I never knew Russ Spencer, but in a way, he helped give me a purpose. One of the early columnists for the Positively State Street column, he benefited generations of musicians, artists, and writers alike as a spokesperson of Santa Barbara’s music scene.
Russ passed away in the early hours of Saturday, March 23, on the 101 freeway; it was likely a suicide. The world stopped for a moment the day he passed. I remember: Traffic came to a standstill. Someone had been on the road, I’d heard, but details were then publicly unknown. I was stuck in traffic on the 126 near Fillmore that Saturday morning due to another, different car collision that ended someone’s life mere hours and miles apart. The two major highways were gridlocked in the halting presence of death.
For those who knew Russ, the days since have been both tremendously heartbreaking and suffused with brightness upon remembering the kind of person he was. Jeff Gordinier, his Positively State Street successor, shared his reflections on Facebook. He recalls when he “faced an impossible and unforeseen challenge” of taking on the column’s helm: “I had to follow in the footsteps of Russ Spencer. … Russ was a star, the supremo, the unofficial mayor of the 805,” he wrote. Gordinier remembers him as a “talented journalist,” a “deft, compassionate filmmaker,” a “dedicated surfer,” but above all, “a man of almost supernatural kindness — alert, attentive, intuitive.”
Music writer and area musician Josef Woodard contributed to Positively State Street with Russ under the name Edwin Lee — “the combined personality of Russ and I, using our middle names,” Woodard said. A member of the band the Frank Jaegers, Russ was both an active member and documenter of the area’s creative scene. “His own complex personality included such seeming contradictions as the fact that he was very social and moved easily in many circles, but he was also a mysterious, private person,” Woodard said. “But basically, I feel that he embodied that romantic idea that a good local music scene — or any creative scene, in art, theater, whatever — is a healthier one when a good and passionate writer is part of the package.”
Woodard added: “Despite his struggles and the later turns in his life, Russ seems like a good role model of how to live a life, with curiosity, adaptability, compassion for others, and creative chutzpah intact.”
Depression is a monster far too many know well. Locally, resources such as Santa Barbara’s Mental Wellness Center (mentalwellnesscenter.org) or the National Alliance on Mental Illness (nami.org) are vital, life-saving resources for the very common phenomena of mental illness and brain disorders. Organizations like these are incredibly important for transferring the isolation of depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, anxiety, and other conditions into the supportive hands of a knowledgeable and compassionate community network. Perhaps one of Russ’s further gifts is showing that even the brightest, most positive people carry in them the darkest of depths, and for that, he gifts us a sense of understanding.
For some, tragically, family and friends can do everything right, and yet the inner demons may still get the upper hand. But in this case, I don’t think they exactly won. Russ’s legacy continues to live on not just in the columns he wrote, but in all the lives he touched, the people he inspired, the careers he furthered, the good times he sparked.
I never knew Russ, but I have felt directly his gifts as a person and feel very grateful. Thank you, Russ, and rest in positive peace.
Correction: This story was revised on Jan. 7, 2019; Russ Spencer and Joe Woodard were early writers for the column, but its originators were Eugene Pidgeon and Kief Hilsbery.