Voices in Our Head: Where Is Good Old American Weirdness?

So where do you find Truly Weird America these days? Does the “Ghost World” exist any more?

The Old, Weird America: That was the title of Greil Marcus’ admirably eccentric and illuminating book on the obscure sources of the Basement Tapes; it was the world of backroads, crossroads voodoo the Steve Buscemi character searches for in Ghost World. But let’s face it, there’s not much Old, Weird America, not much Ghost World left in the backroads and back alleys of Wal-Mart America. Believe me, I’ve looked.

But you can still find True American Weirdness if you look hard enough. Or, rather, listen hard enough. You can still find True American Weirdness on the last remnant of midnight-to-dawn radio. The kind of weirdness that the great American novelist Stanley Elkin celebrated so memorably and brilliantly in The Dick Gibson Show, the classic account of the etheric voices that emerge from the ghostly static of the night. (I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: The 90-page “Dr. Behr-Bleibtreau” section of The Dick Gibson Show may be the greatest sustained comic/metaphysical tour de force in American literature of the past century.)

But until recently, I’d thought that midnight-to-dawn radio weirdness had vanished from the ether with the disappearance of the legendary Long John Nebel show (which inspired the “Dr. Behr-Bleibtreau” episode.)

I was wrong. I wasn’t paying attention to the growth of Coast to Coast AM, the midnight-(well, 1 a.m.)-to-dawn marathon weirdathon. It’s nationally syndicated and live, and you can tune into it here in New York on WABC, 770 on your AM dial, Mondays through Thursdays and also on weekends. It’s like a link to an Invisible Republic of the strange, occult Bizzaro World America.

The Old, Weird America of Edgar Cayce (“the sleeping prophet”) and other “Ascended Masters,” of U.F.O. contactees, U.F.O. abductees, alternative-cancer-cure types, Atlantis historians, six varieties of Illuminati conspiracy theorists (including those who believe the evil Globalists are really alien lizards in disguise)—you name it. And 10 varieties of End of the World apocalypticists, including a new one for me: the solar-flare “Killshot” that is rapidly heading for Earth, coming to fuck you up.

This is the late-night American Unconscious in its purest form, unburdening itself of its dream life, its nightmare underside, disclosing the seething fantasies within. All hosted by an astonishingly mild-mannered radio personality, George Noory, who almost heroically gives them all equally respectful attention. (Art Bell, the founder of the show, hosts on Sunday nights now. I once appeared on the Art Bell show in a probably futile attempt to separate myth from reality about Skull and Bones.)

Alas, New Yorkers can’t hear Coast to Coast AM on Friday, which is when the show offers its regular feature “Trucker Hotline,” when listeners—specifically restricted to truckers, cops and newspaper carriers—call in to Coast to Coast with their truly scary ghostly encounters out there alone on the road at night. (You know, the “hitchhiker” who turned out to have been murdered weeks ago, that sort of thing.)

Coast to Coast: Sometimes it feels more like ghost to ghost listening to the disembodied voices of midnight-to-dawn radio, all these dematerialized creatures of the ionosphere, emerging from some afterlife of utterance resonating at 50,000-watt frequencies across the American night.

I grew up on midnight-to-dawn-radio American Weirdness. I grew up listening, as long as I could stay awake (which was a lot), to Long John Nebel’s midnight-to-dawn show on WOR, back when a 50,000-watt clear-channel station could reach halfway across the country, and sometimes more on a night when the ionosphere was right.

The appealing dramatic premise of the original Long John Nebel show was that there was no formal finishing time—they’d go all night, even past dawn, to exhaust the weirdness they dealt with on a daily (nightly) basis. It was on Long John that I first heard some of the weirdest shit imaginable, prototypes of today’s weirdness. The krebiozen “cancer cure” (the A.M.A. wouldn’t give it a fair test!). The Men in Black (although, as I remember it, they first entered the picture as the sinister teams who silenced Kennedy assassination witnesses). The original saucer-contactee stories. Orgone-box advocates. Bee-venom arthritis cures. Anti-fluoridationist activists, the right-wing “purity of bodily fluids” tendency (later to be adopted by the New Age movement—right-wingers and New Agers both tending to the puritanical in their own way, a connection that Terry Southern picked up on in Dr. Strangelove). Dowsing. Conspiracy theorists of every variety imaginable. The Anastasia claim to the Russian throne. And, of course, reincarnation—and don’t forget “mind control” (Long John’s later programs were increasingly devoted to the question of whether the one-time cover girl he’d married had, under hypnotic “mind control,” lived a double life as a paid C.I.A. undercover agent).

I didn’t believe much of the stuff I heard, but in the incredibly boring suburban culture I grew up in, it was amazing just to hear people say such weirdly outlandish things with such self-confidence in their voices.

You can hear the avatars of those voices every night on Coast to Coast AM. And I think it’s worth pointing out that while you can find a lot of weirdness on the Web, there’s something about midnight-to-dawn- radio American Weirdness that is different from reading it on a screen. There’s voice, there’s timbre, there’s Presence—all of which gets denatured, so to speak, on the Web.

I’m still fascinated by the voices of those people who think they have the Secret Key to Everything in their head. The voice of self-confident madness. Either that or invincible self-deception. Or who knows—and this is scary—maybe one of them does have the truth.

One of the weirdest experiences in my life was tuning in to those voices in person. (No, not in my head.) In fact, I tuned in to the voices at the Voice— The Village Voice—when I first started working there. I had no place to live in those days and slept in a sleeping bag on the office floor. I didn’t get much sleep: The night line rang all night long, and I got into the habit of answering it. It was a time when a certain number of excitable people evidently believed that The Voice would be hospitable to their weirdness. A hotline for the—well, how shall I put it?—nocturnal outcast visionaries on the fringes of American bohemia. And they’d call on the night line, and I was the only one there, and so I’d get to listen to them clue me in to secret conspiracies from the political to the personal, to the secret color code the Mafia used to fix horse races—that sort of thing.

People wanted to confide the secret workings of things. It’s something that made me realize how Pynchon’s fantasy of a secret communication system in The Crying of Lot 49 wasn’t paranoid, as is often said, but “highly attuned.”

Maybe it was there I developed my divided attitude to it all: a skeptical distrust for the voices that claimed they Had It All Figured Out. But a fascination with the structure, the imagery, its patterns and resonances in their fantasies. It’s a way of learning about America hidden in the glaring light of day.

Long John is long gone, but Coast to Coast AM is there to keep you in touch with the night side of the culture that Long John first gave national voice to. You can still find that special undying brand of weirdness there. Updated, yes, and sometimes with the same kind of conspiracy theory you can find all over the Web, but still with room for iconic occult curiosities like Benjamin Creme, who appeared at 2 a.m. on a recent show. You know of Benjamin Creme, right, and his relation to Jesus, and you know about Benjamin Creme’s prophetic function in regard to the coming of the Super Fifth Degree Master and Teacher, the great and mighty all-powerful Maitreya, who outranks Jesus himself, right?

Well, don’t feel bad if you don’t. To recognize the name Benjamin Creme, you probably have to be, as I am, an assiduous student of New Age rhetoric and literature (I believe in what Stephen Greenblatt first called a “poetics of culture” before it was renamed and mass-marketed to grad students as “the New Historicism”). Anyway, while following New Age trends and obsessions, I noticed that Benjamin Creme was always a little on the fringes of the New Age guru circuit, but the guy seemed to have staying power.

He always seemed to turn up in the New Age lecture calendars, a distinguished-looking gentleman who had something to say about the Second Coming of the Christ. I recall something about Jesus having already come back, that he was living quietly in London, awaiting recognition. I somehow had the impression—mistaken, I now realize—that he was implicitly suggesting that he was Jesus (he lived in London). But I guess it was more a matter of him having inside info on the London Christ’s plans for revealing himself.

It gets confusing, and I could be wrong, but after listening to his appearance on Coast to Coast AM recently, I got the impression that Benjamin Creme’s emphasis has shifted from Jesus to an entity called Maitreya, who outranks Jesus in the Ascended Master hierarchy. Benjamin Creme is apparently in “telepathic contact” with one of the Fourth Degree Masters and in sporadic contact with the Master of All Masters, this dude Maitreya, who’s planning to reveal himself and set us all straight so that all humanity will start caring and sharing like the great big family we all are. About time.

I have to admit that listening to Benjamin Creme being interviewed by George Noory on Coast to Coast AM was a little frustrating. (Mr. Noory said that after Mr. Creme’s last appearance, a number of listeners called in to say they’d become physically ill afterward because they felt something coming through the radio. And there was some discussion of whether or not Maitreya might be the Antichrist).

Mr. Creme was somewhat evasive about who the hell this Maitreya might be, what his deal is, why he doesn’t manifest himself already aside from sporadic appearances in other people’s bodies, like that time in Nairobi. (Mr. Creme’s Web site, in case you want to try to figure it out, is http://www.shareintl.org.)

There was some dialogue on whether Maitreya had “suspended” his visits. Or whether he was coming “very soon,” and also what exactly he was coming for and why he was waiting. I mean, if we need help from a Teacher to get us caring and sharing, couldn’t he have shown up in, say, 1914?

So there was a bit of vagueness, and I could see maybe this was the way Benjamin Creme had become such a perennial icon on the guru circuit for so long: He wasn’t giving a lot away. And as long as he just brings news of Maitreya’s imminent arrival but the Big Guy never shows up, Benjamin Creme is still The Man.

But it just makes you wonder: What would it be like to be Benjamin Creme? It’s the old deception versus self-deception thing. You gotta admire the guy’s persistence, but out on the road, in the quiet of his Comfort Inn, does he feel like the Willy Loman of the guru circuit?

The Benjamin Creme interview turned out to be a bit frustrating for me in another way as well. I had set my tape recorder next to my radio just as the interview began around 2 a.m., and it picked up the first 45 minutes even though I’d evidently dropped off to sleep. But I thought I had auto reverse, only I didn’t (hate when that happens), so my 45-minute tape ends at something like 2:45 a.m. with George Noory saying to Benjamin Creme, “I want to ask you about Maitreya and U.F.O.’s, because apparently he has said something to you or others. Is that not true?” “Yes,” said Mr. Creme.

Amazing: a potential harmonic convergence of True American Weirdnesses! Would Maitreya endorse the U.F.O. claims? Would he proclaim that he’ll be arriving in a saucer? Are the aliens Fourth Degree Masters?

The Second Coming guy and U.F.O.’s: Didn’t it suggest, if you took a poetics-of-culture perspective, that the appearance of U.F.O.’s may have been a secularized, sublimated substitute for disappointed hopes about the Second Coming? Alien abductions as the Rapture (minus the anal probes, of course).

Interesting: One of the previous night’s guests was someone who’d written about Elvis’ contacts with U.F.O.’s and the possibility of The King being an alien himself, among other things. Another convergence. Could it be that all weirdness was converging?

But I don’t have it on tape, damn it. I’m not sure what position Benjamin Creme revealed that Maitreya has taken on the aliens. Fortunately, the show’s Website (www.coasttocoastam.com.) has streaming audio files, if I can only figure them out. I need to know.

In any case, do me a favor: Read The Dick Gibson Show—or, at the very least, the “Dr. Behr-Bleibtreau” chapter. A landmark in American literature. All will be clear, in an etheric way.

Meanwhile, I just learned about another Friday feature on Coast to Coast AM that we can’t hear in New York City: On Aug. 5, George Noory unveiled the “Zombie Hotline,” devoted especially to people “who believe they’ve encountered the walking dead.” Something I think we could all relate to. I know I could name a few.