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Russ Spencer: 1960-2019

A fine reporter and gifted writer, Russ Spencer, who died almost three weeks ago, was part of the Santa Barbara Independent’s news team from our first issue in 1986. In the years after he left the paper, during which time he became a talented documentarian and videographer, he remained close to the Independent and its staff members, past and present. We continued to support his video work in more recent years by posting it on independent.com.

In this special memorial section, another former Independent reporter, Andrew Rice, pens a moving, honest tribute to his friend. We’ve also included an excerpt from an article that Spencer himself wrote about his family’s Napa Valley roots; it was originally published in Virtuoso Travel + Life in 2002. And in this week’s Positively State Street column, Richie DeMaria reminds us that Russ was one of the first writers of that column.

There will be a memorial service to celebrate Russ Spencer’s life this Sunday, April 14, 10 a.m., at Hendry’s Beach. Please carpool as parking will be tight. 

Photo: Christopher GardnerOriginal members of the Independent staff in 1986 goofing off in front of the camera. From left: News editor Nick Welsh, photography editor Chris Gardner, and writer/reporter Russ Spencer

In the 26 years I knew him, Russ Spencer never wanted to be trouble to anyone or to cause any kind of a fuss. He was always the guy who sat quietly in a crowded room, listening and observing with great attention, but never vying to be the center of attention. It’s extra ironic, in light of his reserved nature, that his death at the age of 58 in the early morning of March 23 caused a traffic jam that closed the freeway for hours and then backed up traffic for almost a full day. 

I remember the first time we met in the early ’90s. Russ at that time was a huge fish in Santa Barbara’s small pond. He was in a band, maybe a couple of bands. He had created the most popular music and nightlife column in the city for the Independent. And recently, he’d started a full-time job as the News-Press arts and music writer at a time when the News-Press was still a respected and legitimate paper. Everyone knew who he was, and he knew everyone who mattered in town. 

I was a relative nobody just starting my first job out of college at the Independent when Russ Spencer walked up to me at a party and said, “Hi, I’m Russ. You’re Andrew Rice, aren’t you?” And he complimented me on a story I’d written in a way that showed he’d read it with real interest. When we parted ways that night, Russ said, “Just let me know if there’s ever anything I can do for you.” And he genuinely meant it.

He provided me with lots of guidance about how to deal with the complicated internal politics of the Independent. And we also became trusted confidants about our personal lives. 

Photo: Christopher GardnerRuss Spencer

Since his death, I’ve heard dozens of similar stories from people of Russ’s helping hand and personal generosity over the decades. He really believed that a rising tide lifted all boats. Even when he asked you for a favor, it usually worked out for everyone. I met my wife when Russ asked me to do him a professional favor that involved me traveling to San Francisco, where I ended up meeting the woman I later married. When I told him I’d met a girl, and was crazy about her, his eyes sparkled with glee and he blurted out, “Jeez! She sounds terrific!” 

Like magic, without meaning to, he’d fixed me up with the love of my life. He was a connecter and loved putting people and things together to make something special, whether it was a surprise birthday party or a musical partnership. 

I can’t keep talking about Russ without addressing the elephant in the room ​— ​mental illness. It’s hard because Russ was extremely private and would be angry at me for what I’m about to say. Russ sometimes experienced delusions and hallucinations that were terrifying to him. He felt shame and stigma about that. He did a great job of hiding his suffering from most of the world. He was worried, with good reason, that people would see him as crazy. But here’s the hard truth: Whether investigators determine that Russ’s immediate cause of death was suicide or an accident, either way, mental illness killed our friend Russ just as surely as cancer killed Steve Jobs. We should be able to talk about mental illness killing someone we love just as we do about heart attacks and diabetes and cancer. It’s not something shameful or embarrassing. 

During Russ’s troubled times, he sought me out. I came to know within a few words from the tone of his voice if he was okay or not. Over the years, a group of his good friends pulled together to help Russ get medical treatment. And Russ always worked really hard to get better. But I don’t think Russ ever realized how many people were watching out for him. 

Amazingly, these same periods of darkness were interspersed with years of great productivity and creativity. He interviewed Robert Plant and Frank Gehry. He made a beautiful feature-length documentary about young surfer girls growing up in rural Maui. He helped with selecting programming for the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. He made beautiful films about so many things. He wrote. He did yoga almost daily and sang in a choir. Whenever he would visit my family in Venice Beach, Russ asked insightful questions about our lives and observed, with special wonder, how much my kids had grown and how they were unfolding as humans. As our friend Susie Bright said when she heard of Russ’s death, “He was so warm and sweet and always interested in everything.” 

Photo: Christopher GardnerRuss Spencer taking a break from writing, and enjoying himself on a yacht

I was excited when Russ’s name came up in the caller ID recently. It had been a while since I’d heard from him. A few months earlier, we had lunch, and things were going great for him. It had been a long time since he’d had any symptoms, and he was feeling really positive. He had new goals and projects. I left that lunch feeling happy about his state of mind. 

But when I answered the call that came a few days before his death, I knew his illness had returned. Critical voices had Russ questioning if he was even real. One of the most prolific and widely beloved people I know, Russ told me that he felt that his entire life added up to very little, that his accomplishments were nothing, really. He was alienated from people and felt he couldn’t connect. He told me that when he looked at friends like me with families and spouses and partners, he envied what we had but knew he would never get those things for himself. Russ felt he had made the wrong choices in life. He feared that he was going crazy and that his illness would make him unlovable. 

I assured Russ that he could get through whatever mental storm was coming just like in the past. I told him that his friends loved him. He promised me he was keeping his appointments to see mental-health professionals and that he had no urge to harm himself. He emailed me in the following days to say he’d seen his therapist and was doing better. The last any of us heard from Russ was the Wednesday night before he died. He called one of his closest friends to say he was feeling terrible but then called that friend back to say that he was feeling better and that he was going to Joshua Tree. Two days later, he was dead on the southbound 101, having been run over. Nobody really knows much about the time in between. None of us had been able to reach him by phone or by looking for him in person. 

Social media has been busy with people trying to reconstruct what happened during those lost two days, hoping to make sense of what was going on inside Russ’s head before he died. But here’s the thing. Even if we reconstruct every step he took from Wednesday night until
2 a.m. Saturday morning, it will never make sense. Nobody asks cancer to make sense or tries to figure it out by reconstructing the deceased’s last moments. Mental illness is what killed Russ, just like cancer or a heart attack or diabetes kills someone else.

I’m really grateful to have had Russ Spencer as a friend, colleague, and inspiration. If there’s one thing I know he would want us to do in his honor, it would be to shake off the stigma and shame that still surrounds mental illness. He’d want us to reach out to someone suffering near us right now and to not be afraid to talk about mental illness or to offer a helping hand. 

Photo: Christopher Gardner

Fruit of the Vine
—By Russ Spencer

At Christmas dinner this holiday past, baby Amelia was clearly the star. The last time there was a birth in our family, it was her father, Pete’s, and that was 29 years ago. We had a big family table in the Napa Valley with lots of food and people, as always, but this year the scene crackled with the energy of new life. Pete and his wife, Meg, generously passed Amelia around the table as we ate, and we all got a chance to hold her. If she cried, we would all sing, “the Santas on the bus go ho, ho, ho,” until she laughed, though out of appreciation or pity, we’ll probably never know. Everyone speculated about her olive skin and wisps of dark hair. The Italian side?

The dining table stretched across one entire side of the living room in my Uncle Gary’s big Tuscan-style home, set in his vineyard just off Highway 29 between Saint Helena and Calistoga, the two northernmost towns in the valley. My mom and brothers and cousins and the husbands and in-laws sat at their places, each set with a piece of torrone, the Italian nougat candy that I didn’t like as a kid, but now, in the spirit of tradition, seemed as essential as Santa himself.

There were two other stars at the table that night ​— ​Mom’s wine and Gary’s wine. The wines, like Amelia, represent a kind of new life in our family. And like the color of Amelia’s skin and hair, they speak to the lives that came before us, our roots. Both wines were made from grapes taken from Napa Valley land that has been in the family for more than a century.

My mom’s grapes were planted by her Italian-born grandmother, Argentina Falleri, on Calistoga land that Argentina and her husband, Alfredo, purchased in 1924, 10 years after arriving in the United States. Hers are old-vine zinfandel grapes, harvested and bottled by Robert Biale, a small-batch producer whose family has also lived in the valley for three generations. Uncle Gary has his own label, Shypoke, and grows charbono, an Italian varietal, on land that he and my mom’s other grandfather, Michael Heitz, cleared and planted. Charbono is so obscure that it occupies the fewest number of acres of any red wine grown in California. Even its pedigree is a mystery. Some say the grape came from the Jura region of eastern France, where it was known as charbonneau. Others say it comes from the more northern Savoie region, in the Alps. Still others say it’s actually identical to the barbera grape of northern Italy’s Piedmont region. 

We opened Mom’s bottle first. Her Biale Falleri Vineyard Zinfandel had recently earned a 93 score from Wine Advocate and was going for $250 a bottle in Chicago restaurants. Roll over, Argentina. The zinfandel is so in demand and expensive that our family can rarely afford to buy it ​— ​a fact that helped me fend off the temptation to down the entire glass all at once. Savor it, bro, savor it. … I took a measured sip and concluded that Mom’s wine did not deserve a score of 93 ​— ​it was so clearly a 100. Then Gary debuted his 1999 vintage. Wines like merlot and cabernet sauvignon shake in their boots at the mere mention of charbono. It’s a big, deep red, but a wine that’s hard to tame, which is why so few people have heard of it. Every year, Gary, who grows the charbono, and his son, Pete, who oversees the winemaking, bring the murmurs as well as the shouts out of the grapes. This year was the best ever; you could taste it from the first swallow: The wine was silky, concentrated, balanced, yet full of the Italian audacity that makes charbono a dark-horse powerhouse. Everyone got delirious on it and after a while, we didn’t really know which we wanted to be passed next, the baby or the wine ​— ​both, our body and our blood.

I’d arrived a couple of days before, after an eight-hour drive up California in a rented convertible, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge in the misty fog and then cruising low and cool into Vallejo, the big, flat, and unattractive place where the Napa River empties into San Francisco Bay. Coming up the 101, the new winter grass frosting everything from Santa Barbara to Steinbeck country with fluorescent green, I felt like I was driving through a 250-mile park belt. I came through the streets of San Francisco just after dark, stopping into Starbucks for a double latte, and as I made my way up Highway 29 through the valley, the forested ramparts on both sides closed in like comfortable old arms. Home. It started to rain just after Napa, but I kept the top down through all the little towns after that … Yountville, Rutherford, Saint Helena … the ones that tourists love so much — right on past my uncle’s house to my mom’s cottage just outside Calistoga. It was okay to be a little wet; I knew I’d be in front of the fire soon …


A list of regional mental-health resources can be found at countyofsb.org/admhs. If you or someone you know is thinking about hurting themselves, call 9-1-1 or the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255. For more information on suicide prevention, including warning signs and risk factors, visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

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