Michael Phillips, The Airstream Chronicles - Last Gasp of the Tin Man?

Last Gasp of the Tin Man?

The call came as a surprise, but I suppose, deep down, I had expected it for a while now. It had been 2 years, 2 months and 22 days since I'd last seen or spoken to him, but it was Arty. He was completely wound up, talking the same crap I remembered from my years in the Airstream trailer, out behind his double-wide trailer in the god-forsaken Nevada desert.

"Who the hell is this? It's 4:30 in the morning?"

"MJB! MJB, it's me, Art Bell. I have some very important news. I am ready to make my triumphant return to broadcasting. I am ready to resume my rightful place on the Coast to Coast radio throne!"

"What? You're calling from the throne? Who is this?"

"Damn you MJB, it's me! Art Bell! Snap-to you son of a bitch, we have work to do!" Bell went on to describe some sort of pyramid scheme/time-share deal, but he had obviously been drinking and his words were little more than a long string of unintelligible profanity punctuated by the occasional deep belch of kimchi, bottom shelf vodka and severe acid reflux. I must have fallen asleep with the phone near my ear, because I woke up shortly after dawn only to hear Bell still spilling out his obscene monologue. "I can't tell you anymore on this unsecure land line! Come out to the house this afternoon and I can fill you in."

"Whoa, wait a minute, Arty, I'm not coming back to Nevada. You must be higher than usual."

"There you go again, conspiracies and lies. Damn you MJB, I thought I could expect more from you after our hiatus! I thought we would come back tanned, rested and ready! Everything is in place. The code has been broken. I have loosed the seventh seal!"

I hung up, unplugged the phone and went back to sleep.

About 8:15 that evening Bell roared up to my luxurious oceanfront digs quite unexpectedly, and came to a noisy, smokey, unpleasant stop right outside. This was shocking and unsettling, as I didn't remember telling him where I was living, and I could see as he stumbled out of the battered, wheezing Geo Metro that he still hadn't slept. He looked like a man who had been adrift at sea for a year or two. Filthy, stinking, unshaven, covered in unidentifiable debris, barefoot and ranting - just like I remembered him.

"MJB! Thank god I found you! Quick, into the Metro, we've got to get back to the control room!"

"Arty, calm down. What the hell is this? How did you find me?"

"GPS, FBI, STD - I can't tell you how I found you, don't you see? You want it to get back to me? You want the trilateral to lock in on me and finish the job? It's not enough that the Vatican stripped me of my radio show, my ham radios and my family, now you want to give them the keys to my liver!"

Bell collapsed and, reluctantly, I dragged him into the house.

Three days later he regained consciousness and began to tell me the horrible story that was his life since leaving radio.

"It started innocently enough. Mornings, hung over in bed until 3 or 4, just like when I was working. Evenings spent savoring the high desert Hungry Man cuisine, fine liqueurs and malted scotches and what not, fellowship with my lovely Ramona, and then long nights on the ham rig, chatting up Russian women and Iowa farm boys. I tell you MJB, it was a retirement Merv Griffin would have envied."

"What happened to you man," I asked, "You seem to have had another meltdown."

"Yes, that's it! A meltdown! Sweet lord, my life fell apart like a C. Crane radio! I don't know where to begin...it's all so horrible...I still can't discuss it."

"Okay, well maybe it would be best if you headed home then, eh Arty? Hit the road and when you're feeling better..."

"It was the night of my final broadcast," he interrupted, "And I had no idea what I was going to talk about..."

It was then that I resigned myself to hearing the whole ugly story. Arty has no concept of normal human interaction, and does not understand subtle, or not-so-subtle, cues that it is time to get up and leave. He had driven almost 300 miles for some inexplicable reason known only to him, and I knew from experience that there was no way to shut off the spigot. I poured four fingers of Glenlivet, sat back and let Bell's tawdry and disgusting story unfold.

* * *

THE AFTERMATH

"It was only through the medicinal use of Phenobarbital and three gallons of anti-freeze strained through rye bread that I was able to make it through the last show without breaking down like a babbling, incoherent baby." I didn't tell Arty that I had heard his final sign-off, and that he was incoherent, which was normal, and babbling, also normal. "During every commercial break Ramona had to come in and cradle me in her bosom, wiping my tears with her long Crystal Gayle-like mane of silky black hair. I couldn't stop shaking, and my nose was running uncontrollably. And do you know why?"

"No Arty, why?"

"Not because I was leaving - no, I was happy to be leaving. It was because of the way I'd been pushed out of my own show!"

"Pushed out? What the hell are you talking about?"

"If you'd shut up for a minute I could tell you!" he barked. "And what is that you're drinking? I want some!"

Unfortunately I had no idea that a hillbilly would be visiting, so all I had in the house was good stuff. I dribbled a bit of Glenlivet into a glass.

"Hey, keep going...you pour too slow!" he gulped it down as if it were the Safeway brand he was used to. "Holy sweet Jesus and David Duchovney! what the hell is this MJB? It tastes like...liquid fire or something!"

"It's for sipping, Arty. See," I demonstrated how to drink a small portion of the contents of a glass without simply upending it all directly into the gullet, "like this."

"Ah, well, shit man, that looks a little fruity to me, but I'll give it a try." I refilled his glass and he took a large clumsy swig. "Ahhheee! That's sweet as mother's milk! Where was I?"

"You were pushed out of your show..."

"Right! And I was! You know we had that legal thingy going with Art Bell Jr. and his man-friend, and I had almost forgotten about that when the higher-ups at CBC called me one day to suggest a "vacation." A vacation! You know when they say vacation they are really saying, 'We're getting rid of you'!"

"Maybe they really felt you needed some time away to deal with your son's problems."

"Bullshit. Art Jr. Was fine. Sure, he was missing some school, and staying in his room with the door locked for days at a time, but what young boy doesn't do that? I saw their move for what it was: opportunism. The Rockefellers and the Vatican finally had an excuse to have the plug pulled on my show, and they were using it. I could feel it in my...the bony part, that goes up your back?"

"Your spine?"

"Yes! I could feel it in my spine. Those cocksuckers thought they could nail me to a cross and forget about me, like that guy in the story, but I had other ideas. So I got off the phone with CBC and started making calls. I had retained the services of a crack legal team over at the Pahrump mall, so I called them immediately and they promised to check into the matter and see what they could find. They called me back a couple of hours later and said they couldn't find the phone number for the CBC, so they were advising me to just go along with whatever CBC told me to do."

"Come on Arty, that's ridiculous."

"One man's ridiculosity is another man's altitude! I tell you, the trilateral commission had gotten to my lawyers before I could and turned them against me! I have a twelfth-generation dub of a cassette tape, provided to me by Linda Moulton Howe, that contains a muffled conversation which could possibly be the pope himself ordering a hit on myself, Mickey Rourke and Shannen Dougherty! And, a-HA! I have also done a reversal on the tape, and you can make out, quite clearly, the voice of Tipper Gore, and she's laughing, saying over and over that she's going to put a prenatal advisory on my show and take it off the air in many major markets!"

Bell flopped back on the couch and stared glumly at the ceiling for a moment, then suddenly thrust out his glass, said 'pour,' and continued.

"Ahhhhh, but that's only the tip of the eyesore, my friend. I called in all the heavy hitters at my disposal, Hoagland, Scallion, Dames - none of them could find out a thing. The only reports I ever got back from any of them were so full of made up words like 'byzantine' and 'thermonuclear' that I couldn't even take them seriously. Eventually I accepted the fact that sinister forces and peculiar points of view were at work behind the scenes, and it was either the show or my life. I chose life, thank god...I chose life..."

"Um, Arty, it's getting late. What's the point?"

Bell jerked his head to one side, then the other, stood up slowly and started doing what can only be described as a quasi-raindance around my living room. He paused, squatted, looked around, then leapt toward me. I turned to one side and he sailed right past me like a supercharged WWII zeppelin and belly flopped onto the hardwood floor. He hadn't let go of his glass during the outburst however, and he promptly held it up and panted, "Pour."

"After that last show, Ramona left me again, the bank foreclosed on the double-wide, and I had to move back home with my mother and her new husband, Pierre something or other. He worked for Cirque Du Soleil as a cable puller and handkerchief juggler. He used to tease me relentlessly about my scotch-tape-repaired aviator style eyeglasses and incapacitating incontinence. One day I blew up and gave him a piece of my mind. I must have yelled at him for five minutes. Most of that time he was mowing the lawn and may not have been able to hear me, but I'm pretty sure he heard at least some of it. He didn't leave, as I had hoped, but after the tongue lashing I gave him, I sensed a good 10 to 15% decrease in his ridicule. I guess I showed him who was boss! Anyhow, after six months in mom's trailer I was getting antsy, itchy and twitchy and I had to break free and find out what was next for me. That's when I hatched the plan that is going to make us both very rich men."

"Yeah, well, I've been meaning to tell you Arty, I don't really need a job. It was only by chance and horrible dark circumstance that I ever stumbled across your compound in the first place. I don't have any intention of going back there with you to work on any plan, scheme or system. Frankly, just hearing about it makes me queasy. It's been more than two years since I escaped Nevada, Arty. Let's let sleeping dogs lie."

Bell got up from the floor, where he'd been since his aborted attack, dusted himself off and turned toward the door. When his hand was halfway to the knob he paused for a moment, then suddenly spun around and blurted, "I know when I'm not wanted! You bastard! You tried to poison me with your weird imported beverages! I'll have your head on a stick, you communist pig fucker! But before I go..." He held up his glass and raised his eyebrows.

* * *

THE PLAN

"This is how I see it: the multi-nationals and cabal of wealthy industrialists and stock market trader guys who had me ousted are not aware of one crucial fact."

"Wait a minute, I thought it was the trilateral commission, the pope and Tipper Gore who had you sacked?"

"Damn you MJB, you never know when to shut up! Now listen, if you can, because this is the important stuff! What they don't know about Art Bell is that Art Bell always has a plan. Art Bell is never unprepared or nonready. He's never not ready or unready to do something when there's something that needs to be done!"

I could tell the whiskey was kicking in. Bell's brain was unaccustomed to the high-quality hooch, and it was firing on cylinders it didn't even know it had. When he encountered good booze, Bell always reacted the same way - like a cat injected with a speedball. Granted, not much different from his normal state, but just odd enough to be amusing.

"Okay, now, this is the plan. You with me? You listening?"

"Sure Arty, go ahead."

"All right. First, we start a word of mouth campaign on the intranet. Like they did with that witch movie documentary. Then, second, we place small ads in newspapers around the country. Classified ads, that say, 'HAVE YOU SEEN ART BELL???' You follow? Then, this is the third step, and this is the crucial step - we get into the studio and get me back on the air! It's brilliant, don't you think?"

"Well...now, the main stumbling block would seem to be that your 'studio' doesn't exist anymore. Didn't the bank take the double-wide and auction it off?"

"Yes they did! I've been living at the Top Hat Club Motel ever since the first bank of Pahrump illegally seized my home and sold it at an auction in Las Vegas for $639. Then, to add insult to perjury, they had the nerve to come after me for the twenty grand I still owed on the loan! Can you believe that MJB? Can you?"

"Well..."

"That was so obviously another arm, or tentacle if you will, of the octopus of hate and jealousy that entangled my life! You should have seen the buzzards circling over the carcass of my empire! It was insipid!"

"Insipid?"

"Yes! Do you know that when Ramona left she took the Tandy studio equipment, the good boom box - the one from the living room - and every fork and knife I owned? Imagine that! Can you? Can you even begin to?"

"Well..."

"I was in Reno for a book signing with Whitley Strieber, and when I came back, there was nothing left on the property but an old zinc washtub. And even that had rusted clean through. If it wasn't nailed down, neighbors came and carted it away! MJB, they even took the Airstream!"

"The Airstream?"

"Yes! I could see it over on Bob McCullum's property, and when I told him I wanted it back, he said, 'What Airstream?' I said, 'That one there. See that shiny thing next to your go-cart track?' and he just kept saying, 'What Airstream?' until I couldn't take it anymore and threw a fistful of prime Pahrump dirt right into his face. Well, I aimed for his face, but most of the dirt spread out and flew over his shoulder, but he got my message and high-tailed it off of my property. Well, the first bank of Pahrump's property."

"Arty, I don't get it - if everything is gone, even the Airstream...where do you intend to make this comeback of yours?"

"That's the beauty of the deal, man! That's the genius of the plan, don't you see?"

"Uh, no."

"We stage the coup on the intranet! We take back the reigns of Coast to Coast AM on the world wide intranet!"

"Jesus, I don't think..."

"I'm not paying you to think, MJB!"

"You're not paying me at all. You never did."

"Again, not the point! Listen," he said, leaning toward me, "them bank and government boys didn't get everything..."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean I have the key to a certain storage shed in a certain mini-storage facility in a certain desert town where a certain number of boxes containing futuristic technology are stored just waiting for a moment such as this to be torn from their slumber and thrust into action! Pour."

I filled Bell's glass again.

"Listen, it all comes together in such a fiendish way it almost makes my blood coil!"

"Boil."

"Right. Listen, we place the classified ads, start up the intranet thingy, then, when my adoring public responds, we begin the final phase. We begin shipping the back stock of C. Crane videophones to the fans! You see? Everyone who replies to the ad gets one of those computer cords..."

"Cards."

"Right - to put into their computers. Then on the secret date at the secret time we pull the switch and blam! Art Bell is back, baby!"

Bell sat back and smiled. It was an awkward and even, dare I say, painful moment. I didn't know where to begin poking holes in his plan. There were so many flaws that it seemed pointless to dwell on any one. But I had to start somewhere.

"How do you intend to get a site up and running and get people to find it in time for this historic event?"

"Shit, that's the easy part! I'll just call up Rowland. That cocksucker still owes me big time!"

Kenneth Keith Rowland was Bell's "webmaster" and lap dog during the heyday of the show. He pieced together an embarrassingly awful site and populated it with the rubbish and debris that fell from Bell's show. There was even a camera in the studio that sent pictures of Arty picking his nose out to the world. There were rumors that Rowland's love of Bell crossed over into unnatural territory, but those rumors were never verified. To get an idea of the Rowland/Bell relationship, just think of Smithers and Mr. Burns from The Simpsons.

"You think he'll do it?"

"He'd better! I gave him exclusive coordinates to lock into the CBC broadcast satellite in order to river the show live on the intranet. I gave him fame, man! I put him on the air with me! Think he doesn't owe me? He does...he does."

"Okay, well, assuming Rowland does handle the site, there are other problems. Shipping those videophone cards out is going to be expensive."

"You have a visa card, I know you do! Come on, we hit mailboxes etc. once a day, put it on the card...when I'm back on top, I'll pay you back every dime! You know I will!"

"Um hm. Arty, listen, this plan - people having to respond to tiny classified ads in order to receive outmoded electronics that will only work in old computers - when they work at all - and even then, they're required to dial a long distance number to connect to a 'secret' broadcast at a 'secret' time...there's no way in hell you can swing that. No one could. It can't be done."

Bell looked dejected and defeated. Or maybe he was just passing out, I couldn't be sure. He mumbled something about a 'paradigm shift' and nodded off into dreamland. I tried to drag him out to his car, but a neighbor who was walking by stopped to chat, so I had to quickly toss Bell back onto the couch. It was never easy getting rid of him.

* * *

FAILURE INEVITABLE - STOP - SEND REINFORCEMENTS - STOP -

When Arty regained consciousness he immediately began mumbling and asking for 'Paper and pan, paper and pan.' I gave him a yellow legal pad and a pen and he spent the next 14 hours scribbling a rambling, vile manifesto. When he'd finished he tried to stand up, but his weird, bony knees gave out and he collapsed back onto the couch.

"Must...have...liquid," he croaked.

"Hold on, I'll get you a glass of water."

"MJB, liquid! like in liquor, you follow?"

I knew what he wanted. I only offered the water as a cruel joke. I went to the kitchen and poured some gin into a glass of orange juice. It was an attempt to slip a bit of nutrition past Bell so he wouldn't die on my couch.

"What in the name of God is that?!" he shrieked as I set the glass down in front of him.

"It's gin, I put some orange juice in it. You looked hungry."

He picked up the glass and turned it around in his hands, inspecting it from every angle. A puzzled, almost disgusted look came over his face. "I've never seen anything quite like it."

"Well, do me a favor and drink it, okay?"

He sniffed at the top of the glass, closed his eyes tightly and threw his head back, swallowing the contents of the glass in one gulp. "Gah! Gah! Eeuuchy, what the hell? What the hell?" He scratched at his tongue with his dirty fingernails and hopped around the living room like a lunatic. This went on for about half a minute, then he handed the glass back to me and said, "Hit me again." I did. It's better not to question him at times such as these.

"Okay, now I need to use your computer."

"Why? What for?"

"What I have here is just notes. I need to boil them down to their most basest of elements, you see? What you said before, it got me thinking. The intranet radio idea was not as good as some other ideas I've had in the past. In fact, it may be a very bad idea. But I blame HAARP and SETI for that. The whole grid...the whole western United States...the electromagnectical intraference is unparalleled in our lifetimes!"

"Focus Arty."

"Fuck you! I have the answer here, and you're going to give me what I need to make it whole! This must be completed or the world as we know it is doomed! Now show me where the computer is, and bring me the following: a plate of flapjacks, a quart of vodka, a gallon of hot coffee, a can of ether, a loaf of sourdough bread, firecrackers, a case of Milwaukee's Finest, a quarter pound of central California marijuana, disposable diapers, a salad spinner, the latest issue of Penthouse and a crystal Gayle CD - pronto, man!"

"The computer is right over there. I'll see if I have any chips."

"That will do."

Bell sat down at the machine and began typing. He sat almost completely still, with his nose a few inches away from the keyboard, slowly - painfully slowly - pecking at the keys. He typed in that position all night and most of the next day, never consulting his handwritten notes.

I was in another room looking for a can of Lysol when I heard the chair scrape across the floor, and Bell stumble through the room. I turned the corner just in time to see him heading out the door. When he heard me he turned around and whispered, "It is done. It is all that there is to be said, and all that I can say. MJB, give my message to the world...I may not be around much longer...give my message to the world!"

And with that he ran out the door, jumped into the Geo Metro and sped off. Well, as much as one can speed off in a Geo Metro. The car rattled and popped and belched smoke for a couple of blocks, then I lost sight of it and Arty. It was the last time anyone saw Art Bell.

Until the shocking announcement that Arty actually was returning to radio.

In light of this development, and according to his wishes, I will present here, in its unedited form, what he called his "Message to the world."

CITIZINS OF EARTH!!!
I AM HERE NOW SO DONT WORRY YOURSELFS. THIS IS NOT WHAT
I HAD IN MIND. I DID NOt want to go out like a doG^ but
forces much greater then those of myself or my 200 million
listeners were brought into play and also the coming
global superstore didn't help, I tell you!
---NOW TO CONTINUE
IMPORTANT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
THIS IS NOT A Test - you will see that my plans cannot be
told to you at this time however I can tell you that i
will return like THE CONQERING LION OF JUDAH AND SMITE
ALL WRETCHED EVILDOERSWITHMYsword or radio microphone!
a joke??? NO!!!!!!!!
fear me for I am the carary in the gold mind! I AM THE
ARMY Of riteuoesness and the holder of the oracle!
this is not soap, this is not tasty pork and beans, this
is not a flyswatter for you to toss aside from the car
window like a broken sunglasses!!!!
hear me now----
i have a list. I have a list of the names of evry person
who worked evil against me and my destiny! all of you will
pay and all of you will PAy!
this is not choclate! this is not a furry bathrobe, this
is not love flowers and daisys on the bathtub floor! i
return soon, and when I do, the dogs of hell will be bye
my side waiting to eat the necks of my predators. believe
me or beleibe me not. It makes no difference.
my rod and my staff confort me. My whiskey maketh me to
lay down. I walk through the valley of NYE but I FEARNO
EVIL BECAUSE I AM the cool ruler or the night! twelve
inches of montana nickel plate and gun metal trousers!
phil hendrie is mY PUPPY DOG!
NOW))))
to the point most wanting to make:
GINKO BILOBA! it is a miracle cure from the FAR EAST!
and you can get a TWO MONTH SUPPLY simply by dialing
this number...

Reported 1/4/01 by mjp

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