A Story About Mental Illness and a Grateful Dead Show
Bull had a certain beauty, like a woman, with his tapered body and sunken cheekbones. There was something christ-like about him: his luminous eyes seemed to burn right into your very soul. When I first met him, he was in the early stages of Schizophrenia, though I didn’t know it at the time. To me he was the confident older kid and I was his shy sidekick.
As a youth Bull had been a prodigy in all things, a brilliant mind. At age fourteen he discovered David Bowie and rock and roll, and lost his compass to the ordinary world. Dropping out of school, he dedicated himself to the occult activities of his rock and roll band. They were going to be the biggest band in the world, he told everybody.
Since I was dating his sister Jane, I saw Bull regularly. After crawling through Jane’s bedroom window to avoid the parents and spending some stolen teenage love hours together, I would go downstairs to the basement where Bull was planning his revolution.
Bull was quite a striking figure at the time, with his big haunted eyes and his skinny body. He wore wore same grey jogging pants and plaid shirt every day, and his long stringy hair and sideburns hung over his guitar. We both had long hair and were both hippies in the 1980’s, wanna-be revolutionaries. Bull would talk, and I would listen—I was the quiet one. Bull would talk for hours about rock and roll, high school girls, and his plans to save the world.
After these long sessions, I would walk home at dawn and sleep for an hour before going to school. I slept-walked through the days imperatives — the daytime world paled next to our urgent night conversations. I began to question my existence, to look into the hidden side of things: the beauty of a rainstorm, moonlight and snow, the many shades of night-time blue—these were more interesting than all the algebra of the daytime world. Bull was charismatic and I had never met anybody like that before. On the other hand, I wasn’t quite sure if he was Charlie Manson or Jesus Christ at times. Who was this strange friend?
‘You see that rainwater on a leaf. I’d like to put that into a guitar chord.’ he told me once, ‘just like the Beatles did’. This kind of knowledge belonged only to the occult world of youth, a secret society that that could only be understood by those who were still young. How could ‘they’, the ones who had long abdicated the kingdom of youth, understand rainwater on a leaf, a baseline, or a minor suspended chord?
Bulls parents belonged to another world. They were part of a group called Moral Rearmament and seemed to be suspended in the stiff morality of the 1950’s. They slept in separate beds and their sunny fundamentalist Christianity, with its stiff regulations. This had its counterpoint in the chaos Bull’s mental illness. While they were strict christians they had no control over their children, who mostly did what they wanted.
Growing up without religion I had never felt the hellfire and damnation of any collective moral faith — I was not even concerned enough about the God idea to be an atheist. In contrast, Bull was infected by the christian myth, and had the charisma of a young baptist preacher. He was a reluctant prophet however, and knew he was wandering into dangerous territory, when he began to create his own creed—a homebrewed religion of one.
To my young and inexperienced mind, his burning queries gave me a sense of meaning and purpose. I began to emulate him. I wore a long blue jacket as he did, bought the same pop albums, repeated things he said, adopted his worldview. I would be the witness and scribe of his revolution: ‘One day you will write about this’ he told me many times.
As the sickness began to further possess him, he drifted further and further from the real world, into a vast subjective and symbolic universe that cannot be reconstructed here due to its complexity and strangeness. At times I was able to follow its logic, to navigate Bull’s mind, and in such times I felt that I also was falling out of all context — that I could go mad by sheer proxy.
Things got more and more weird. Bull disappeared into his basement for a year, and cut off all contact. During that time he hardly slept and ate very little, and he lived like an ascetic. His eyes became bright and lunar and he engaged in odd rituals, like washing his hands for hours on end until they bled;they were nearly transparent, like an alien’s hands. Bull continued to make music in this time, but it was something he kept secret.
During that time Bull developed some strange mystic capacities. For instance: ‘the light’. When we were together ‘the light’ made our routes across town circuitous and bizarre. He would circumnavigate a lamp post 23 times before we could continue to our destination, always following the light.
Once he spent 500 dollar on a taxicab to come and visit me in Montreal, and another time spent 1000 dollars on Indian rugs. His inheritance began to disappear as he spent money indiscriminately, or on whatever the ‘light’ told him to — mostly on taxi rides and candy bars and concert tickets. ‘I have to ask the light’, he would often say before taking out his wad of cash.
After his year alone, he became manically social. Courting people from all over the city, he recruited them into an imaginary happening he called: ‘the festival of the rising sun’. We all moved into a house together with the rock band and an endless stream of people who came and went. There was the homeless Jamaican, a gangster coke dealer, an hippy girl with dreadlocks, who was the best guitar player I have ever seen (and who later played guitar in Natalie Merchant’s band), and so many other characters. A whole community developed, and Bull was always the center of attention, talking continuously, playing the jester, the clown, the seducer, the shaman, the philosopher. He became more otherworldly and Christlike every day, with his long hair, his pale hands, and his bright eyes.
With the advent of LSD and mushrooms things got really muddy and strange. Taking the yellow tab I saw friends melt like candle wax in front of my eyes, the rain become ink — the sun turned totally blue. These experiences were shattered my world view as I was sensitive, but they were especially detrimental to Bull.
Once we ‘followed the light’ all the way to Chicago to see the Grateful Dead — two days of circuitous hitchhiking through Ontario and northern Michigan. Along the way we met chicken farmers and had odd adventures in the backwoods of small Ontario towns.
As we drove over the border to Detroit, my first time in the US, I was mesmerised by an America that was electric, dangerous, dilapidated. There were security guards with guns in the 711, but Bull nevertheless shoplifted for food — seemingly without fear of getting caught. It was not his decision: the light told him to do it. He had to follow the light.
Finally the light brought us to Soldier Stadium Chicago, right in time for the show. The light would again lead us to the ‘miracle’ ticket, and get us into the sold out concert. At times we got lost in the swelling crowds but the light always found us again. There was no choice but to be guided by that supernatural phenomena — whatever it was.
As The Grateful Dead played the stadium seemed to float up in the air like a giant spaceship and take us off the earth. The sunny hippies, incongruous in that city of Gothic high rises next to a dark windy lake, were driven into a collective epileptic seizure when the teasing notes of ‘dark star’ commenced. The encore was ‘The Weight’ and something about Garcia’s warbling tenor as he sang the opening lines, ‘I rode into Nazareth’ spoke directly to my soul. Chicago was a new Nazareth to me, with its primitive hippy caravans, and starry eyed biblical looking girls who spun around in patterned sheets and electric light.
After the show we wandered out of that psychedelic primeval garden as if from a baptism. That night we slept in closet of a hotel basement, and in the morning followed the light to the parking lot, where we found some deadheads who drove us over the border, with their stash. They carried with them sheets of acid: I was in terror the whole time at being caught by the police, but the light carried us through as usual. We escaped the deadheads somewhere in Woodstock Ontario. On the last stretch home Bull informed me that the light had instructed him to turn back.
By this time, I couldn’t stand looking at his sunburned sociopathic face anymore. Reaching my limit after following him though some cornfield, I got really pissed off and threw a large rock right at him. But the light had the final say in the argument. I sheepishly followed him back in the direction of Chicago, where we miraculously found a truck driver at a gas station, who did a U turn and drove us all the way back home. The light was right again, as usual.
During this time Bull wrote a song I remember, which lodged in my mind for years: he called it ‘sailing youth’. I don’t recall the words, just the lilt, like a ship that had cast its moorings. It gave me a feeling of sailing out into a bright ocean. It was just a song, but it seemed to say everything.
Things began to go black for Bull. There were many other incidents. Once Bull climbed the scaffolding of the historical Chateau Laurier hotel in downtown Ottawa. I remember him hanging here, his feet in the air, singing the song ‘Jump’ by Van Halen. He seemed to be totally without fear —I almost envied him for that. A crowd gathered, the police arrived, and he was taken away by the police — we bailed him out of jail in the morning. Bull seemed totally unafraid of social norms, but was more terrified of betraying the light and its prophecies.
Bull was incarcerated and straitjacketed a few times, another time he was found in a ditch talking to cows. I don’t remember the sequence of events but I remember his pale terrified face. I remember I had a gift for him for his birthday. Was it a gun to kill him? he asked me. Am I the Antichrist? Am the fallen angel who stole fire from heaven? What does the number 23 mean? What did it mean that it was in reverse? And why was the television screen talking directly to him, giving him directives and warnings? And why did all the computer screens go blank when he walked into a bank?
We ran into Bull on our way out of town. He drove with us for a hundred kilometers or so and then got out somewhere near Kingston. I spent the week in the south at Mardi Grass in New Orleans having the time of my life; meanwhile, Bull was somewhere on the road in Southern Ontario, literally fighting for his.
The electrical poles and birds were talking to him, he told me later. He had the feeling that he was in a city of demons and ghosts. There were people who resembled his friends and family, only they were clones, copies, similitudes. They belonged to a secret organisation, the cosmic police, the ones who were were trying to kill him. They got closer and closer and he ran and ran — stumbling out onto the road and in front of an 18 wheel truck.
I went to visit him in the hospital in Kingston. I was overwhelmed with remorse, my young mind felt responsible, that I had been an enabler. I had never stood up to him really, I never tried to stop him, or contradict him, or put him straight. I had been seduced by the light.
On the hospital bed his stump of a leg was a mangled mass. Bull had had it amputated a few inches above the knee, just like Rimbaud. After that, he cut off communication with almost everyone he knew and went back into that basement — and stayed there for another 10 years on lithium. When he emerged years later I asked him if he felt any pain and he told me: ‘I have suffered so much I don’t suffer anymore’. Indeed he seemed strangely cheerful a lot of the time, no longer a saint but all too human, often laughing, smiling, enthusiastic, good humored — in his wheelchair or hopping around.
The messiah was gone, and Bull was just another person now.