THE LONG HAUL: When You Lose One of Your Own
Luke Bell plays with Rachel Baiman's dog, Hartford. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Baiman)
I hadn’t spoken to Luke Bell in years, there were only a few people who had. Sometime after his big professional break, he absconded to North Carolina and largely disappeared from the spotlight. He stopped playing shows and releasing records, and stopped posting on social media. Here and there he would pop up in a video. On Tuesday morning I woke up to the news that he was found dead in a car in Arizona.
In the years since he left Nashville, trading Luke Bell stories had become a common pastime among his old buddies here. I have my fair share of them, and I always recounted them fondly, though, in reality, they were sometimes terrifying. Yes, he drove his car drunk onto my lawn in the middle of the night and woke me up pounding on my bedroom window, and yes, he invited a hitchhiker from a religious cult into my van for a three-hour drive while I stepped into the gas station for 30 seconds. And yes, he often asked me to come over and hang out, only to force me into listening to the audiobook of Lonesome Dove while sitting in moody silence.
But I also remember long dog walks and watching Parenthood while eating endless Sour Patch Kids. I remember him making friends with everyone we met, getting my car fixed by a stranger for free, and stocking my fridge with pimento cheese and fancy bread from Mitchell’s Deli when I was too broke to buy groceries. He was all over the place, running on a different program from day to day, and you never quite knew which Luke you were going to get.
At that time, in our early 20s, my chaos rivaled his. I could match his highs, his intensity, though my lows manifested more internally than his, which were outwardly destructive. I remember thinking that it would never last between us because we were far too similar. Now I know that we both were dealing with different versions of bipolar disorder.
In the past couple of days, I’ve been wondering why his death has hit me so hard. Aside from the fact that I had a lot of love for him, I think it is because I consider him one of my own. We were cut from the same cloth, chasing the same dream, battling the same mental demons. It’s hard to know that some people don’t make it through the chaos, they don’t emerge from the darkness or push through to some realm of stability.
Life with bipolar disorder means constantly pushing the boundaries of your ability to experience. Emotions run extremely hot, and existentialism is always available if you want to tap into it. Sometimes it leads you to a high because nothing matters; sometimes it leads you to a low because, again, nothing matters. I didn’t always like Luke, but I always understood him. His darkness was the same as mine, as was his manic joy. We saw the world the same way. We sought out misery just to feel the intensity of it, to be able to write and sing about it. His music was almost inarguable, a straight shot. Even if you didn’t enjoy it, you would always believe it.
There are certain people who come into your life and affect you disproportionately. I think Luke was that person for everyone that he encountered. A year or so back I was sitting at Dee’s Lounge and his record came on. Hearing him sing sent me straight down memory lane and led me to write a song called “Old Flame.” The song has a simple country form, just the way he would have approached it. I think it’s one of the best I’ve ever written. It rings so differently now, knowing that that old flame has gone from this world forever.
Luke’s life was short, but it was huge. He tried to exist in the smallest possible way in the end, but he had already touched so many people. Maybe his being was just too giant to fit into this world. In his own words, “You can try to crucify me / I don’t care if you don’t like me / I tell you I’ll be waiting in my golden cape / And when spit meets the dirt, boys, I’ll greet you with a grin / For I am the greatest bullfighter that ever dared the pen / Yes, I am the greatest bullfighter that ever dared the pen.”