Spencer Barnitz
Paul Wellman

“You’re still here?” is a phrase you hear often when you’ve lived in Santa Barbara for years. Whether from longtime friends visiting, casual acquaintances, or just people familiar with our town who happen to be passing through, “You’re still here?” — a question that is rarely meant as a compliment and often delivered like a quick punch to your ego. The comment doesn’t necessarily hurt, but it certainly causes a bit of introspection, especially when you are a born-and-raised native somewhere in his sixth decade, still calling this place home.

And you are still here as you drive along the Mesa on your way to check the waves at “The Pit,” something you have done, well, forever. Most of Cliff Drive is physically still the same as ever, except the trees are bigger and there is a bit more traffic. The rough edges of the Mesa — and all of Southern California for that matter — have been smoothed over since the ’70s. Your own definition of success has changed along with those trees and rough edges. Missed opportunities and high expectations have been chopped down and planted again. Where once “Makin’ it big” was the goal, it turns out it can also be an unrealistic burden, especially where Santa Barbara and just making enough of a living to stay here are concerned.

And you are still here as you gaze out at the Pacific Ocean, perhaps the biggest magnet of all. And you think to yourself, “Life can be hard everywhere” — a true statement I learned firsthand living in London in the 1980s. Wherever you are, in order to stay, takes a certain amount of hard work and the ability to create your own luck, especially with music (or any of the arts) as your occupation. So why not live somewhere you enjoy? Considering you will never escape certain human predicaments — mental and physical — why not exist in a place that brings you relative ease?

For me, staying here has meant a certain amount of necessary personal change — in the ’90s, Spencer the Gardener was on tour most of the time, and I was just concerned with pushing things further. Once we stopped touring, I was forced to figure out a new way to generate income. We still play all around the 805, but I also stripped some things down to create a sound better suited for the smaller venues. Having the ability to play wineries and afternoon parties in more of an acoustic setting are things I had previously never thought about but are now paramount to my “survival.” Then there is perseverance and luck. The latter came for me in the form of a kids’ record, Organic Gangster, which opened up a whole new stratosphere for me professionally. Perseverance came from necessity and invention — and the fact that California has always bred fierce margin walkers.

And so, yes, I am still here as I gather up all my mistakes and lessons learned and stroll down to the Farmers Market, some of those mistakes already remedied and some seemingly destined to just tag along for the duration of the ride.

And yes, I am still here after a particularly grueling day in Los Angeles, dealing with assorted musical interests. No matter the hell storm of traffic, the drive home always passes through Summerland and, just as I reach the top of the hill and see Fernald Point below me, I exhale and feel a particular softness in my shoulders that I have always felt when in this exact spot: simply thankful to be here.

So back to the original question and the ensuing conversation, as the subjects bob and weave between what various people are up to and what businesses have closed and what have opened and whatever happened to so-and-so, it is important to remain patient, for the conversation almost always ends with, “Sure wish I could find a way back to living here …”


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