend. He joins Mona and Anne in the land of light. Fare you well, Brother!